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A New Way to Explore the Seas

It has to be one of the weirder crafts to grace a drawing board -- a seahorse-shaped buoy, 51 meters (165 feet) tall, designed not for transport, but to drift around the oceans studying life beneath the waves.

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Rougerie made his name with underwater and space craft designs

The strange vessel goes by the name of SeaOrbiter, and it is the vision of French marine architect Jacques Rougerie, whose has for decades designed underwater houses and built futuristic ships with transparent hulls.

"SeaOrbiter will be a different way of approaching the underwater world, a human adventure, an explorer's adventure," Rougerie told AFP.

Sea covers two-thirds of the globe, yet it is still the least understood dimension on the world's surface, both in its topography and in the many species that have yet to be discovered or described. The conventional way of examining life beneath the waves -- by scuba or submarine -- is usually brief, uncomfortable and intrusive.

Rougerie's idea is that a drifting vessel, with viewing ports deep beneath sea level, is far smarter. It can be used day and night, and whales, dolphins and other sea creatures, undisturbed by engines or artificial movement, are likely to congregate close by.

"If you see something interesting, all you have to do is to get suited up, quietly open an airlock and swim outside to take a look," the inventor said.

From the depths and the heavens

SeaOrbiter

Not yet built: Rougerie's SeaOrbiter

The plans show SeaOrbiter to be extraordinarily tall and thin, stabilized by a gigantic circular keel and driven, when need be, by electric engines. Like an iceberg, most of it is beneath the waves.

It is just 10 meters (32.5 feet) wide and 31 meters (100 feet) of its 51 vertical meters (165 feet) are submerged. The bottom levels are studded with windows and have a pressurized section for eight scientists, complete with laboratories. Powerful lights will illuminate the ocean beneath the ship, and remote-controlled robot scouts can be sent down to explore depths of up to 600 meters (1,950 feet).

Rougerie said that the scheme has met enthusiastic responses from many scientists, including NASA, whose interest lies in astronaut training.

"On SeaOrbiter, there would be a training section, including a kitchen and cabin-cum-bedroom, where astronauts would live as a team in a confined space, in a configuration broadly similar to that of a space capsule. In addition, going out of the ship and underwater is rather like going into space, because the movements and ergonomics are somewhat similar," Rougerie said.

The usual sticking point

Bauarbeiten an der ISS

Astronauts could train in the SeaOrbiter

There is just one fly in the ointment, though -- and it's a big one: money. Rougerie estimates that SeaOrbiter will cost 25 million euros ($31.25 million) to build, and is beating the drum to get corporate partners, sponsors, public institutions and wealthy dreamers on board. The biggest names he has lured so far include two major engineering companies, Comex and Vinci.

So far, SeaOrbiter exists in physical form only as a 3.5-meter (10-feet) model, which has just finished six-month trials in Europe's biggest wave tank to test it for stability. The device successfully coped with 15-meter-high (48.75-feet-high) waves.

If the money rolls in, SeaOrbiter could be built by 2008, with the Atlantic's Gulf Stream sketched as the first mission, according to Rougerie.

"I want to make dreams come alive, but only if these dreams have a purpose for human development," he said.

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