A dive into history: following the footsteps of Jacques Cousteau to the site of Conshelf 2
During my last underwater photo trip, in the Red Sea in Sudan, I fulfilled a very old teenage dream: I dove to the site of Continental Shelf Station (Conshelf) 2, where members of Jacques Cousteau’s team lived underwater for a month in 1963. It was a very exciting dive. Even if only the scooter garage and the dome that housed the exploration saucer remain, Conshelf 2 is still an important historical site and a reminder of a remarkable adventure.
1963: the Conshelf adventure
In 1963, the Cousteau team settled on the Shab Rumi coral reef (literally “the Christian reef”), off the coast of Sudan, as the site for the second phase of the Conshelf experiment. They built a small complex, Conshelf 2. It was a prototype house under the sea. At that time the two great powers, the USSR and the United States, were engaged in a race to conquer space. Jacques Cousteau was convinced that the future of humanity lay under the ocean.
The first stage of this crazy project began on September 14, 1962, in a location off the coast of Marseille in France. Two team members, Falco and Wesly, stayed 10 yards underwater for a week in Conshelf 1, working at a maximum depth of 25 yards. This experiment’s success set the stage for Conshelf 2 and the construction of a new house. This time, the complex included, not only a house (10 yards underwater), but also a domed garage for the diving saucer, a shed for scooters, and a smaller “deep cabin,” at 25 yards, which could house two men. The main house included a living room with a checkpoint, bedrooms, and outbuildings. Five men lived in it for a month.
Communication between the structures was provided by a telephone and a TV. A surface vessel supplied electricity for the appliances and air to maintain 24 psi (2 bars) of pressure in the buildings.
All of this is told in a movie that will be etched in my memory forever: “The World Without Sun”. Although the film is inaccurate in places (at one point, men are shown smoking in the pressurized house, and various members of the team concur that this did not really happen), and it glorifies Cousteau a little more than is warranted, it is still a good record of an extraordinary experience.
The remains are in perfect condition
Today only the garage for the diving saucer and the scooter shed remain. The houses were dismantled after the experiment. But it was still wonderful for me to dive there. Contemplating the remains of the complex, I thought back to Thursday afternoons in the 80s, when, as a teenager, I watched the serials written by the Cousteau team. Everyone was fascinated by the men who lived under the sea. At that time, we were all convinced that by 2000, part of humanity would live in big cities built under the ocean. We imagined large tubes connecting rooms and houses in an underwater city. In the end, none of this has happened. The Conshelf project remains a dream.
Of all the books I read and all the scientific reports I saw in the 80s, it seems that none have come true. Nobody predicted a world where communication would rule, for better or for worse. No one predicted more wars, or men living in virtual realities, not even knowing their neighbors’ names.
Like Cousteau, I always finish my projects
Yet, I owe everything to these unfounded dreams, these fantastic speculations. Without them, I would never have become interested in diving and underwater photography. Today, for most new divers, scuba diving is a consumer product. They make one dive to an interesting site so they can tell the story on social media. Then, they pass on to another experiment. They just want to say, "I did it" to impress their friends and acquaintances.
For me, diving, and by extension, photography, are much more than that. They are a way of thinking, even of being. Even if I dive to the same site ten times, I do not mind. There is always something there that I have never seen before. I don’t mind visiting the same place many times, and I don’t travel to countries in order to say, “I’ve been there”. All that counts is the pleasure of being there, of diving, of weightlessness. Although the adventures of the Cousteau team never came to anything, I still learned my philosophy from them: “be a free man and always finish your project”.
This dive to Conshelf 2 helped me remember all my childhood and teenage dreams. During the dive, I reviewed my life. I realized that even though there have been some hard times, I have no regrets. Freedom is priceless. We always pursue even our wildest dreams and projects.