Nonprofit journalism dedicated to creating a Human Age we actually want to live in.

Waterhouse down

THE CLIMATE PARABLES  | FICTION

Waterhouse Down

A reporter visits the first subsea condominiums off the Great Barrier Reef in 2083. But what happens when the environment turns less pacific?

By James Sturz

The Climate Parables series engages the powerful imaginative forces of science fiction to explore what it’s like to live in a future in which humans have discovered creative ways to mitigate climate change—and live well. Learn more here >

When I saw the text, asking if I could meet Paul Bonyard 60 meters underwater the following morning, I knew I was being offered a scoop.

Fifteen years ago, I’d been one of the reporters covering the public outcry when Bonyard had started construction on Deep Village off the Townsville coast, snug to the eastern flank of the Great Barrier Reef. More stories had appeared when the subsea complex opened to residents nine years later, a year before anyone expected, and the shelter magazines were all scrambling over one another like Chinese mitten crabs to effuse about the meticulous work of bringing the furniture and appliances in, the state-of-the-art sound systems (“subwoofers to seduce the whales”), and how well the upholstery complemented the views.

But when marine heat waves and starfish plagues became relentless, and the corals turned white from the stress, Deep Village units started popping up in the market. Clearly, the views weren’t to die for anymore. Or they were, which was worse. Bonyard fired his PR agency, and the press tours stopped.

Then four years passed, while boatloads of dollars and euros—and even some wayward rubles—poured into the project. But for what, no one knew.

I covered more underwater stories in that time, from newly discovered species of crustaceans and sponges to cobalt- and nickel-rich ferromanganese in the abyssal crust, and I was with my daughter when she got certified in scuba a year after her mother died and she asked me what it would be like if we never had to come up. “Free?” was all I could answer. So now I felt lucky to be offered the first peek back inside, and I apologized to her that I’d miss her as Captain Nemo at school, but her beard was great and so were her lines—though we both knew she’d really wanted to play the giant squid.

What sealed it for me, of course, was the chance to interview Bonyard, a famously brusque developer with little patience for the media and a penchant for building luxury enclaves that blocked out the chaos of the world. He’d mastered the political art of getting environmental permits—and highly leveraged loans—approved for gated green communities near the last glaciers in the Himalayas, along the new rocky coast of Antarctica, and in the reconstructed rainforest of Belize.

Those had all succeeded. And Deep Village initially seemed miraculous, too—until it started to flounder along with the reef. By building it so far out and so deep, Bonyard had avoided the sludgy algal blooms that formed where fertilizer ran off coastal farms. The Reef Trust of Australia had eventually solved that. But mass-bleaching events grew even more frequent as water temperatures kept shooting past 30 degrees.

After each heat wave, a conservation corps would deploy scuba teams and unmanned underwater vehicles to reseed the reef, using slabs of polyps and zooxanthellae bred and engineered for their hardiness and propagated in automated aquaculture farms by the thousands. It was like expecting an army of live and robotic ants to rebuild Ancient Rome. But accelerated evolution was no defense against the ravenous starfish. It just meant they had more food.

The submersible was waiting for me at sunrise the next morning, the pilot grinning at me from inside the hatch. The sinking went fast, and then it was just an hour along the seafloor, past coral heads that seemed surprisingly healthy and thick squads of bluefins and amberjacks, before Deep Village appeared, looking like a sunken space station, but with picture windows displaying the fine cabinetry inside.

Just beyond it, I could see a pair of flexible pipelines, each more than a meter wide, that connected a power station on the surface to a submarine canyon nearby. This was one of the advances that had countered the catastrophic bleaching of the 2050s and the ecological disasters that followed. Intake valves at 1,000 meters sucked bathypelagic water to the surface and returned it slightly warmed, allowing the station above to convert heat extracted from the surface waters into electricity. Ocean thermal energy conversion made life inside the homes revelatory. And also comfy.

For the corals, it made life possible. Whenever marine heat waves approached the reef, the power plant cooled the waters by opening nozzles suspended from the pipelines at varying depths, controlled by floats that mimicked the swim bladders of fish. If low clouds were floating above, water cannons on deck blasted seawater into fine aerosol sprays that brightened the cloud tops, shading the reef below.

I could see a pair of flexible pipelines, each more than a meter wide, that connected a power station on the surface to a submarine canyon nearby. This was one of the advances that had countered the catastrophic bleaching of the 2050s.

Waterhouse Down

As we circled Deep Village to reach its docking port, the pilot pointed out a chain of greenhouse modules. The largest, he explained, was a tea plantation, so that residents would have a reliable source for caffeine. But if something were missing, life in the ocean meant living with what the ocean provided, and that was part of Deep Village’s appeal.

“Our residents understand what it means to go without,” the pilot explained. “Many of them say this builds character, and it’s why they’re here. But anyone who can afford an apartment at Deep Village has a second, third, and even a fourth home somewhere else. Although I do bring special packages for some of them when I visit.” He pointed to a cooler by his feet. “This is Serbian pule, from donkey and goat’s milk, flown in last night.”

Then I looked back through the porthole, and I asked him what it was like when the corals started dying.

“I swear it seemed impossible,” he answered, his voice tightening. “Everything had been so astonishing. And abundant. I’d always fantasized about living here, myself. But then the staghorn patches started disappearing, and the cauliflower colonies vanished. It felt like a punch to the stomach. And then jellies raking nematocysts across your skin. Plus also the nausea. Damned Green Meanies!”

I’d seen the videos. A bleaching event creeping over the coral was disturbing enough, but it would never compare to the horror-movie experience of witnessing thousands of crown-of-thorns starfish transform into a writhing blanket over the reef, devouring it as they crawled. Whatever they touched was almost instantly eaten, gone. Was the press blackout and influx of investment a prelude to some plan Bonyard had dreamt up to deal with that?

Explore the science behind the fiction

growing heat tolerant coral

Game-changing robotics help to grow new corals. World-first tech combines robotics, artificial intelligence and engineering to give real hope for our Reef’s future. Photo by Dorian Tsai, Qut. 

New genetic tools mark another step on the road to industrial-scale coral farming

New genetic tools mark another step on the road to industrial-scale coral farming. Scientists uncover which genes make coral more resistant to a deadly disease, another step on the road to industrial-scale coral farming.

They built a prototype of a self-sustaining floating farm that turns saltwater to freshwater

A prototype of a self-sustaining floating farm that turns saltwater to freshwater. In experiments, 80% of broccoli, lettuce, and pak choi seedlings survived on seawater and sunshine—with little human involvement

Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)

The next frontier of ecosystem restoration: the deep sea. The deep seas are truly Earth’s last frontier, faraway worlds of alien beauty of which only an infinitesimal fraction have been explored—and it’s time to start thinking about how to restore them.

He wasn’t there to ask. When I exited the submersible, there was only Bonyard’s assistant—a teal jumpsuit with a ponytail wriggling behind it like a yellow-margin moray eel. She took the cooler from the pilot, and then turned to me.

“We’re so pleased you were able to come on short notice, Mr. Sewall. How was your trip?” But I hardly could answer, because we were already moving.

First stop was an education center, then the propagation labs growing meat, fruit, and corals, two apartments (“I’m told these could be made available now—I love how our designers made the carpets squishy like sponges!”), an artificial sunroom and spa, and various restaurants—because no one came this far, or for this long, to eat at home every night. It all seemed so…expected.

“Is Mr. Bonyard coming?”

“We’ll meet him,” she said, still not breaking stride. “Now this is the battery room. And here’s our desal center. If you saw our pipelines coming in, you know our water comes from 1,000 meters down…so it’s the purest on earth. And these are the sanitation units that treat all waste for reuse.”

“Our personal waste?”

“I’m especially proud of my contributions. It makes everything we do here feel even more meaningful.”

Still she didn’t stop.

As we approached a door labeled “Monitoring Center,” I expected a quiet room staffed by a serious scientist—or maybe just an AI—checking the reef cameras spread across four kilometers in every direction. But she opened the door to a din, with thirty chattering residents seated before screens, some wearing togas, while others looked readier for golf. Each Villager worked a joystick with a red “fire” button on top.

“You know about the breakouts,” she continued, “and what they’ve been doing to property values. And to our reef. So we’ve refitted some of the coral-propagation drones with syringes to inject the starfish with bile salts. The Villagers formed teams to see who can get the most kills. Sure, AI could do this. But would you deny them this pleasure?”

I watched the teams whooping, as their ROVs dived. But between shouts, I heard other loud voices from an adjacent room. I motioned, and she swiped her palm across a reader to open the door. It was the first locked room I’d seen since I’d arrived.

Huddled before two monitors, the residents here wore more serious clothes. They resembled a cross between scientists and lion tamers. On the first of the screens, a crown-of-thorns quivered and squirmed beneath its principal predator, a Triton’s trumpet snail. This snail’s spindle-shaped shell was a half-meter long, and its tentacles waved frenetically as it used its serrated radula to tear the Green Meanie to pieces.

“The Tritons paralyze the starfish with their saliva,” one of the uniformed residents explained, fiddling with the hat on his lap. “So it’s hardly a fair fight. They’re so terrifying that a crown-of-thorns will try to scramble out of its tank if you add just a drop of Triton scent. We tried spraying the compound on the reef, but there’s no ocean without the currents.”

A few of them laughed weakly.

Then I noticed the second monitor, a wide-angle view, and I understood.

Deep Village had quietly been breeding tens of thousands of Tritons to keep the Green Meanies in check. Field marshals were releasing their gladiator corps across the reef.

This was Bonyard’s secret. He’d raised an undersea army.

“A female crown-of-thorns produces hundreds of millions of eggs, and a male releases billions of sperm. We’d kill them, but more would appear. They’d come wherever the coral was thriving. Which was here.”

“So we experimented.” This was Bonyard’s voice, finally. He stood beside me, his words tumbling like pebbles caught in the surf. His accent was unplaceable, as though he wanted to be from everywhere and nowhere. Invisible and relentless. “We’ve rejiggered them a little. Like when someone has a yacht, and another asks, Why so small? It turns out snail anatomy isn’t that complicated.”

He switched the monitor to a camera farther down the reef.

“They aren’t magnified on the screen…that’s them.

I recognized the giant barrel sponge, a mature one easily two and a half meters across, judging by the triggerfish darting beside it. The snails swarming past it now were twice its length. And girth. Lab-bred, genetically tweaked, and juiced with hormones, the snails had been hand-fed a steady diet of crown-of-thorns, and then released outside once they’d developed the taste. Introducing predators ten times their normal size was a terrible idea, obviously. The pressure at 60 meters can crush humility in an instant. Then what remains of it dissolves just as quickly.

Waterhouse Down

Introducing genetically modified predatory snails ten times their normal size was a terrible idea—obviously. The pressure at 60 meters can crush humility in an instant. 

Now the leviathan Tritons were heading toward Deep Village and its inhabitants inside. Maybe you could flush the starfish and their scent from the labs, but you’d never get the humanity out. The structure had been built to withstand high pressure and undersea storms, but not meter-long radulae with the power of pneumatic drills. And shark-sized teeth.

“I have teams preparing for them,” Bonyard said. “I invited you here to chronicle the skirmish, if it turns out that’s the right word. I’m sorry I won’t see it. The snails do seem determined.”

“You’re not staying?”

“I can’t. It’s true we’ve built something grand here. We’ve saved a good chunk of the reef, and I hope it survives. But now you’ve seen what a lack of humility means. I don’t think it even matters whose. So I also wanted to offer you…a different kind of invitation.”

He tapped his fingers on a countertop display, pulling up plans for a new undersea settlement. This one, near Kiribati, seemed larger and sturdier than Deep Village. One of the monitors switched to show a dimly lit cluster of individual habs and fabs, with what looked like a sperm whale in the distance.

“Some of us are heading deeper, and we’re hoping you’ll come,” he continued. “Not the cheese-and-toga kiddies, like this lot here.” He nodded toward the hoots from next door. “Hard workers. Pioneers. I’m done building places for people to run away to. We’re going to be running toward trouble now. You know about the seabed mining projects getting underway? I’ve bought an abandoned outpost near one of them. It’s not as fancy as this place, but we’ll build her up. We’re going to be ‘deep-sea minders,’ and really get in the mineral companies’ way.”

He looked at me, carefully. “You can raise your daughter there. With us.”

I thought about her onstage, punching the air and barking orders as Captain Nemo at this very moment. What would she think of the ocean as her home? What would I?

“We’re going to be sovereign, independent. The first tribe of the ocean. I don’t know how often we’ll come up for air. I don’t even know if we’ll need to.”

Then I thought of her mother, how we couldn’t save her. How nobody could. You’ve got to save what you can, especially the love and the wondrousness. And the hope.

I asked him now, breathlessly, “Will there be giant squids?”

 

___________

James Sturz is author of the novels Underjungle, a tale of love, loss, family, and war set entirely underwater (now a 2023 Foreword INDIES Finalist for Best Book of the Year), and Sasso, an anthropological thriller set in the cave homes of Basilicata, Italy. His journalism about the ocean has run in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Outside, and National Geographic Adventureamong many others. His fiction, essays, and reporting have been published in 18 countries and translated into nine languages. James is a PADI divemaster, free diver, ice diver, and Explorers Club fellow. He is based in Hawaii.

Image credits: Top feature image by Deep Research Labs (rendering), Gabriel Barathieu (whales), and W. Wayt Gibbs (composite); other illustrations AI-generated by W. Wayt Gibbs.

Explore the science behind the fiction

growing heat tolerant coral

Game-changing robotics help to grow new corals. World-first tech combines robotics, artificial intelligence and engineering to give real hope for our Reef’s future. Photo by Dorian Tsai, Qut. 

New genetic tools mark another step on the road to industrial-scale coral farming

New genetic tools mark another step on the road to industrial-scale coral farming. Scientists uncover which genes make coral more resistant to a deadly disease, another step on the road to industrial-scale coral farming.

They built a prototype of a self-sustaining floating farm that turns saltwater to freshwater

A prototype of a self-sustaining floating farm that turns saltwater to freshwater. In experiments, 80% of broccoli, lettuce, and pak choi seedlings survived on seawater and sunshine—with little human involvement

Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)

The next frontier of ecosystem restoration: the deep sea. The deep seas are truly Earth’s last frontier, faraway worlds of alien beauty of which only an infinitesimal fraction have been explored—and it’s time to start thinking about how to restore them.

It's time to upgrade not just our technology, but also our collective imagination.

Discover Anthropocene’s newest and most forward-looking project: Climate reporting from the future.
Learn More
What to Read Next  
Firing Brimstone, A Climate Parable by Neil Stephenson
Firing Brimstone

Firing Brimstone

With 18 supersonic shots to the stratosphere, the Pina2bo system went fully operational right under the nose of an oblivious world. But would this hand-picked party of global elites back an American tycoon’s audacious scheme to reverse global warming?

Share This Article