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Underwater researcher attempts world record for living underwater

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Twenty-two feet deep in a tropical lagoon in the Florida Keys, today we find Joseph Dituri. He arrived yesterday, and if all goes well, he'll be there for another 98 days to complete Project Neptune 100. It's a medical research and marine conservation mission, which would, by the way, break a world record for underwater human habitation. We've reached him in his 100-square-foot underwater pressurized suite near Key Largo. Joseph Dituri, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and thanks for being here.

JOSEPH DITURI: Oh, thank you for having me. It's a great honor and privilege.

SUMMERS: So you have said that the world record is but a small, teeny, tiny part of your mission. So why don't we start by asking you, what is the majority of your mission about?

DITURI: Oh, boy, it's threefold. And I am looking to increase science, technology, engineering and math for our kids, right? So while we're down here doing this research, we are working with schools in the area, local marine labs that are nonprofit corporations. And we're bringing kids down here and showing them the science that we're doing so that they can get energized about the science.

We're also doing biomedical research. That's the specific research that my Ph.D. is in. And we're doing human research, and I happen to be the guinea pig - so lots of before tests, blood tests, right? And then during the time while we're down here, we're doing the same test about five times. And then when I come up, we'll see what has happened and what has changed. And the third and final thing and possibly the most important thing is we're doing a bunch of outreach. We're having noted marine scientists, such as - Sylvia Earle is going to come down here and have a conversation. I get to spend the night with Sylvia Earle down here and hang out and chitchat. How's that?

SUMMERS: I'd love to know. There's kind of a humming sound behind you. What is that? Is that part of this underwater pressurized suite? Are we hearing that working behind you?

DITURI: Yeah. This is a positive-pressure habitat, and the air has to be forced down into it because we're at the bone-crushing depth of 22 feet of seawater. So basically, it has to continually bubble out. And it's an unfortunate side effect, but it's a necessity because I really like breathing.

SUMMERS: Yeah. I think keeping you alive is certainly the goal here. All right. I know that we've just met, and I don't want to get overly personal, but I do have to ask you...

DITURI: No. Please.

SUMMERS: ...How does one go to the bathroom there?

DITURI: Oh, that is not where I thought you were going. But that's a great question (laughter). So we have a commode down here. As it's only 22 feet, we're able to pressurize it down. The big thing is it has to be macerated and pumped back to the surface, and it joins the regular sewer line. So you got to go somewhere.

SUMMERS: You know, we've talked about the things that you're hoping for, but is there anything here that you fear could go wrong?

DITURI: Yeah. So our biggest fear right now is the isolated, confined, extreme environment 'cause I'm at about a little over 1 1/2 the pressure that you're at right now. And nobody's stayed here longer than - 73 days is the current world record. I mean, you know, we're going to be doing weekly psychological interviews with my psychologist. As we get towards the end, we're going to need probably to move that from a once-a-week meeting to about a once-every-other-day meeting just to check in. So that's the one thing that I'm concerned about, is that even though I'm having guests come down here, I'm basically in a prison cell. I mean, I can get out and swim around the outside of it, but I still have to get in. And there is no sunlight, so I'm taking vitamin D supplements. So it's kind of tough - isolated from family, friends. You know, I have three daughters, so I don't get to see them. But it's kind of a - all in the name of science, if you will.

SUMMERS: What is it about ocean exploration that appeals to you? I know your website notes that you're also known as Dr. Deep Sea.

DITURI: (Laughter) Yeah. So in 2012, I retired from the Navy, and I got hired by James Cameron to do some work with him on his exploration to the bottom of the ocean. So I'm looking at the research that they're doing, and people had pulled a DNA sample that he found at 35,000 feet. Nobody had ever seen it before. They pulled the sample off it, and when they did, they found it as a partial cure for Alzheimer's. And at that point in my life, I said, everything we need is on this planet. We just need to find it. So that's why I was like, you know what? Ten years later, I'm like, I got to live in the ocean. We got to do something to find everything.

SUMMERS: University of South Florida associate professor and retired Navy officer Joseph Dituri. We reached him on Day 2 of what he expects to be a 100-day mission living under the sea. Thank you, and best of luck to you.

DITURI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FEARLESS FLYERS' "UNDER THE SEA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.