Sergio Gamborini is the president of the Ocean Reef Group, companies based in Genoa, Italy, and San Marcos, Calif., that specialize in producing scuba diving gear and safety equipment. He is also an avid scuba diver, and while exploring underwater sights on a vacation three years ago, got an idea that many considered absurd—establishing underwater greenhouses for growing food. Gamborini tested the theory, building (with help from his Ocean Reef Group team) a number of small transparent balloons. The deflated balloons are sunk, filled with air while underwater, anchored to the ocean floor and planted with seeds in containers. Presto, Nemo’s Garden project was born, an underwater greenhouse “farm” into its third year of development, data collection and experimentation.
The project goal is to create an alternative system of agriculture for areas where environmental, economical or morphologic factors make plant growth extremely difficult. The underwater balloons, like greenhouses, have access to sunlight, which warms the enclosed system. The Mediterranean Sea’s vastness mitigates temperature extremes (no hard frosts, no 100-plus degree temperatures), and a small amount of fresh water, introduced into the system, condenses and recycles itself. The growing environment is not susceptible to insect pests or wildfires. Underwater pressure is believed to increase seed germination, and planting mediums tested to date include floral foams (yes, the stuff in flower arrangements), coco peat, perlite, glass wool and good, old-fashioned soil.
Nemo’s Garden grew to include seven biospheres (flexible domes made of transparent polymeric film) fixed on internal metal scaffolds anchored in Noli’s Bay, near Savona, Italy. Each biosphere has a different purpose, process or crop, but all have one common feature—a large enough space underneath for scuba divers (agrinauts) to enter and tend the crops. The three-year permit for the project expires in 2015, and the data from the project will be available in early 2016.