Since March 1, University of South Florida professor and former Navy commander Dr. Joseph Dituri has been living at the bottom of a 30-foot-deep lagoon in Key Largo to study how the human body responds to long-term exposure to extreme conditions.
"Dr. Deep Sea" secured the world record for living underwater after spending 74 days at Jules' Undersea Lodge on Saturday, May 14 — breaking the previous record of 73 days set by two Tennessee professors in 2014.
However, Dituri has his sights set on a bigger milestone: he aims to spend 100 days underwater to further medical and marine research as part of Project Neptune 100, organized by the Marine Resources Development Foundation and the International Board of Undersea Medicine.
"I want to know what happens to the human body when you keep it in an isolated, confined extreme environment for a period of so long," Dituri says. "Two hundred days is the amount of time it's going to take us to get to Mars, so think about that. Elon Musk is going, 'We are going to Mars!' And I'm like, 'What happens to the human body?' You got to think about the person."
Before his underwater descent, Dituri went through baseline psychological and psychosocial tests. He will complete the evaluation once he resurfaces on June 9 to study how the underwater stint impacted his mental state. He's conducting daily checks of vitals along with other medical testing, including electrocardiograms, electroencephalograms, pulmonary function tests, and STEM-cell screening.
Despite the isolation, he says his time away from the daily barrage of political news and wrangling has been therapeutic, turning his submersed lodge into a "zen place."
From inside his 100-square-foot living space, the 55-year-old has interacted online with nearly 3,000 students from all over the world to discuss technology, engineering, ocean preservation, and math. He wakes up at 5 a.m. daily, hoping to inspire the next generation of scientists, some of whom have swam down to visit his underwater habitat.
New Times caught up with Dr. Deep Sea on Zoom to see what life is like living underwater. At times, we were joined by curious scuba divers who peeked through Dituri's window during the extended interview.
Dituri touched on his work with Avatar director James Cameron, how he orders takeout food from the sea bottom, and what he's doing to gear up for a visit from his mom, who has been taking scuba lessons in preparation for a planned trek down to his pod.
The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
New Times: What made you decide to do this?
Joseph Dituri: In 2012, I retired from the U.S. Navy as a submersible expert. I spent 28 years as a guy who did underwater stuff, and I got a call from James Cameron's people, and they said, "Hey, Jim would like you to come out to his house and go look at his submersible." I took all the data, and my job was to write a report on the evaluation of the submersible.
He found sea lice at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Normally, sea lice are teeny tiny. Well, the sea lice at the bottom of 35,000 feet are 11 inches long. And when he brought it to the surface, we pulled the DNA sample off of that — [a potential treatment] for Alzheimer's. So I'm writing this report and going, "Everything we need is here. We just gotta go find it." It was an epiphany, and it was ten years and five months ago, and I was like, "We have to live in the sea."
I did a lot of other things on the way to get there. In 2019, we started this expedition so that we could get underwater. In 2020, we were going to do it, and you know what happened in 2020. 2023 comes up, and I'm like, "I'm doing this."
Have you had any interesting results so far?
It's definitely really early to tell. I have a couple of measured results, if you will. Every single inflammatory marker in my body is decreased. My cholesterol went from 272 to 200. My STEM-cell count is up. My telomere length has grown by about 20 percent. (Telomeres are the things on the end of the chromosome that allow you to replicate.) My oxidative stress is down. My sleep is up.
What do you eat?
I get food from the surface about every two to three days. It can be fresh fruit and vegetables. I have a teeny little fridge like a dorm fridge. I feel like I'm in college all over again but with no girls and no fun going on. Whatever fits in the fridge is what I can use. I'll have eggs in the morning.
The only thing you can use is a microwave to heat things up so I became an expert at making poached salmon and mahi in a microwave. I can cook lobster in the microwave. You just got to take it out every 15 to 30 seconds. Chicken, I just can't bring myself to try. I'm a little scared. I don't want to get sick.
Can you order food from a restaurant, and how does that work?
The restaurant delivers it to the habitat people, and they will package it up, put it in a box that has a fresh-proof seal on it, attach a lead weight to the box, and swim it down to me.
You could order a pizza and bring it down. Sometimes the pizza gets wet, but it can be done.
How do you go to the bathroom?
It's basically the exact same bathroom you have in a motor home. You have a little storage tank below, and you get to sit on this little teeny commode, and you go potty. It's like having a bucket with a little tarp on it to go potty. But then you take all that stuff, mix it up with a macerator pump, pressurize it, and send it to the surface where it joins the sewage system in Key Largo.
My 80-year-old mother is going to be here on Saturday. She's taken scuba diving lessons to come down here to have lunch with me from New York — talk about family support. I have a 27-year-old, a 21-year-old, and a 19-year-old, and they're like, "Of course you're going to live underwater. I love you. You're crazy. Go." My girlfriend was like, "Listen to me, not 101 days. Not 100 days and five minutes."
What will you be serving for lunch when your mother joins you this weekend?
I'm going to try and go to the Lazy Lobster and cater something. I'm not going to cook down here for my mom. She's Italian. You kidding me? My name is Dituri. I try to serve her Italian from a microwave, and she'd say, "Joseph, what is this?"
What is it like living underwater essentially alone?
It's so amazing, it's like the international kingdom of Joe. The kids upstairs were joking that they would get me a crown because I was like, "No, we will not talk politics here." Somebody came down and told me the orange man got arrested, and I'm like, "Shh, no politics whatsoever down here." This is a zen place. My stress levels are all down by the fact I won't allow that kind of insult into my life.
Aside from your family, what do you miss most from life on the surface?
Somebody asked me this question the other day, and I didn't have a really good answer for it. So I laid in bed last night and realized I haven't skydived in probably four months now. So I need to get my knees in the breeze for a little bit. I got 800 jumps or so. I am a big skydiver. I didn't think I'd miss skydiving. I was like, "No, no, I miss it."