Joseph Dituri hasn’t seen the sun for days. And he won’t see it again for months. Since March 1, the biomedical engineer and U.S. Navy veteran has been underwater, with the goal of spending 100 days there—for science.
The submerged sojourn, if successful, will also break the current world record for time spent living underwater, which was set by two Tennessee biologists in 2014 when they stayed beneath the surface for 73 days.
Dituri, who uses the nickname Dr. Deep Sea, is living in Jules’ Undersea Lodge in Key Largo, Florida—the same underwater venue where the previous record was set. The 100-square-foot hotel, which sits 30 feet below the surface, is his intended home until June 9, where he’ll be carrying out research and giving virtual lectures for his students at the University of South Florida.
As part of this research, Dituri is investigating the effects of living in a high-pressure environment for an extended period. To keep water from entering the lodge, air must constantly be pumped into the space, which creates a pressure about 1.6 times that of Earth’s surface.
“The human body has never been underwater that long, so I will be monitored closely,” Dituri says in a press release. “This study will examine every way this journey impacts my body, but my null hypothesis is that there will be improvements to my health due to the increased pressure.”
This hypothesis stems from a study that indicated potentially positive effects of pressure exposure on cell growth and viability, and Dituri hopes that his underwater experience could reveal ways to combat age-related diseases and lengthen lifespan. He’s also interested in the potential for hyperbaric medicine, which involves breathing oxygen at a high pressure, to help treat brain injuries that many of his fellow veterans have sustained in the line of duty.
Before taking the plunge, Dituri underwent psychosocial, psychological and medical tests, including blood panels, ultrasounds, electrocardiograms and stem cell tests. He will continue to undergo testing during and after his 100 days at the lodge. He’s also taking doses of Vitamin D and keeping regular psychological appointments, reports NPR’s Patrick Jarenwattananon.
“We’re going to track me while I’m going through,” Dituri tells Mary O’Connell of ABC News. “The mental health part of this is important, because you’re in an isolated, confined, extreme environment.”
He’ll also be testing an experimental artificial intelligence health monitor from NASA that’s designed to help keep astronauts safe on lengthy space voyages—part of a long history of using underwater environments to simulate space.
Beyond research, the project is also a chance to promote ocean conservation and encourage young scientists.
“The oceans are in a bit of trouble—the coral reefs are under attack, fisheries are collapsing,” Thane Milhoan, habitat operations manager for Jules’ Undersea Lodge, says in a video. “We wanted to utilize the attention that the 100-day mission would demand to … inspire the youth, more so than anybody, to get involved and start taking action.”
Dituri will invite about 40 children to stay with him for 24 hours at a time and learn to dive. To him, this outreach is what makes the whole project worth it—more than the chance for a world record, he tells Jacqueline Hale of Keys Weekly.
“Even if I only stayed 60 days but I turned a whole bunch of kids on to exploring the marine environment, that would be a win,” he says to the publication.