Underwater man lives his dream

By Kathy Riley 28 January 2014
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All Lloyd Godson wanted to do was live underwater. Little did he know, thousands of people – from pint-sized preschoolers to eminent scientists – shared the same dream.

The children of Albury–Wodonga have a new game. It’s called “The Biosub Game”. To play, all you need is a small, enclosed space roughly 2.4 m wide by 3 m long (and, if you like a challenge, 2 m high). You could build it out of cardboard, like the one in Nick Hobbs’s bedroom in West Albury; or modify an existing cubbyhouse, like youngsters Diesel, Jet and Josh did in their Albury lounge room. Or you could section off a room using curtains, as did the children at Howlong Playhouse. Once you’ve built your Biosub, the game’s easy. All you need to do is sit inside it. Eight-year-old Lawrence Crowe managed eight hours in Howlong Playhouse. His three- and four-year-old colleagues, who watched him closely, reported that Lawrence slept a lot. It was fun, they said, but the real Biosub was much more interesting.

Twenty-nine-year-old marine biologist Lloyd Godson managed to touch an incredible array of people while he spent 12 days enclosed in a steel chamber 3 m below the rippling surface of “The Pit”, near Albury in southern NSW – the first person to do so using a plant-based life-support system. More than 1000 primary and secondary school students logged on via the internet to participate in his virtual, underwater classroom sessions. Hundreds of emails flooded in from children and adults as far away as Scandinavia, Europe and Asia. Newspapers, television stations and websites found the story irresistibly quirky, sending photos of the long-limbed Aussie ‘aquanaut’ – sporting snorkel, mask and the typically anarchic hair of a scientist – around the world. By the time he emerged from his underwater habitat on 17 April, it was clear Lloyd had achieved far more than a personal goal of living underwater.

“I had no idea so many people would be interested,” he said. “I think it appealed to children because it’s exactly the sort of thing they’d dream up. Adults may tend to say, ‘That’s not possible’, but in a child’s imagination, anything’s possible. And here I was, proving it to be true.

“As for the science of it, well, I didn’t know it at the time, but there’s a whole bunch of people out there who are passionate about this kind of thing.”

“This kind of thing” has enormous relevance for projects far beyond The Pit. Lloyd’s attempt to recycle a portion of his waste through the biocoil and produce power using his 12-volt gener­ator bicycle represents a step towards the crea­tion of a self-contained, self-renew­ing life-support system. And that, says former NASA bioengineer and research aquanaut Dennis Chamberland, is the key to the successful exploration and colonisation of sea and space. “The picnic approach of packing everything and bringing your waste back home is far too expensive for long-term space and sea settlement,” he says. “Explorers have to focus on bioregenerative systems if they plan to move into these frontiers.”

The 100 L of algae in the biocoil provided up to 10 per cent of Lloyd’s oxygen, and although the algae is known as a possible food source, he relied on meal deliveries from the surface. But as Dennis points out, “It really doesn’t matter at this point how many of his needs were met. It does, however, matter very much that Lloyd made history by being the first to try it in an underwater habitat to any degree.”

It wasn’t the world firsts or the relevance for space and sea exploration that sustained Lloyd through 18 months of full-time preparation and 12 days below the surface. “It just felt amazing to be living my dream,” he says. “I got a buzz every day when I thought about living underwater and sharing it with students across Australia. What a feeling it was to hear their excitement when I answered their questions from the Biosub.”

At a constant tem­per­ature of 21.5 ºC, the Biosub was unexpectedly comfortable – although a little smelly, according to several visitors’ reports. Lloyd had foreseen the habitat’s 100 per cent humidity and ensured the floor of the Biosub fell short of its walls by 1 cm, enabling  droplets of condensation to slither down the walls and drip into the water below.

“When I was in there, I loved riding my bike, because it made me realise what I was doing. I was generating electricity underwater and circulating my algae. The floor shook as I pedalled and I couldn’t help but smile.”

Although 30 m from shore and 3 m underwater, Lloyd was surprisingly attuned to what was happening above the surface. He could tell day from night, for instance, and even what the weather was doing, simply by reading the ‘moon pool’, or the manhole in the middle of the floor. “The green glow was like my security light,” he says. “I could even see when a cloud passed over the sun.” He knew when he was about to receive a visitor because the 4 mm steel walls acted like a giant amplifier, picking up the sounds of divers’ movements and heralding their approach.

Despite the constant hum and splash of the biocoil and hourly checks via the intercom from the onshore night­watchmen, Lloyd managed an average of eight hours’ sleep a night. He pedalled for about an hour every day, but reported feeling “fatigued and tired generally, probably from higher carbon dioxide levels of around 0.5–1.5 per cent” (normal levels are around 0.038 per cent). As the days wore on, he slept more and more, and felt his normally even temper begin to fray. By day 11, two days before the project’s planned end, he was snapping at his partner Carolina Sarasiti and display­ing signs of paranoia.

“I knew I wasn’t being myself,” he says. “It’s funny, when you’re in an enclosed space like that it’s easy to talk yourself into things. I knew I was probably being paranoid but I couldn’t help it.”

On the morning of the 12th day, Lloyd’s blood pressure was high, and dizziness was washing over him in waves. He tried to sit it out, breath­ing oxygen from his scuba regulator, but as the day wore on his blood pressure continued to rise and his eyes began to play tricks on him. That evening, Lloyd heeded the advice of medical experts and Carolina, and pulled the plug. At 6 p.m., exactly 12 days after entering the Biosub and 18 hours earlier than planned, Lloyd was on shore and once more breathing the fresh autumn air.

New York psychologist Professor Nancy Rader – who studied Lloyd before and during his time underwater – says it’s not possible to say what caused the problems. “It may be that the isolation – despite electronic communications – contributed, or the mixture of gases in the sealed chamber, or stress,” she says. “Even awareness of a state of high blood pressure can increase hypertension.”

“It was a pretty easy decision because I didn’t feel good,” says Lloyd. “As a diver and scientist, I knew I couldn’t risk my own health and that of my crew.”

Although he’d come out early, Lloyd wasn’t about to disappoint his supporters, and at 7.30 the next morn­ing, he returned to his Biosub for some last-minute filming, while a crowd of well-wishers slowly swelled on the surface. There were toddlers and grand­fathers, farmers and reporters, school­teachers, mothers and teenagers. At midday, when Lloyd was back on dry land and the champagne was flowing, many stepped forward to shake his hand. Others, such as Albury local Rowena Ginns, were happy to watch from the sidelines and comment to whoever happened to be listening: “The country needs more people like him.”

Lloyd Godson and Carolina Sarasiti thank Wonga Wetlands, Descend Underwater Training Centre, Rural Container Supplies, Draeger Safety, SolarCo Albury, Adelaide Hills Solar, Lavo’s Electrical, Trygons Designs, Lanier Voice, Jonathan Whittlesea, W.A. Pickles Cranes, Molecular Products, EFOY, the volunteer divers and the community of Albury–Wodonga.

Source: Australian Geographic Jul- Sep 2007