Nemo's Garden

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By Joanna Smart – Rolex’s Our World Underwater Australasia Scholar 2019/2020

Be amazed at one of the worlds’ most unique underwater research projects, Nemo’s Garden

As I inhale deeply, the smell and fresh aromas of herbs perfume the air. The earthy scent of basil dominates, complimented by thyme, marjoram and lemon balm. The combination of plants gives the fragrance of a greenhouse in full bloom. The air is warm, humid and rich and Italian summer suns shines through the glass, warming my face and sustaining the plants with energy in which to grow.

Except there is one problem with this picture. I swam into this garden, not walked and I am 10 metres underwater. I have a full-face mask in one hand, a scuba tank hanging off my back and I am standing on a platform, waist deep in sea water immersed in light that has an eerie blue glow, much like being in a submersible.  My location is Noli, a small town on the Italian riviera, about two hours’ drive from the French border and I am here to join one of the worlds’ most unique underwater research projects, Nemo’s Garden.

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By definition, innovation is developing a new way to do things. Innovators think about the world differently. They invent, they test, they refine, and eventually, they change the way we do things. These people are not constrained by what already exists but have a vision for something better. Such a skill is becoming more and more necessary in the modern world of climate change, species extinction and pollution where innovation and new solutions are our only way forward.

This is where Nemo’s Garden comes in. If we want to talk about innovation, this team is doing it in droves. The Project was founded by Sergio Gamberini, the managing director of Ocean Reef, a company at the forefront of underwater technology, developing full-face masks and underwater communication systems.

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Nemo’s garden started with an idea; would it be possible to grow terrestrial plants underwater? Growing plants in the marine environment on paper might work. There is a relatively constant temperature, the environment is protected from pests that might damage crops and space is in abundance.  With the exception of one major problem: all that saltwater.

This project aims to create an alternative system of agriculture that can be implemented in areas where traditional land agriculture is not possible. This could include regions with harsh climates and those that lack any arable land for crop cultivation. The project also has exciting applications for other purposes. Growing plants in extreme environments, particularly with limited space, has direct applications to space travel.

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So, thinking outside the box like all innovators do, the team came up with the idea of building air-filled domes underwater and fitting them with hydroponic systems to grow plants. From there, the Nemo’s Garden Project was born.

Since 2012, there have been many tests, refinements, inventions, successes, and failures  for the system to develop into what it is today. The garden now consists of six air-filled domes, each two metresin diameter.

Made of acrylic, these domes are incredibly thick to withstand pressure. The domes, or biospheres, are attached to the seabed  by a series of chains and screw-like anchors and have a suspended platform on which a diver can stand to work inside the dome. The 6 biospheres are arranged in a circle around a central flower like structure called the tree of life, which provides a centre point through which important cables can be run.

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Inside the biosphere, it is even more impressive. Each dome has a shelf running the entire circumference on which plants, equipment and tools can be placed. There is oxygen, carbon dioxide and humidity sensors, radio communication, lights, a fresh-water hose and to top it all off, Wi-Fi. You can control everything in the dome via an app on your phone from the surface. You can turn the lights on, check the conditions and even watch a live video stream of the plants growing.

The plants are fed by a hydroponic system that spirals around the edges. Water is generated from salt-water evaporating and then condensing, so no additional fresh water source is required. Additional power for lighting, pumps and sensors is provided by wind generators and solar panels situated on the surface. This makes the entire set up completely eco-friendly and self-sustaining.

The garden is also an important experimental laboratory and has been generating some interesting scientific research. Their latest research, published in Sciencia horticulturae, indicates the underwater plants have different essential oil composition when compared to their land counterparts. Additionally, the underwater plants were higher in photosynthetic pigments and polyphenols, which are important antioxidants.

As a dive site, Nemo’s Garden is equally as impressive. It rises up from the bare underwater landscape that is typical of the Mediterranean like some alien settlement. Fan worms, colourful sponges and seahorses adjourn the structure whilst schools of damselfish, sea bream, salema and amberjack swim amongst the biospheres. Cuttlefish and octopus find refuge also find refuge at the site, eyeing divers as they swim past. The site is a mecca of life, with the fish and marine life juxtaposing the visible greens of the terrestrial plants growing happily in their subsurface cocoon.

The experience of visiting the garden can only be described as otherworldly. The stuff of science fiction or movies, swimming around the garden has a surreal feeling as if I have been propelled into the future. The continued development of this site is a testament to the dedication and creativity of the Ocean Reef team. The Nemo’s Garden is a prime example of what is possible underwater with some creativity, innovative thinking, and passion.

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