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Jacques Cousteau’s ‘Homo aquaticus’

So, I was reading this little Dell paperback I picked up recently at a used bookstore. It’s called “Edge of Awareness: 25 Contemporary Essays,” edited by Ned E. Hoopes and Richard Peck. First published in 1966. Some good stuff in it, including essays by Jack Kerouac, E.M. Forster, Robert Graves, Arthur C. Clarke. A nice piece on the craft of writing by Paul Engle. Some thoughtful pieces on a range of subjects pertinent to the human experience.

Late in the book, in a section dedicated to science, I came to an essay by James Dugan tited “Portrait of Homo Aquaticus.” Dugan was a friend of Jacques Cousteau, the famed French sea explorer. The piece is about Cousteau’s vision of a future in which men live underwater. Now, Cousteau wasn’t thinking about men living within machines providing oxygen to breathe and so forth. No, Cousteau’s vision was that a surgical procedure will be devised so that men will have gills like fish and be able to survive under water for long periods.

Cousteau, of course, was involved in the invention of the Aqua-Lung, which allowed men to breathe underwater without having to be tied to an air tube reaching the surface. Neat thing. But this futuristic vision of the man-fish was something else entirely. Cousteau believed this “underwater species will come in about fifty years.”

“He should be able to swim to a depth of about a mile, instead of the mere fifty fathoms [300 feet] of present-day free diving,” Cousteau said. “Home aquaticus won’t be able to go beyond a mile because, when we reach that stratum, the external pressure will be about 170 atmospheres. At that point tissue would begin to compress and the body would be literally wrecked.”

The great adventurer didn’t just envision a few brave, surgically enhanced men experimenting with underwater living. No, he saw entire “colonies of underwater workers” engaged in various forms of exploration of the uncharted depths.

What fascinated me about this article was how soberly this science-fiction notion was presented, not only by the author, who obviously had a bias toward Cousteau, but by the editors of the collection. By all rights, Dugan’s essay did not belong in this book that included some big-name writers as well as some serious-minded thinkers.

And yet, I was intrigued by the subject. After all, as the article points out, humans come to life immersed in liquid in the womb. It’s where we start, so it’s natural to think we might want to figure out a way to get back to an environment like that. Cousteau’s idea also caught the public imagination during the ’60s. The excitement included an exhibit at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York depicting what living underwater might look like.

Well, it’s been almost 50 years since Cousteau’s prediction and nobody’s breathing through gills underwater just yet. No real-life Creatures from the Black Lagoon. But I decided to look around the Internet a bit and see if people are still talking about this idea. Not surprisingly, they are.

Conspiracy theorists offer revelations of secret Navy experiments with artificial gills that of course have been covered up. But all in all, the dream of Homo aquaticus seems to have lost its momentum. Most people seem content to go scuba diving on tropical vacations. However, there does appear to be a nascent movement to create hotels under the sea. I can imagine a fair number of people wanting to spend some quality time underwater without needing artificial gills implanted in their bodies.

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  1. J Dugan
    February 4, 2011 at 4:13 PM

    Actually I remember as a child visiting many times and be enthralled by the Cousteau museum of the Living Seas at the Queen Mary in Long Beach ca. And my favorite part was at the end where they had life size “humanoids” showing the possible ways to a transition to Homo Aquaticus, one was filling the lungs of a human diver with oxygenated fluid something that actually exists and was used at the end of James Cameron’s the Abyss also a big favorite of mine. Cousteau’s version however would use an artificial gill to draw oxygen out of the water and use this to supply oxygen to the fluid so that the diver could go to any depth and stay as long as wanted with no ill affects and no decompression needed. The next far future phase was to genetically engineer humans to have gills behind their ears and become amphibious they could fill their lungs with water and breath thru the gills and on land expel the water and breathe air again at will. This was all presented in a very cool futuristic display that made it seem like it was right around the corner of course this was the early 70’s and like the 60’s anything was possible now nothing is anymore it seems. I have heard of some people being born with gills behind their ears when that part of the embryonic phase of development malfunctions in fact I think an aunt of mine had this condition of course the doctors always sew these up closed after birth but what if……

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