After living underwater for 13 days, Lloyd Godson started to feel a little weird. His blood pressure went through the roof, he struggled to fall asleep at night, and he had an unsettling feeling that the walls of the metal box he was living in were closing in around him.
Unpleasant as it had become, the 29-year-old marine biologist was literally living his dream. He wanted to study the physical and psychological aspects of underwater isolation, and winning a "Live Your Dream" competition from Australian Geographic magazine in 2006 gave him the opportunity to finally do it.
The $50,000 (AU) prize money allowed Godson to build his 20 cubic meter, windowless "biosub." During his 18 months of planning, he designed it with a biocoil containing microalgae that would produce some of the oxygen he would need to breathe, and an exercise bike that generated electricity.
One day, he lowered the sub into the waters of a flooded quarry in southeastern Australia, leaving the top just below the surface. In early April 2007, he swam down to the biosub's hatch and clambered inside, and didn't come up for nearly two weeks.
The sub had a pitched roof and a rectangular footprint, about the size of a small room, with just enough space for a single cot, the bike, and the biocoil. When he wasn't playing the two small drums his girlfriend bought for him, he'd watch small fish and turtles swim past the manhole in the floor. Every now and then he'd watch DVDs on his laptop.
During his stay in the sub, Godson's only communication with the outside world - other than brief visits from his support team bringing in food - was via e-mail, an intercom system whereby quarry visitors could talk to him, and chats with curious visitors to his Web site, which he designed to attract school-aged students to his project. His goal of living underwater, he says, was to inspire school children to get into science "by bringing my adventure into the classroom." He obtained some good science findings as well.
The algae provided about 10% of his oxygen, Godson says. The rest came from two compressors, one floating above the roof of the habitat and the other on the quarry's shore. This setup might seem modest, but "it was the first time anyone had installed an advanced life-support component in an underwater environment like that," says Dennis Chamberland, a Florida-based bioengineer who has worked with NASA. He plans to use Godson's data to prepare for an 80-day undersea mission next year. "For not much money, he got a remarkable amount of data back," says Chamberland.
Godson's notes on the amount of oxygen the microalgae produced could help create building systems that generate more oxygen, such as by harvesting algae every day to improve their efficiency, Chamberland says.
Godson also generated valuable data on the psychology of isolation, says psychologist Nancy Rader from Ithaca College in New York. She helped Godson set up software normally used by astronauts that enabled experts to remotely monitor his mood, cognitive function, and autonomic functioning. "I don't know of any other project with similar psychological monitoring," says Rader. "While NASA has done studies on living in a confined space, there is a crew rather than a single person, and the psychological focus is often on interpersonal issues."
Godson was ready for psychological ups and downs, but he wasn't prepared for the overwhelming media attention, Rader says. "By day eight, Lloyd's blood pressure rose and he became agitated. We chatted about the situation and prescribed some time-off from the [online] visitors and media."
"It was starting to get a bit nuts," agrees Godson. "When you get into this bubble under the water you can talk yourself into a lot of things," and he began doubting the merits of the project. After he met his goal of staying underwater for at least 10 days, however, his mood lifted noticeably. But by day 13, his physiological signs signaled it was time to make an exit.
Godson is now planning a tour of schools to share his experiences, and is talking with a Canadian production company about a television series. He says he hopes he'll have even more stories to tell in the future: "I hope it's not going to be the last time I'm going to be living under water."