Going with the flow

Jacques Rougerie, The guardian of the Oceans

He is nicknamed the architect of the seas. Member of the French Academy, and member of the sea people, creator of submarine houses, Jacques Rougerie is putting the finishing touches to SeaOrbiter, a floating laboratory which should revolutionise our way of life.

SeaOrbiter. A floating oceanographic laboratory. A drifting object designed to observe the marine depths of which close to 95% of the abyssal plain has yet to be explored. We have already been to the Moon, we have sent hundreds of satellites into space and we have now put a wheeled vehicle on Mars. However, the vast majority of the surface of the Earth remains completely unknown to us.

Why? “I have been thinking the same thing since I was very small,” says Jacques Rougerie, who will soon be 68 and whose official profession is dreamer and architect of the seas. In fact, he has been asking himself this question since 12th April 1961, when he saw the Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin become the first man to make a space flight. 

One of his fellow adventurers is the astronaut Jean-Loup Chrétien and he has always wondered why human beings have invested so much in the space race while virtually ignoring the depths of the seas. 85% of the marine biosphere still remains unknown to us, while 71% of the surface of the planet consistsof ocean.

“There is an ancestral fear linked to our perception of the sea,” he explains. “The sea was always synonymous with death, ever since we began sailing it. And, in times past, sailors did not know how to swim. In addition, literary works such as The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway or the stories of Jules Verne did not produce the image of the sea that we could have, by frequently introducing sea monsters.

And don’t forget that the sea was long perceived as a world without colour. Opinion changed only with the release of the film by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, The Silent World, or the arrival of Eric Tabarly who, via his approach to sailing, allowed us to have a more sensory proximity to the sea. However, we have still needed two or three generations to implement this transformation.”

An iceberg of aluminium

SeaOrbiter. It was a dream born on the shore of Lake Geneva in a discussion with his friend Jacques Piccard, the Swiss oceanographer, son of Auguste, father of Bertrand, and holder of the record for diving (-10,916m) in the Mariana Trench on board the bathyscaph Trieste.

“Jacques Rougerie draws the first sketches of this as yet unidentified marine animal.”

Remembering snatches of memories turned legend, he remembers Professor Piccard saying to him: “Jacques, we have to try to return to the Gulf Stream; so much happens there... we have to invent an extraordinary machine for new exploration but it cannot be a boat, it cannot be a submarine, we have to come up with another idea.” Not much more was needed for Jacques Rougerie to draw the first sketches of this as yet unidentified marine animal. 

This architect of the seas, immortalised now since he was enthroned on 3rd June 2009 at the Institut de France, in the Académie des beaux-arts, has conceived numerous famous designs: the submarine houses Galathée and Hippocampe; the Aquabulles and Aqualab designs; the Aquaspace trimaran, made of aluminium and fitted with a transparent hull to “see into the Gulf Stream”. SeaOrbiter will be a sort of submarine space craft which will allow thirty years of experience to be extended further and people to live beneath the sea continuously and totally autonomously.

A sentinel of the seas

In order to keep “a close watch on the submarine world 24 hours a day”, there will be large portholes 2,20m in diameter, a contemporary version of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus.

It will also allow crew to leave the main craft, whatever the weather, using small submarines, ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicles) or AUV (autonomous underwater vehicles). The crew will consist of twenty-two researchers and scientists. Because, as stated by the inscription on his French Academy sword, “the fate of the civilisations of the future will come from the ocean”.

As an attentive observer, he took inspiration from sea horses to draw some shapes. But his thoughts were much more pragmatic. He started from a buoy, the epitome of a floating object, in order to discover what was capable of drifting with the most safety.

He then tried to ballast it from underneath. That was it. When tested in a tank, the 1/10th scale model demonstrated “that a wild sea does not disturb either its stability or the functioning of its structure”.

“A few specialists to whom I talked about my idea could hardly believe their ears, wondering why no one had ever thought about it before,” says the 1,90 metre tall sea dweller mischievously.

The vessel is 58 metres high, 31 metres of which are submersed. It will weigh 550 tonnes and will accommodate its batteries of researchers and scientists of all kinds on twelve levels, six of which are beneath the sea. The vessel is eco-friendly and is designed to be made of 100% recyclable materials. It will derive its energy from large vertical wind turbines, swell generators and a 340m2 solar skin.

A technological observatory

“This is a human adventure which aims to provoke a shock in order to arouse ambition. The children of today are the industrialists of tomorrow. It is important to sensitise them now because we are all part of the Blue Society,” explains Rougerie. The blue economy “SeaOrbiter is a sort of sentinel that will make us understand that part of the fate of humanity will come from the sea. For example, renewable energies, or the food of the future, or the pharmacology of tomorrow, or quite simply knowledge about biodiversity...”

However, could human beings be condemned to live on the oceans in the long term. The reply is clear: “No. Human beings are not cut out for that. I think we will build higher, take refuge in the heights if disasters happen.” The Waterworld scenario is thus dismissed. This could be seen as history repeating itself, since people have only lived on the coast relatively recently. “In the 19th century,” he confirms, “5% of people lived along the coasts. In 2000, nearly 50% lived there, from a world population of 7 billion. And we expect nearly 7% to do so in 2030, but from a population of nearly 9 billion.”

When asked about the possibility of seeing the oceans transformed into a huge privatised playground, an Aquaworld exhausting and polluting marine resources, he dismisses concerns, arguing that if we added up everything that had been built by then worldwide, we would barely cover one French department. So there is room for manoeuvre. It is also worth considering that human beings have trouble looking beyond the end of their noses, imagining the world beyond the horizon.

He is filled with enthusiasm: “Recently I had a discussion with the commander of a French Navy submarine. Do you know what he told me ? He said that there are more than 10?000 mountains higher than Everest still to be surveyed below the sea: 10?000!” “Recently,” he continues enthusiastically, “an entire continent, and I say entire, was discovered off Madagascar. It’s incredible. We do not know this world. Everything remains to be discovered.”

“ To create innovation and audacity among the young generation.”

An itinerant laboratory

What is his objective? “To create innovation and audacity among the young generation.

I have huge faith in the ability of technology and human genius to advance the future of humanity. You know, for a long time, in fact since the publication of Darwin’s works, it was thought that life was not possible without photosynthesis.

And now we know that nearly 95% of species remain unknown on Earth and that most of them live in places never reached by the sun!” Jacques Rougerie is inexhaustible on the element that has cradled him since his infancy, when he was rejected by the Atlantic swell on the coast of Africa.

The advent of the Blue Society SeaOrbiter is not only an oceanographic vessel following on from the experience gained on the schooner Tara. It is also a “communication tool”. So that, in the era of social networks and instant communication, all the scientific data collected by the successive batteries of scientists will be communicated to as many people as possible. Like Open Source software but under the control of Google in this case. The Californian company will provide a real-time service and data updates in fifty-six languages, as provided by Nasa since it has been necessary to follow the peregrinations of a satellite mission in progress down to the smallest detail.

“ Jacques Rougerie imagines a long sequence of adventures lasting ten years...”

“Everything is ready,” he claims. “The tests have been carried out in a tank at the Norwegian Marine Technology Research Institute (Marintek) in Trondheim. The shipyards are just waiting for the green light to start. Around the SeaOrbiter there is an industrial consortium led by the Hervé Group, and Technip (offshore),  Comex, Véritas, CMN (Compagnie maritime Marseille Corse). This consortium is ready to build. Our finance partner is Rolex.”

The adventure is in the starting blocks. It is just awaiting the final financial approvals. And a possible launch is planned for September or October 2014. The adventure of a life The first mission, after trials in the Mediterranean lasting nine months, will consist of drifting along the Gulf Stream. Remember the dream dreamed jointly with Jacques Piccard. Jacques Rougerie imagines a long sequence of adventures lasting ten years, corresponding to the duration of a space voyage to the edge of the galaxy.

Then it will be time to build a second vessel to explore the Pacific, and then to create a real network of SeaOrbiters on all the world’s seas to create a global network of sentinels. In conclusion: “What needs to be understood is that we are working for the next five hundred to one thousand years. There are still great things to come on our planet. This is why we need to push our limits and see what is happening beyond our horizon.”

Recommended reading

De 20 000 lieux sous les mers à SeaOrbiter (From 20 000 leagues under the sea to SeaOrbiter), Jacques Rougerie and Alexandrine Civard-Racinais, Editions Democratic Books, 256 pages.

Technical specifications of the SeaOrbiter

Visible part

+ 18,50m: at the top, a communication system, antennas and radomes, and a lookout post with a 360-degree view.

+ 11,50m: boats storage.

+ 9,40m: launch platform, engine rooms and storage.

+ 6,80m: diving room and scientific wet lab.

+ 4,20m: command bridge.

+ 1,60m: multidisciplinary modular laboratory, medical zone and fitness area.

Submerged part

– 1,00m: bunk area and captain’s cabin.

– 3,60m: bunk area.

– 6,20m: communication zone and bath/wash area.

– 8,80m: living quarters in atmospheric pressure, reserves.

– 11,60m: living quarters in pressurized zone, underwater garage and diving zone.

– 13,90m: technical zone, access to sub and dive pit.

Scientific missions

Future projects and missions

- Man under the sea: studies conducted in parallel with space agencies on the physiology and
psychology of teams confined to closed spaces for an extended period;

- Tracking of pollution: aerosols, bioaccumulation process for pollutants;

- Studies on biodiversity: living oasis in the middle of the oceans thanks to the phenomenon of agglomeration linked to drifting structures, management of resources, exploration of seamounts;

- Studies on climate by means of observations made of ocean currents: temperatures, impact of CO2, gaseous interchange, calibration of satellite measurements. Information taken from www.plongeur.com

Added value of SeaOrbiter

- Permanent and continuous observation and research at the heart of the ocean;

- Running extended missions;

- Collection and transmission of data observed, mostly in real time;

- Ability to deploy numerous exploratory craft directly underwater;

- Ability to work in silent mode.


Information at http://www.seaorbiter.comhttp://www.fondationjacquesrougerie.fr and www.rougerie.com