'We Created The World's First Underwater Garden'

After the Second World War, my father started a business manufacturing diving equipment. He had a small workshop where he was fixing car and bicycle tyres and he then began working with people from the diving industry and making fins, masks and snorkels for them.

I was born in 1953, and started to dive when I was 14. I grew up in a family that loved scuba diving, snorkeling and the underwater world, but at that time it wasn't as common to dive, there weren't the training courses that we have today.

At university, I became a chemical engineer and I joined my father's company, but diving and the underwater world was still my main love. Over the years, I began gardening as a hobby. Like many people, I grew tomatoes, aromatic herbs and zucchini; foods that are typical in Italian cuisine.

Then, in August of 2013 my wife were spending our vacation to a little village on the Italian Riviera, Noli, with our friends who are farmers. We spent many hours discussing fishing, underwater life, sailing and everything related to the ocean. One day during the vacation I suddenly had the idea that I could try and make a greenhouse underwater. Of course, I understood it was a slightly ridiculous notion, but I thought I would be able to involve these friends and ask their advice on how to grow plants underwater.

Nemo's Garden is an Italian underwater garden
Sergio Gamberini created Nemo's Garden, the world's first underwater garden, after coming up with the idea during a vacation to the Italian Riviera. Nemo's Garden

Over the course of a couple of days in September, I made a kind of transparent balloon that I fixed to the ocean floor with some screws, in a spot five or six meters underwater off the coast of Noli. I filled it with air and added some soil, keeping it completely dry, and then planted some basil seeds, because basil is typically grown in the area. When I returned 24 hours later, I could see that the seeds were starting to grow. After 48 hours they were clearly sprouting.

It was clear that sunlight was warming up the air in the biosphere and evaporating the salt water. Because the surrounding water was cooler than the air inside, fresh water condensation was forming in the internal part of the biosphere. I realized that this was a great system for anywhere where it's difficult to use conventional farming techniques, like in a desert. It's also totally protected against pests that can harm agriculture.

So, what began as something to connect friends quickly became an engineering idea.

The bay of Noli was a perfect spot to create Nemo's Garden, what we named our underwater garden, because it faces east, so it's well protected against storms coming from the south west. Also, from the shoreline the depth of the ocean floor increases steeply; within 100 meters of the shore you can reach depths of 20 meters.

But creating an underwater garden was very complex, because we needed to collect data around the water and air temperatures, the quality of the light and the oxygen and CO2 levels in order to understand how the plants were growing and in which environment they would grow best. We had to test the biospheres to ensure they could get enough light from the sun, but remain far enough from the shoreline that they wouldn't be damaged by waves or storms. Over the years we tested different sized biospheres and ways of growing certain plants. Underwater cameras and a WiFi connection were installed so we could check what was happening 24 hours a day and ensure the safety of divers.

Nemos Garden is an Italian underwater garden
Nemos Garden is an Italian underwater garden

Currently our underwater garden sits around 100 meters from the shore and consists of six domes, or biospheres as we call them, made from acrylic and steel and sitting around 10 meters beneath the surface of the water. Each biosphere is two meters in diameter and contains approximately 2,000 liters of air and in the center, we have a platform with the tree of life symbol by Galileo. Now, we're growing 60 different plants including herbs such as oregano and basil. Tomatoes didn't work very well because the atmosphere of the domes is too humid, but aloe vera plants grow very well.

My belief has always been that humankind needs to find the right balance with the natural world around us, so it was always important for us to create something that doesn't affect the environment.

Because the structures in Nemo's Garden use eco-friendly materials that don't pollute, we have been able to see the natural world, which had been lost due to coastal erosion, growing back. We have seahorses and fish that are using Nemo's Garden as a place where they can get protection from the ocean environment, and plants and mussels are growing on the chains connected to the biospheres.

At the beginning our idea was to feed the world by creating an alternative environment for growing food. That dream still exists, but engineering is expensive. What we have discovered along the way is that some plants are changing their characteristics when they are grown in our underwater garden. A study by the University of Pisa and other labs discovered that our basil grown underwater had a greater percentage of essential oil in its composition, so we're exploring this with other plants.

Nemos Garden is an Italian underwater garden
Nemos Garden is an Italian underwater garden

I also have two other dreams for Nemo's Garden that I'd like to fulfil. Firstly to grow it and extend the scientific research in Noli. And of course, I would love to create more gardens just like it around the world.

Both my wife and I still dive at Nemo's Garden, but anyone can, you don't need a boat to get out to the garden. If you're a good swimmer and have a mask and fins, you can swim out and through the domes.

It is always so exciting when I see children looking down on Nemo's Garden or when they ask us questions. Some of the best feedback my wife and I have had has been from children. We've seen how it helps them fall in love with diving. That's a great motivator for us. There are so many great elements to this project. I'm learning something new every day.

Sergio Gamberini is the president of Ocean Reef Group and founder of Nemo's Garden. You can find out more about Nemo's Garden here, or follow them on Instagram at @nemos_garden_official.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.