Meet the Submarine Inventor Who Wants Everyone to Live Under the Sea
Deep-ocean explorer Phil Nuytten is designing an underwater base.
Phil Nuytten. Image: Jackie Wong
Deep-ocean entrepreneur Phil Nuytten is neither the first nor the last person to tussle with James Cameron on a film set. Acclaimed for directing the two highest-grossing movies of all time (1997's romantic blockbuster Titanic and 2009's CG breakthrough Avatar), Cameron is also known for his uncompromising, often polarizing perfectionism. "Jim Cameron and I have bashed heads like you wouldn't believe," Nuytten told Motherboard in a recent interview.
He first worked with Cameron on his 1989 science fiction film The Abyss. Nuytco Research Ltd., the Vancouver-based undersea technology and research company Nuytten founded, made the submarines and diving helmets for the film. "I at one point was very annoyed at [Cameron's] cavalier attitude towards the work that we were doing," Nuytten said. "We sent a crew down to film The Abyss. We had nine men involved in it. And I refused to set foot on the site because I was mad at him."
The rift might have persisted until today, had the crew not pleaded with Nuytten to reconcile. "So I called him up and said, 'Okay, we have to stop this kindergarten stuff," he said. "Let's be friends.' We've been great friends ever since." Cameron even purchased one of Nuytco's famous deep-water submersibles for personal use alongside his yacht, making him one of a handful of luxury customers Nutyco services each year.
It's not surprising that a kinship with such prickly origins could be brokered with Nuytten at the helm. Speaking in low, woodsy tones that belie a rapturous passion for the ocean and its mysteries, the 75-year-old Métis potlach chief for the Kwak'waka'wakw people conducts himself with a disarming beneficence. Today, his company provides submersibles and personal deep-ocean diving suits to researchers, explorers, and billionaires all over the world.
But his most far-flung goal, he told me, is to build a permanent, deep-ocean base.
After falling in love with skindiving and spearfishing at 11, Nuytten dropped out of high school at 16 to open Vancouver's first dive shop. From there, he worked as a commercial diver and, in 1966, founded the research and ocean technologies company that he now runs out of a nondescript North Vancouver warehouse.
Upstairs, Nuytten's office is adorned with antique diving equipment, a framed, signed portrait of Canadian astronaut Dave Williams working on the International Space Station ("I got to know him when he trained in our DeepWorker submersibles and our Newtsuit Atmospheric Diving Suit," said Nuytten, who's worked with NASA for decades), and posters for undersea movies for which Nuytco made submersibles and diving equipment, including The Abyss.
Downstairs, the garage-style warehouse is full of works-in-progress, including deep-water submersibles and Nuytten's patented, pioneering atmospheric diving suits for which is he known around the world: Made of hard metal, the suit maintains the same cabin pressure as the surface using an atmospheric technology Nuytten that invented himself. The suit enables dives of up to 2,000 feet.
Nuytten spends his workdays with his feet in many worlds. His clients span the spectrum of filmmakers, military personnel, astronauts, research scientists, and luxury consumers.
Most of Nuytco's luxury consumers, like James Cameron, own yachts to which they wish to attach a sub. "Most of these very wealthy yacht owners want to do something—not just be rich and own a yacht," Nuytten explained. "A lot of them are engaged in what we call civilian scientist programs, where they'll take scientists on board their vessels and give them sub time that [the scientists] wouldn't otherwise have." There aren't enough submersibles available to keep up for researchers' demands, so these billionaires can help out those who want to go deep.
In Cameron's case, a personal submarine allows him to indulge a passion for ocean exploration that extends beyond his undersea movies. In 2012, he famously visited the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot in Earth's oceans, in a sub he helped design.
Luxury consumers comprise about 20 per cent of Nuytco's submersibles market, Nuytten told me. Military clients—"not quite as draconian as one might think; it's primarily submarine rescue," he quipped—make up about 25 per cent of the business. The rest, he said, is a "potpourri of everything from biopharmeceutical companies to coral harvesters to marine scientists."
Nuytco's DeepWorker submersible, which holds one passenger, sells for approximately $1 million (all currency in CAD). Its Dual DeepWorker, which holds two, costs about $1.5 million. Both come in versions that can take submersible pilots up to 3,000 feet below the ocean's surface.
Nuytco's subs are actually affordable compared to others. Headquarted in Vero Beach, Florida, Triton Submarines LLC makes what its staffers call "the 'Bentley' of the submarine world." Its most affordable sub is called the Triton 1000/2, is $2.57 million and has a 1,000.66-foot depth rating. Its most expensive sub is the three-passenger Triton 3300/3, which costs $3.9 million with a 3,277-foot depth rating.
"Three thousand feet is a long, long way down. Even 1,000 feet is the height of a 100-storey building," Nuytten said. Nuytco subs can plunge 1,000 feet below the surface in five-to-10 minutes, and they hold 72 hours of life support.
Of the connections (and possible discord) between Nuytco's luxury clients and the research-minded aims that fuel his passion for the work, Nuytten sees a simple symbiosis. "We use one to feed the other," he said.
His vision is to establish an undersea habitat, potentially off the coast of Vancouver
All of it, he added, is in service of a dream he hopes to see to fruition in his lifetime. "I'm a blacksmith, in a sense," he said. "My job is to build armour to take us outside of our designed limitations."
We humans are designed to breathe 20 percent oxygen, and live at a pressure of 14.7 pounds per square inch, which is conveniently what's found at sea level."You can't go down to the bottom of the ocean and survive," Nuytten said. "The pressure is far too great." (At 8,000 feet below, it would be comparable to having an elephant standing on your toenail—but across your entire body.)
"So here we are, stuck at sea level, Nuytten continued. "But we're not!" At least, not if he ultimately has his way.
"What this is all in aid of—and it's a very ambitious end goal—is I want to build an underwater habitat," he said. The habitat would be different than the so-called "wet habs" of the 1960s that Jack Cousteau built, he explained. Unlike those habitats, where people lived for a few weeks or one month at a time, Nuytten's habitat would be a long-term living situation. It would maintain the same pressure as what humans are accustomed to living in at sea level. "I want to build habitats that are not exposed to pressure, even though they may be 3,000 feet down," Nuytten said.
His vision is to establish an undersea habitat, potentially off the coast of Vancouver, called Vent Base Alpha. "We've already laid all the plans for it," Nuytten said.
The habitat would be built near one of many undersea thermal vents that form polymetallic sulphides, laboratory-pure metal particles that gather like fine, wet sand on the seabed.
"If you send those to the surface, they're semi-precious metals. And you can support a habitat [financially] on that," Nuytten said. The thermal vent would also serve as a power source to develop electricity, he continued.
Beyond ushering in an unprecedented age of undersea exploration, Vent Base Alpha could be seen as an antidote for one of the most pressing issues we face up at sea level.
"The earth is very rapidly getting overpopulated," Nuytten said. "The ocean is wide open. And the ocean is 3-D. We are not; gravity pulls us. There's no such thing in the ocean. You could build a house on top of a house on top of a house and float them. So you could have strings of habitats."
If we come to understand the oceans better, Nuytten said, they could stand to save us from ourselves—and even solve some of the biggest problems we face. Ignoring their health, on the other hand, will prove disastrous.
"What people have to begin to realize is that the ocean are the lungs of this planet," he said. "When the lungs go down, the heart stops beating. So without the oceans, we are toast."
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