Exploration

“We're going to be aquatic”

DEEP recently announced its ambition to establish a permanent human presence under the oceans by installing sub-sea stations that will enable researchers to operate and live in the ocean for extended periods. We’ve been invited to the DEEP headquarters near Bristol to find out more about the company’s current undertakings, see the progress of the build for ourselves, and interview some of the core people behind the ambitious undertaking.

An interview with Mike Shackleford
Photographs by DEEP
Additional photographs by Nane Steinhoff

After speaking to Dawn KernagisKirk Krack, and Rick Goddard and Harry Thompson as part of our DEEP interview series, we chat to Mike Shackleford, COO at DEEP, about the company’s overall vision, its future, and its ambitious undertaking to make humans aquatic.

Oceanographic: Mike, what’s your role at DEEP at the moment? What is your field of expertise?

Mike Shackleford: “As COO, I’m running the back end of DEEP, so I’m handling the finances, the HR department, and the advanced manufacturing capability. I’m also supporting the Campus build up so we can start to bring people here for training, education and product testing.”

Oceanographic: How would you describe being a part of DEEP?

Mike Shackleford: “I actually have no ocean background! Everything I’ve learned about the ocean I’ve learned here. It’s a perfect environment to learn. It’s so intense. We have so many different people with different backgrounds and almost every single one of them has a different skillset. We have a freediving expert and two submarine pilots and an HR person and so on – it’s a very wide swath of people for you to learn from, which is incredible. I’ve been able to pick the brain of genius-level people – that has probably been my favourite part of being here.”

Oceanographic: What’s the overall vision of DEEP?

Mike Shackleford: “Our mission is to make humans aquatic. When I think of this idea, I think of somebody with gills and somebody that can live in the water. We’re probably a couple of hundred years away from that, but until then, we’re looking at what can be done to get humanity adapted to the water for as long as possible. Our Sentinel habitat is going to be saturation capable which means that people are going to be able to stay down there for extended periods of time. At the moment, we’re aiming for 28 days but in the future, it could be much longer. In essence, you could be down there forever and maybe that’s our goal ultimately. The mission is not a commercial one. While we are certainly a commercial organization as we need money in order to make more habitats and more submersibles, DEEP’s underlying mission is to understand the ocean so that we can protect it.

We know almost nothing about the ocean. We don’t usually go beyond the 40-metre point as divers. Even in a submersible, we don’t typically visit anywhere below 1,000 metres. The DSV Alvin, for example, goes down to 4,500 metres and there are some that go lower than 6,000 metres, but that’s it. Humanity just doesn’t have access to areas lower than that and we can’t directly observe them. It’s going to be difficult to understand what’s down there in the ocean. Just from a scientific research perspective, we have to know more about what’s going on down there. We’re never going to find out if we don’t get people into the water and living down there.”

DEEP's Sentinel habitat.
Mike Shackleford.

Oceanographic: What will the crew look like that will inhabit the habitats?

Mike Shackleford: “Initially our project is very science focused. We want to take regular scientists and put them through our adaptive training programme so that they can stay at the bottom of the ocean for prolonged periods of time. Basically, we want to take people on our training journey to turn them into habitat-capable divers. After that, we will also work with other people. As an example, we’re currently working with the underwater archaeologist Professor Timmy Gambin. He’s probably the preeminent subsea archaeologist in the world. He’s excavating this 3,000-year-old Phoenician shipwreck off Gozo which lies at 110 metres. After diving down, he only gets 12 minutes to clean items or measure things at the wreck. After that, he needs to decompress for the next three and a half hours. The day after, he can go back down and continue his work. It took him four years to excavate this specific wreck. If we were to put a habitat next to the wreck instead, he could have the work done in a few days. So, ultimately, there are exciting recovery angles to explore, as well as scientific or media opportunities.”

Oceanographic: The first Sentinel is supposed to go into the ocean by 2027. Where exactly do you see it first?

Mike Shackleford: “We’re currently working with nation state partners to determine who’s going to get the first Sentinel. I won’t go into which countries are in the running, but these things are fantastically expensive, so you’re probably going to be a major corporation, nation state or foundation, or somebody that might want to make their mark environmentally.

Oceanographic: Do you take environmental credibility or greenwashing into consideration?

Mike Shackleford: “Even if a major oil-producing nation were to approach us, if they truly believe in studying the ocean and putting people in the water and furthering humanity, I think it’s fair to work with them. We’re trying to improve the science of the world. On the other hand, we won’t ever weaponize our platform. That’s a red line for us. There’s no weaponization of any of our technology. We’ll control that through contracts and through engineering so that you can’t just add torpedoes to one of our subs, for example.”

Two submarines at DEEP Campus.
Mock-up of DEEP's Sentinel habitat.

Oceanographic: How will the Sentinels be moved exactly?

Mike Shackleford: “The Sentinels will be modular and transferable to different locations. Our engineers are currently trying to figure out how best to do it, but the general idea is that we’d bring all people up from the habitat, before we’d unlock the structure from its foundation mechanism. For this mechanism, we always pick the least environmentally impacting way. It’s basically a lightweight structure that isn’t disruptive to the environment. After unlocking it, the habitat would be brought back up to the surface and then moved to the next position.”

Oceanographic: How will the Sentinels be maintained on the outside? I imagine the outside of the habitat would quickly be taken over by anemones, barnacles, and algae.

Mike Shackleford: “At first, divers will clean the outside and will take care of the maintenance programme. In the future, we envision a pre-programmed submarine taking on these tasks. On the interior, there also will be microbial problems that need to be solved in terms of bacteria growing in this high-humidity environment. We have both microbiologists and a medical doctor that are currently working through the solutions on that.”

Oceanographic: What stage is the undertaking currently in?

Mike Shackleford: “We’re past the initial idea and funding phase. We’re at the commercial stage now. We’re taking our products and we’re putting marketing plans together and figuring out pricing models and so on. We’re basically transitioning into our ‘open for business’ phase.”

Oceanographic: While it is exciting to think that your first Sentinel will be deployed by 2027, how do you see the future of DEEP?

Mike Shackleford: “We hope that we can deploy the habitats everywhere around the world. The maximum depth for them currently lies at 200 metres which limits the locations to the continental shelf. Maybe in 50 years, you can imagine a scenario where somebody is down there for 10 years at a time or perhaps in 100 years somebody is born down there and they’re part of this new ecosystem. I know it might sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but you have to plan for that 100-year journey. I hope that in the future the ocean is not the only place that humanity is able to live in. I hope that it’s not out of necessity, but we’d like to prepare for that scenario. I really think we should go to the oceans first before we go to space. I believe that you’re going to find a cure for cancer in the ocean or you’re going to find something down there that might improve people’s lives dramatically.”

DEEP Campus quarry.

Oceanographic: Are you saying that you could envision larger cities that exist entirely underwater?

Mike Shackleford: “I think so. We’re running out of space on earth, right? Our Sentinels are modular so they can be connected vertically and horizontally. We could connect 30 of them and create a human city. Personally, I think it’s inevitable. I do believe that the first child is going to be born below the surface at some stage. We’re going to be aquatic. One way or the other, this will succeed. If we’re in space, why are we not in the water?”

Oceanographic: How do you see the future of ocean conservation and how will DEEP be involved?

Mike Shackleford: “I think it’s inevitable that humanity starts to take ocean conservation a little bit more seriously. We’re not taking it nearly as seriously as we need to. Everybody knows that the ocean continues to cook, and that species continue to die off. We’re at 1% of the total biomass of the ocean that we were 150 years ago. I think the wake-up call has come, and I think people will start to pay attention. I hope that DEEP is a major part of that through the habitats, the ocean research, subs, ROVs, and just finding ways to get more humans in the water. Interestingly, the total number of divers in the world has not changed for 20 years. There aren’t more people that want to dive, even though it’s easier today than it has ever been. Once you put somebody in the water, they usually change their mind. How do we encourage that? How do we build that out? How do we get humans safely in the water? To figure that out is probably the biggest challenge for us right now.”

 

Get a sneak preview of the DEEP Campus near Bristol: 

 

Photographs by DEEP
Additional photographs by Nane Steinhoff

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