Don’t Hold Your Breath

Kyle Hall

We humans have flown our measly, land-lubbing bodies all the way to space, but we’ve yet to figure out how to explore the sea efficiently. Sure, we have research submarines, but more people have walked on the Moon (an even dozen, if you count the original landing Kubrick faked) than have been able to reach a depth of 250- meters (just 0.16 miles) with an underwater breathing apparatus. Facing not-so-trivial obstacles like intense pressure, lack of light and the bends - that thing where you surface too quickly and your blood carbonates like soda-pop - some serious scientific advances are in order if we’re ever going to get real about finding that elusive jaguar shark. Thankfully, some innovative folks across the world are already on the case.

In 2012, a team of doctors and scientists from Boston Children’s Hospital announced they had developed a highly oxygenated microscopic particle capable of keeping a human body running without lung function for 30 minutes. This advancement conjures images of slovenly beachgoers pricking their legs like diabetics before hopping in the water to hold their breath for half-an-hour, demolishing free- diver Ocean Ramsey’s (see Beauty and the Beasts) impressive personal best by more than 20 minutes. Unfortunately, the reality isn’t quite so glamorous. In addition to oxygenating blood, breathing is also necessary for expelling carbon dioxide (CO2), which kinda kills you if it accumulates in your bloodstream. Without some sort of CO2 fix, this technology isn’t ready to bridge the human/fish gap just yet, but it does have powerful life-saving potential in the medical field... if you’re into that sort of thing.

About a year-and-a-half before that discovery, a retired American heart and lung surgeon, Arnold Lande, patented a diving suit pretty much exactly like the liquid-filled one Ed Harris wore in James Cameron’s The Abyss. The suit is designed to be filled with oxygen-spiked perfluorocarbons (PFCs), liquids that can dissolve, and hold on to, large quantities of oxygen that are readily absorbed by human lungs. To get around the minor death-by-carbon-dioxide- poisoning issue, the system, which is still in development, will employ an artificial gill to scrub a diver’s blood of CO2 through an attachment to the femoral artery, a process that doesn’t sound all that not-painful. It may seem like far-off science fiction, but the same PFCs in Lande’s suit have been used since the ‘90s to save premature babies whose lungs haven’t developed enough to handle breathing gas, so this one could become a reality sooner than you think.

Before Lande, in 2005, an Israeli inventor named Alan Bodner developed an apparatus that does some really science-y things to remove oxygen from water, supplying it directly to the diver without the need for compressed-air tanks. While this sounds pretty damn sweet, the technology’s absence from Sports Chalet indicates it isn’t quite as efficient as Bodner claimed - or the Feds just coopted it so they could have all the fun.

Alas, despite all of these and other promising advances in the underwater arena, sci-fi nerds (myself included) will have to wait a little longer to play Aquaman. For now, at least, sea exploration must be done the old-fashioned way, so, when you head to the beach this summer, remember: lifeguards aren’t carrying syringes of injectable oxygen just yet. Be careful when you’re swimming with the fishes, lest you end up sleeping with them.