Finding Nemo’s Garden

The domes survived the historic storm of 2018, and new ones were installed the following season. Photo courtesy Nemo’s Garden

The Italian Riviera is one of the most beautiful places in Europe, a playground for the rich and famous and home to one of the world’s unique gardens, which grows lavender, tomatoes, aloe vera, strawberries and basil, the foundation of one of Italy’s delicious exports — pesto.

While you’ll want to wear boots and blue jeans to visit most farms, for this one you don scuba gear. This underwater farming experiment, which looks like something out of a Jules Verne novel, is in the Ligurian Sea, offshore from Noli, Italy. It’s called Nemo’s Garden, but the name doesn’t come from the animated lost clownfish.

Bathhouses dot the beach, and for a few euros you can rent a small changing room, a chaise lounge and an umbrella. At Bagni Letizia, the base of operations for Nemo’s Garden, we take a short stroll down the beach to the dive shop to rent some tanks. Since Nemo’s Garden is open to the public, Divenjoy, the local dive shop, has become its main point of entry for divers from all over the world.

The Nemo’s Garden biosphere complex is a popular snorkeling spot for locals and visitors to this region of the Italian Riviera. 

The garden is just offshore and comprises a half dozen domed structures, called biospheres, in depths ranging from 10 feet to 40 feet. The metal sculpture in the center of the complex is called Tree of Life. The original art appeared at the Italian pavilion at the 2015 Expo Milano and was recreated here with permission of the creator, Marco Balich. Italian businessman Sergio Gamberini, owner of Ocean Reef Group, came up with the idea of Nemo’s Garden. His son, Luca, now runs it.

“Underwater greenhouses offer near-perfect growing conditions, thanks to the steady temperatures and high amounts of carbon dioxide inside the biospheres that create a microclimatic buffering effect,” states a report published by the Nemo team. “In addition to the advantages offered by the stable thermal conditions, harmful external elements such as insects and parasites are unable to affect the plants.

“Crop yields also benefit from the microclimate inside the biospheres, as the damp humidity and exceptionally high carbon dioxide concentrations (which aid photosynthesis) cause plants to grow significantly faster than they do on land.”

Plump strawberries are among the many plant species harvested. 

A system of chains, cables, ropes and sand screws harness the biospheres to the seafloor. The engineering and construction of the garden complex is a masterpiece worthy of Leonardo da Vinci. Their shallow depths and proximity to the shore allow swimmers and snorkelers to see the domes from above. Aside from being an important scientific experiment, the garden has also become a popular tourist attraction.

Video and other technical systems installed in each dome and at the base of the Tree of Life allow the team to monitor the domes. A cluster of cables transports data to the command center on shore. There’s even a video feed to the café at Bagni Letizia.

On harvest day, journalists from the U.S., Germany and France covered the event as Luca Gamberini and then-project coordinator Gianni Fontanesi submerged to begin the process. Fontanesi untied the protective barrier from below the first biosphere, and we followed him in, getting to use our cameras inside the structures for the first time. We took a big sniff of air inside the dome, where the blended fragrance of the basil, lavender and other herbs and vegetables was intoxicating.

Fontanesi explained that the differences between temperatures and conditions inside and outside the domes create a considerable amount of condensation, which provides an inexhaustible supply of fresh water. The team intends to make the biospheres self-sustaining, which will include apparatuses for the domes to self-irrigate the crops inside.

Using natural condensation as the chief source of moisture for the horizontal hydroponic setup, the team hopes to bring sustainable, economically viable agricultural alternatives to regions hostile to farming or where it is otherwise unavailable.

Gamberini joined Fontanesi in one of the domes to conduct a live, underwater Facebook broadcast for their many fans. They meticulously selected plant specimens, bagged them and sent them to a kayak waiting at the surface. That evening Fontanesi transported them to a laboratory in Pisa for analysis.

We made a dive at the site the night after the harvest. While at the laboratory in Pisa, Fontanesi used an application on his phone to turn on the underwater lights for us. Various sea creatures came out to enjoy the display; it was a transcendent experience. Traversing the complex for the next 90 minutes, we almost expected to see Captain Nemo and his helmeted 19th-century crew emerge from the darkness. At other times it was like being part of an interstellar expedition, exploring the universe for strange new worlds and new civilizations.

Neither Captain Nemo nor Captain James T. Kirk ever materialized, but a lone seahorse was an acceptable consolation prize. This male was carrying his babies as he nonchalantly swayed on his rope in the gentle current, allowing us to get very close for about half the dive.

Nemo’s Garden was thriving, but Mother Nature can throw an occasional curveball. A violent storm hit Liguria on Oct. 30, 2018, causing considerable damage above and below the waterline. The surge laid waste to boats and most of the businesses on the beachfront. Bagni Letizia and Nemo’s Garden were not spared, and the control center was destroyed. When the team saw the devastation on land, they feared the worst for the undersea component.

Two weeks after the storm, we met with the Nemo’s Garden team at the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) trade show in Las Vegas, Nev. They reported that while their facility sustained considerable damage, the underwater biospheres remained intact — a testament to the engineering and strength of the domes and their anchoring systems. That would make da Vinci proud.

Lo spettacolo deve continuare — the show must go on. Fontanesi and Gamberini said that the team would rebuild, and they saw the mishap as an opportunity to make improvements. Indeed, six brand new domes arrived in Noli a few months later to bring Nemo’s Garden to the next level.

Luca Gamberini monitors conditions in the complex from the control room at Bagni Letizia. 

The new domes use algae-resistant acrylics, making it easier to keep the domes clear, which in turn allows more sunshine to filter in through the water column. Observations are ongoing to gauge the effectiveness of the new material. Further evidence of the rapid recovery of the project is that experiments began earlier than usual in 2019. The team seeded the first biosphere in mid-May, and strawberry plants have borne fruit. The amount of water gathered through condensation signaled further success. Fontanesi reported that the condensers are entirely supporting the hydroponic systems.

Nemo’s Garden continues to flourish as an underwater classroom. The University of Genoa engineering department conducts experiments on the thermodynamic process inside the biospheres. Fundraisers and new collaborations support internships for thesis students. Younger students also benefit from the learning environment. As part of a project called “Grow the Future,” fourth-grade students from the Rodari Primary School in Sanremo, Italy, created a comic strip that tells the story of Nemo’s Garden.

On the Italian Riviera, the small, dedicated team at Nemo’s Garden continues to refine and improve the facility and the processes by which it operates. As they try to answer the challenges of global climate change, discoveries made at Nemo’s Garden could pave the way toward sustainable farming for island and coastal communities and in areas hostile to terrestrial agriculture.

Explore More

Watch these videos to learn more about Nemo’s Garden.

© Alert Diver — Q1 2020