Taking genetic manipulation of humans to change them to live in other environments, besides maybe gills what other physical changes would need to be done for a human to spend 95+% time living in the ocean? I also suspect gills would only be partially useful, allowing longer submersion's but still require trips to the surface, like dolphins and whales.

People like structural homes but dependence on these should be kept to a minimum. The humans should be able to dive a little deeper than regular people with SCUBA gear.

  • $\begingroup$ Could there be enclosed structures, or no? Also, how deep would they have to go? $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Jul 29, 2015 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 Yes there can be enclosed structures, but this shouldn't be thought of as a Gungan city. How deep, only a little deeper than a human can survive scuba diving. I'll add this to the question $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Jul 29, 2015 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ They would have to have a boat under them. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Jul 29, 2015 at 17:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Oldcat :P~~~~~ $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Jul 29, 2015 at 17:31
  • $\begingroup$ Time to re-watch Waterworld $\endgroup$
    – gillonba
    Jul 29, 2015 at 20:16

3 Answers 3


I'll break this down into two sections: Basic Survival and Comfortable Living.

Basic Survival

Either gills or enhanced lungs/oxygen efficiency.

Gills: Permanent operation underwater. In order to be truly effective, you would also need a way to pull water over the gills without moving. Some species of shark lack this ability, and it results in a need to constantly be moving in order to breathe.

Sticking with air-breathing: Humans are very inefficient at extracting Oxygen from inhaled air compared to dolphins. A human captures about 17% of the oxygen from a breath, dolphins capture 80%. You would then need to increase the concentration of hemoglobin in human blood to allow for greater oxygen storage within the body. It would also be necessary to remove 'breathing' responsibility from the brainstem and move it somewhere that is only conscious. Since breathing would become less common than not breathing, you don't want that wired to the autonomic nervous system. It would also be ideal to develop a way to seal the nose and sever the respiratory system from the mouth so that you could eat underwater without drowning. Increased lung capacity is only so effective, as you will see in the Pressure Regulation section below.

Digestive System

Humans are now immersed in salt water 24/7. Drinking salt water dehydrates humans, so you would need to tweak their digestive system to filter out all that extra salt content and expel it in their urine. Alternatively, some aquatic mammals extract all the water they need through their prey, and don't actually swallow salt water. This would require humans to be able to consume the blood of their food without getting sick on it, and be able to extract the water from that.

Physiology tweaks

We would also need to tweak our dietary requirements. Vitamin C is hard to come by in the ocean, after all. Don't want everyone to end up with scurvy. Additionally, reduced exposure to sunlight means humans would synthesize less Vitamin D. Lack of Vitamin D leads to things like depression and moodiness (oft referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder). There are a number of other tweaks that would need to be made here as well.

Pressure Regulation

SCUBA divers need to either take numerous stops on their way back to the surface to avoid getting 'the bends', which is what happens if you depressurize a human body too quickly. The structure of the middle ear would need to be altered to protect them during deep dives. You may need to make exhaustive modifications to the nasal structure so that it can freely collapse as well, and not put pressure on the cranial area. Additionally, if an air-breather, the lungs would need to be heavily reinforced (and allowed to safely collapse in such a way as to force all held air away from the alveoli) while deep under water to prevent air-exchange from occurring. This would protect against the insertion of Nitrogen into the blood stream, which is a common cause of The Bends.

Eye Protection

The human eye doesn't like salt water, and it doesn't do well with high pressures. It would need to be remodeled to both have a protective lens over it (possibly mobile) to protect it from the salt water, and would need to be reinforced to survive pressure changes.

Comfortable Living

Natural fins

It would be advantageous to lengthen the toes and fingers of an aquatic human and web these appendages together. This would allow for greater propulsion through the water.

Alterations to arm muscle structure

It is hard to move quickly in the water, and surviving against possible predator attacks is difficult, even when armed. This is because the human muscular structure is configured in such a way as to permit dexterity and range of motion, rather than strength. Either the muscles in the arm would need to be bulked up, or their attachment points would need to be shifted further along the bone, giving greater leverage to the muscle. Bones may need to be reinforced as well to support the increased strain.

Temperature Regulation

While our divers could make due in thermal suits, it would be better to give them a natural way to stay warm while in the cold ocean. A higher metabolism would allow their body to produce more heat, and a subcutaneous fat layer would provide insulation (aka blubber).

Enhanced dark vision

The ocean is really dark once you get down past about 300 feet, and normal humans would need light all the time. Blue light penetrates the deepest into the ocean, so modifying the eyes to be more sensitive to that shade, and tweaking pupil size to allow for more light to be collected would improve the depth at which humans could see

Alternate means of sensing

Beyond a certain point in the ocean...eyes are largely useless for any sort of significant distance. This is why so many aquatic animals echolocate. Introducing this ability to your aquatic humans would greatly improve their underwater comfort at depths beyond which they can comfortably see.

Further physiological tweaks

Many deep-ocean aquatic mammals are capable of voluntarily controlling their own metabolic rates and heart rate. This allows them to put their body into a lower performance mode to conserve oxygen. This tweak would allow air-breathing humans to go on longer dives before needing to resupply.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ One small nit: Your tidbit about sharks is wrong. Only about two dozen of the 400 hundred identified species of shark must remain in motion to breathe. Take a look at buccal pumping, which is one of the two ways modern sharks breathe and the only way ancient sharks breathed. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Jul 29, 2015 at 16:46
  • $\begingroup$ reduced exposure to sunlight? unless you spend a great deal of time deep, you'll be in the sun all the time! $\endgroup$
    – njzk2
    Jul 29, 2015 at 17:52
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @njzk2 Yes, actually. Vitamin D Synthesis requires UVB radiation, which sees significant reflection and absorption by water. If you are hanging out more than 5-10 meters deep or so, you aren't going to get anywhere near enough. $\endgroup$ Jul 29, 2015 at 18:56

Water pressure gets very problematic very quickly:

The deeper you go under the sea, the greater the pressure of the water pushing down on you. For every 33 feet (10.06 meters) you go down, the pressure increases by 14.5 psi.

14.5 PSI $\approx$ 99.974 Pascals

That said, if humans aren't going any further than scuba diving depths, this won't be too hard, but for longer periods, this could be an issue. There are some solutions to this, though:

Many animals that live in the sea have no trouble at all with high pressure. Whales, for instance, can withstand dramatic pressure changes because their bodies are more flexible. Their ribs are bound by loose, bendable cartilage, which allows the rib cage to collapse at pressures that would easily snap our bones.

Humans would have to adapt to this.

Another issue is temperature. Hypothermia is possible in many situations. Blubber, like whales, seals, and some other creatures have, is a possible solution to this problem.

  • $\begingroup$ mandatory SI conversion: 14.5 psi is ~ 100000 Pa (roughly 1 atm). Because basically no-one in the rest of the world uses psi. $\endgroup$
    – njzk2
    Jul 29, 2015 at 17:56

1. Our fishy ancestors

The early human embryo looks very similar to the embryo of any other mammal, bird or amphibian - all of which have evolved from fish. Your eyes start out on the sides of your head, but then move to the middle. The top lip along with the jaw and palate started life as gill-like structures on your neck.5 May 2011

Anatomical clues to human evolution from fish - BBC News


It won't be very long before we can affect the development of embryos and switch on and off ancestral traits. It is entirely possible that we could in future selectively keep fish-like traits whilst maintaining the development of the human brain.

2. If going back to fish is unappealing then maybe we have only to go back to apes.

The aquatic ape hypothesis (AAH), often also referred to as aquatic ape theory (AAT) is a proposal that the evolutionary ancestors of modern humans spent a period of time adapting to a semiaquatic existence ... the most prominent proponent was Welsh writer Elaine Morgan, who wrote a series of books on the topic.


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