Africa Slow Travel

Jacques Cousteau’s underwater experiment

The authors of our Sudan guide explain the fascinating history behind its most famous diving site.

The reef at Sha’ab (sha’ab meaning ‘reef’) Rumi in Sudan is the site of one of the most intriguing projects carried out under the sea. Jacques Cousteau, pioneer of scuba diving, chose the site for his Conshelf II experiment in underwater living, made famous in his award-winning film, World Without Sun. Naval officer Jacques Cousteau developed the aqualung during World War II when he was part of the French Resistance. A devoted spear-fisherman, he went on to become a pioneering marine conservationist and advocate of the oceans. As the producer of hugely successful films in the 1960s and 1970s, he brought the world beneath the waves to millions from his ship Calypso.

Precontinent II, all that remains of Jacques Cousteau’s 1960s underwater ‘village’ © Wikiumex, Wikimedia Commons

Cousteau was fascinated by the possibilities of living underwater. In 1962 he teamed up with George Bond, an American naval doctor who had unsuccessfully been trying to convince the US navy to fund the building of underwater modules to allow divers to stay beneath the waves for weeks at a time. These would allow for greater exploration of the deep as dive times could be extended and the problems of decompression reduced. From this, Conshelf (Continental Shelf Station) was born, 10m down on the Marseilles coast. Its success led to a more ambitious follow up, Conshelf II, sited at the Sha’ab Rumi reef lagoon in the Sudanese Red Sea.

In 1963, the main unit, dubbed the ‘starfish house’ for its shape, was sunk at a depth of 9m, and occupied by five divers for up to a month. A second unit for two people was 27m deep, allowing Cousteau’s aquanauts to dive below 100m. The resulting film caught the imagination of a public wrapped up in the space race; here man was exploring a quite different frontier.

Cousteau was never short on ideas for his undersea habitat. At the same time as building Conshelf II he was imagining Homo aquaticus – people with surgically grafted artificial gills to allow them to breathe underwater. Conshelf’s modules had a helium-rich atmosphere that altered the voice; to compensate for this, he proposed that future ‘aquanauts’ would speak a type of undersea Esperanto.

Conshelf threw up some interesting discoveries about human physiology. Hair growth was slowed, but wound healing was accelerated. Divers also complained about appetite loss, and perhaps predictably the lack of privacy. At the end of the experiment, the living quarters were removed and only the submarine garage left behind. Its airtight dome is probably the closest thing to a Holy Grail for modern divers.

While the Conshelf site has been long abandoned to the fish, it has had a huge influence on the diving world and beyond. Its spiritual successor, Aquarius, is used by NASA to train astronauts to help them become accustomed to long-term space travel.

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