British Columbia

Renowned B.C. underwater inventor appointed to Order of Canada

Phil Nuytten’s innovations have been widely adopted by NASA, National Geographic and filmmaker James Cameron. In Ottawa on Friday, Nuytten's achievements were recognized yet again when he was named an officer of the Order of Canada.

Phil Nuytten's next big dream? An underwater colony beneath Burrard Inlet

Underwater inventor Phil Nuytten's vision for the future is to build a colony where people can live and work on the ocean floor of Burrard Inlet.

Phil Nuytten's innovations have been widely adopted by NASA, National Geographic and filmmaker James Cameron. In Ottawa on Friday, Nuytten's achievements were recognized yet again when he was appointed to the Order of Canada.

It was a proud moment for the 76-year-old Métis and adopted member of the Kwakiutl First Nation — who started out as a commercial diver — driven to develop his own equipment.

In an interview, the entrepreneur, inventor and deep-ocean explorer from North Vancouver recounted the brief exchange he shared with Governor General David Johnston at the Rideau Hall ceremony.

"He leaned in and said to me: 'Canada needs more people and more technology like the stuff you've done,'" Nuytten recounted.

His life mission has been inventing undersea systems, from life support gear, to submarines and diving helmets — and even designing underwater suits for training NASA and Canadian Space agency astronauts.

Helped search for Franklin wreck

Nuytten recalled a career favourite — a National Geographic exploration mission to find the wreck of the HMS Breadalbane, one of the British ships sent to find the 1845 Franklin expedition in search of the Northwest Passage.​

Nuyteen also developed an underwater suit designed to allow divers to survive in deep Arctic waters. It would take Nuytten through Arctic ice, down to the bottom of the ocean.

"From under the ice I could look down, and make out this wreck far, far down below me," he said.

"I flew down to it, and landed on the deck, and I thought 'My God, I'm the first guy to see this wreck in the last 140 years.'" It was to be one of the northernmost wrecks ever found.

Film work

Nuytten's work also drew the attention of Cameron, the Oscar-winning film director. He described the joy he felt as he and his team built submersibles for the film Abyss, and propulsion systems used in the filming of the blockbuster Titanic.

But Nuytten has his sights set on a bucket list project — a vision of the future — that he says has also intrigued Cameron.

It's an otherworldly concept, dubbed Vent Base Alpha, where people would live in a self-sustaining station deep under the ocean. Nuytten wants to see such a colony built on the ocean floor in B.C.'s Burrard Inlet.

"Cameron likes it. He says, 'If you're going to do that I want to somehow be involved.'"

"I said 'Jim, I won't leave you out.'"

Underwater colony dream

Nuytten's underwater colony dream is ambitious. He envisions people living beneath the ocean's surface for months. They would drive vehicles like jeeps and work in underwater suits like one of the models he designed, which allows divers to operate safely down to a depth of 300 metres.

Nuytten hopes to start with a prototype — with the aim to demonstrate that people can stay in the colony and do all the things he hopes they can for months on end without ever coming to the surface.

Is it just a pipe dream? Not for Nuytten. He will start work on it next year.