What a World
Inside the Real-Life Mermaid Kingdom
In the early 1960s, Jacques Cousteau dreamt up a place for humans to live underwater. There was a garage for two-man diving saucer, and the living quarters were called the Starfish House.
Before man ever walked on the moon, he was living 330 feet beneath the water.
The expeditions were dubbed Conshelf and involved 10 “oceanauts” who lived in underwater habitats to study ocean life.
At the same time, they themselves were being studied for the impact of a sun-less, isolated lifestyle—an experiment that influenced the training astronauts later received before space travel.
Now, 50 years later, the rusty vestiges of Cousteau’s pioneering voyages are home to fish and plankton.
His first test of Conshelf launched in 1962 with two men living 37 feet underwater for a week in a small, cylindrical submarine.
They would depart from the tube on five-hour research missions and returned to their cozy home that fit a television set, radio and library.
The ventures were financed by the French petrol industry and were intended to survey for possible drilling. (This plan was later abandoned when robotic drilling was deemed more convenient.) But Cousteau hoped they would be the seed to a worldwide effort to build ocean colonies.
After a successful first trial, Cousteau grew more ambitious. The next year, he set up Conshelf II on the floor of the Red Sea near Sudan.
By dropping down multiple structures and anchoring them to a coral reef, he built an underwater village of sorts. There was a house for the expedition crew, an aquarium, a garage for the two-man diving saucer and an equipment hangar.
The living quarters were called the Starfish House for its four-armed layout. Cousteau and his five oceanauts spent a month down there, but it was hardly a deprived lifestyle.
The men brought down some of the modern luxuries available on land.
When they weren’t studying the shark varieties and working on a prototype oil well, they entertained themselves with a pet parrot, wine and champagne (brought special for Cousteau’s 26th wedding anniversary) and television. A telephone provided communication with the research station, which was nestled deeper than the Starfish House, at 82 feet underwater.
The voyage of Conshelf II became the subject of a film, World Without Sun, which won for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards in 1964.
Forty years later, Cousteau’s legacy would grace the big screens in Wes Anderson’s cult classic film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, in which Bill Murray plays a parody of the legendary explorer and his larger-than-life adventures.
For those seeking an in-person introduction to Conshelf II, some remains of Cousteau’s underwater village experiment haven’t remained where they were installed decades ago.
Companies in Sudan and Egypt, offer diving expeditions to swim through what’s left of the structures. The hangar that held the submersible remains, along with shark cages and a tool shed. All are covered with half a century of sea life.
Conshelf II wasn’t Cousteau’s last long-term voyage into the blue.
The next year, in 1965, the third and final iteration of the project was launched. Conshelf III was dropped into the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of France as his deepest undertaking yet.
The six participants spent three weeks at 330 feet beneath the sea.
Cousteau remained the foremost marine explorer for the greater part of the 20th century.
He and his trusty ship Calypso spent more than 40 years traversing the globe until an accident that briefly sunk it in 1996. The next year, Cousteau died at age 87. The ship was moved to a boatyard in France where it continues to await repair.