First Oceanauts Descend into Underwater Station

On this day in 1963, Albert Falco and Claude Wesly became the world’s first “oceanauts” as they descended into the ocean to live for a week in the Conshelf I station.

The Conshelf project of the 1960s was set up by the legendary French explorer and ecologist Jacques Cousteau: co-developer of the aqualung, pioneer of marine conservation and, most recently, inspiration for Wes Anderson’s 2004 film The Life Aquatic.

Conshelf–short for Continental Shelf Station–consisted of a series of three undersea living and research stations, the first of which was constructed in 1962, at a depth of ten metres, off the coast of Marseilles in the south of France. Conshelf I (also called Diogenes, after the ancient Greek philosopher who lived in a tub in the Athenian marketplace, and was later captured by pirates) was a watertight steel cylinder measuring five-metres long and two-and-a-half-metres in diametre, designed to serve as both a home and a laboratory for two researchers. Despite its small size and strange location, it contained a fair few home comforts, including a bed, a library, a radio, and even a television.

Diogenes was the first underwater habitable station of its kind in history and was predominantly funded by the French petrochemical industry which, like Cousteau, was hopeful that these underwater colonies could facilitate future explorations, and exploitations, of the oceans. And so on 14 September 1963, Albert Falco and Claude Wesly descended into Diogenes. They were watched from the surface, by about 30 ocean scientists and doctors, as they breathed an experimental mixture of helium and oxygen, and worked in and around their aquatic base.

For around five hours per day, Falco and Wesly ventured out into the ocean to study the local flora and fauna, and to construct a sea farm. The pair were the first oceanauts to live underwater for a week, and the project was a success. Cousteau’s team soon started work on further experiments.

Although they originally planned for five submerged stations, eventually plunging to a depth of 300 metres, in the end only three were finished. Conshelf II was an ambitious complex on the Red Sea floor–with a living space dubbed the “Starfish,” an adjacent aquarium, an equipment hangar, and a garage for a submersible diving saucer, all at ten metres depth, as well as a deeper station fifteen metres further down–in which five oceanauts were able to live for a month.

Conshelf III was constructed at 100 metres depth, off the coast of Nice, in 1965. It housed six oceanauts for three weeks, during which time they worked on a simulated oil well. Again it was successful, but it was also the end of the initiative–in fact Cousteau soon changed his mind about the Conshelf enterprise, repudiating his support for any exploitation of the oceans and focusing all his efforts on the conservation for which he is now renowned.