Joseph Dituri views the Jules Undersea Lodge habitat 30 feet underwater where he will spend 100 days living and researching. FRAZIER NIVENS/Florida Keys News Bureau

Just as he had done thousands of times since the age of 10, at 9:30 a.m. on March 1, Joseph Dituri stood at the edge of the water, suited up to scuba dive.

But this dive would be unlike any that he – or anyone else – has ever done.

“We have to descend to succeed. We are going to figure out this planet and everything that lives on it. The only way to do it is to look,” Dituri said to a camera crew and a small group gathered to witness the event as he placed his mask over his eyes and made a peace sign with his fingers. “100 days, ya’ll.”

Dituri took a breath, felt the warmth of the sun on his skin one last time, released the air from his buoyancy control device and descended into the lagoon at the Jules Undersea Lodge compound in Key Largo. If all goes according to plan, Dituri will not see the sunlight or the surface for 100 days.

His descent marked the beginning of Project Neptune 100, a mission to break the world record for time spent in an underwater fixed habitat, with the goals of spreading awareness about marine conservation and furthering medical and marine research. 

Only bubbles at the surface now hinted at what was happening below: Dituri swam toward his underwater home for the next 100 days – Jules Undersea Lodge. After a few pictures, he emerged into the moon pool entrance to the lodge, which sits 30 feet underwater and consists of the wet room entrance, two bedrooms, a common room, a kitchenette with a microwave and minifridge, a toilet, a shower, Wi-Fi and round windows with a view of the lagoon’s sea life. 

As Dituri dried off and got accustomed to the space, on the surface, another diver stepped into the water. Ian Koblick, a pioneer in undersea living and the designer of the habitat, dipped beneath the surface to complete a simpler, yet still important mission. He appeared in the round window of the habitat to present Dituri with the Explorers Club flag, a prestigious honor for the professional society of explorers and scientists.

“This has never been done before,” said Koblick, who has been involved in every world record for living underwater since 1969. “This is so different because this is not about a world record. Will it be the longest anybody stayed under water? Yes. Will it be a world record? Yes. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about real marine diving medicine.”

While still only bubbles show on the surface, the habitat has been a hub of activity since day one of the mission. In the first week, Dituri made significant steps toward achieving the mission’s goals of research and education.

Dituri, a retired Navy commander and chief researcher for the Undersea Oxygen Clinic who holds a doctorate in biomedical engineering, completed preliminary testing in several experiments. The research, focused on learning more about the body’s response to significant time under pressure, has implications for hyperbaric medicine as a treatment for traumatic brain injury. 

The habitat has already seen its first guests. Hunter Hines, who holds a doctorate in microbial ecology, and Harrison Albert, who is focusing on virtual outreach to kids in landlocked states, descended to the habitat for a five-day mission. In addition, five divers from DiveN2Life, a youth organization seeking to connect kids with science and the environment through scuba diving, stayed overnight, got hands-on with research and emerged as aquanauts.

“What it’s really all about is energizing the youth to take care of the problems that our generations and those before us have created,” mission director Thane Milhoan said. “We’ve done bad, bad things to the ocean. It’s in a state where, if we don’t act quickly and aggressively, then we may already be past the point of no return. But we’re not going to give up, and we want to use this mission as a way to inspire everyone that we can and certainly the young people who have the biggest stake in the game.”

Between now and June 9, some 40 students will have a chance to join Dituri in the habitat while many others will participate in virtual talks and question-and-answer sessions. A lineup of researchers and social media influencers will make the descent to conduct research and use their platforms to spread marine conservation awareness, including Sylvia Earle, a world-renowned oceanographer and explorer. 

The mission and its research will also be a stepping stone to further missions both underwater and in space. Project Neptune 100 will contribute to a NASA program run out of Stanford University looking at safety protocols for extreme environments.  

“That’s an extreme environment,” Koblick said. “It’s as close to leaving this earth as you can get without going into space. It’s a hostile environment. I mean, try getting out of the habitat without your gear on. Walk around. It doesn’t work.”

As for the man living in this extreme environment, everything has gone relatively swimmingly. Dituri’s only complaint: a lack of caffeinated coffee, an issue that has been resolved by a French press and Folgers coffee. Friends are sending him photos of the sun every morning and evening. Logistics continue to be an issue, particularly transporting expensive video cameras and microscopes underwater and under pressure, and the separation from his girlfriend and three daughters is understandably difficult. But in those moments, he remembers why he is down there: to advance science and to inspire the next generation. 

“I’m not sleeping in the field. Nobody is shooting at me. This is pretty darn easy. There are tough people out there and I don’t have to be one of those to be in here,” Dituri said. “You got to go live in a mobile home for 100 days with this view? Okay. You can get out, swim and have lobsters as friends? Come on. It’s okay. It’s not bad.”

Follow Jules Undersea Lodge on Facebook and the Jules Undersea TV YouTube Channel for mission updates and live streams.

Jacqueline Hale’s passion for stories began while crafting imaginative stories with her sister in the wooded backyard of her New England childhood, was nurtured by nights spent watching feature news shows with her dad; and was honed while serving as editor-in-chief of her college’s newspaper, The Liberty Champion, and earning an interdisciplinary studies degree in journalism, natural sciences and history. After graduating in March 2022, she set off to make her own stories, completing a thru-hike of the 2194.3-mile Appalachian Trail in August and moving to the Florida Keys to work as a naturalist in the Everglades National Park.