Why don’t we have more places where people can hang out in the submarine world without actually getting wet?
As I was speaking with a friend the other day about the Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, WA, she said she had been to the museum but was very disappointed because it wasn’t undersea at all!
This resurrected in me an old but favorite concern: why don’t we have more places where people can hang out in the submarine world without actually getting wet? A casual search of the internet will list an underwater honeymoon suite, a seafloor resort, underwater hotels, even a roller coaster that goes through an underwater tunnel. Sure the dinners in a submarine restaurant might be a little expensive, but have you eaten at the Space Needle lately?
The greatest aquarium I’ve ever seen was in Guam: people walked through transparent viewing tunnels underwater in the huge aquarium. How big was it? Large enough that a sunken airplane was just a small part of the exhibit.
If you search for “underwater schools” you’ll find plenty about learning to dive or to weld underwater, a little about learning underwater photography, but nothing about elementary school students sitting in a submerged classroom with windows for walls. And if you search for “underwater homes” you just see listings about troubled mortgages. Or the Trilobis 65 Floating Home which is actually semi-submerged, with an observation deck 3 meters below the surface.
There’s talk of colonizing the moon or Mars, but who’s talking about underwater cities? What about getting to know our own planet? Why haven’t we heard about plans to build underwater habitats in Puget Sound? Yeah, yeah, I know all about the challenges involved, not the least of which is the variable visibility around here that is on the low end of the scale. The engineering and maintenance in such a dynamic and unfamiliar environment would also be major challenges.
These are challenges, and opportunities. The real question is: “where is the missing motivation?”
And money. Did I hear someone say money?
In a 2008 TED talk, ocean explorer Bob Ballard said that the annual budget for NASA’s outer space exploration could fund NOAA’s ocean exploration for 1,600 years. In other words, we could increase our inner space exploration budget by a factor of 10 at the expense of NASA, and NASA would hardly even notice.
Closer to home, has the Puget Sound Partnership been talking about putting people underwater? Not to my knowledge. They have struggled to distinguish themselves from the similar but spectacularly unsuccessful efforts to clean up Chesapeake Bay. They have correctly identified public engagement with Puget Sound as a key to making our relationship with our giant estuary more healthy. Now’s a good time for a really bold move.
Here’s my suggestion: a nearshore interpretive trail that extends from the uplands across the beach and into the subtidal zone where a pedestrian can walk through different kinds of underwater habitats. Interactive displays will connect the dots between the visible marine features with the more familiar parts of our lives: our homes, our lifestyles, our need for oxygen and food, etc.
Divers can augment the natural views as they do at the Seattle Aquarium. Better yet, they can also carry video cameras to bring the visitors virtually face-to-face with things that are not visible from the tunnel. Permanently positioned cameras and other instruments can also provide an observatory similar to other underwater observatories being built off the coasts of Washington, British Columbia, California, China, and Hawai’i. Then people sitting at home can take a virtual walk along the trail with just their computer screen.
I can hear it now: “Oh NO! You can’t mess up our nearshore with one more man-made structure!”
Maybe Puget Sound doesn’t really need additional shoreline development. But there are areas seriously in need of restoration, maybe some of them would be great candidates for such a trail. If the final construction were a vast improvement over what currently exists, then the small impact of the trail would be offset by the huge benefits associated with allowing humans to hang out in the full spectrum of the nearshore region and gain a better understanding for this less accessible but critically important part of our neighborhood.