“The first time I saw Nemo’s Garden in real life, the biospheres looked like small space ships,” Giacomo d’Orlando tells me. “It felt like I had gone to another planet.” In reality, d’Orlando was very close to home, right off the coast of Noli in Italy.
Nemo’s Garden is an underwater farm consisting of several pods, each floating anywhere from sixteen to thirty-six feet below the surface. Inside these air-filled “bubbles,” you can find fresh basil, veggies, berries, and even flowers. All around, you can see marine wildlife peacefully coexisting with these futuristic structures.
The photographer happened upon this underwater farm while conducting research relating to climate change and the environment. It was late 2020, amid pandemic lockdowns, and he longed for a story that could provide a glimmer of hope for the future. When he found Nemo’s Garden, he knew immediately that he’d found it. “An underwater system of greenhouses, which grows terrestrial plants, so it is not something that you find every day,” he says.
The idea for the garden started with Sergio Gamberini, the president of the diving equipment firm Ocean Reef Group. He was motivated, in part, by the fact that agriculture accounts for 70% of worldwide water use; as water scarcity grows from a looming threat to a global emergency, the hope is that this kind of system could be used to produce food in areas that are otherwise unsuitable for planting. Nemo’s Garden is entirely self-sustainable, using the sun and the freshwater it naturally produces through condensation.
When d’Orlando reached out to the team at Ocean Reef Group about documenting their work, they were instantly on board; the photojournalist describes the process as a collaboration every step of the way. Before embarking on the project, though, he first needed to master the art of diving for himself. “I have to be honest: learning how to dive and at the same time how to take underwater pictures was certainly not easy, especially in a short period of time,” he admits. “Underwater, everything is different: the way you move, the way you feel, the way you see things, and, of course, the way you take pictures.”
But with every trip underwater, his confidence grew. At one point, he got the chance to taste the basil grown inside Nemo’s Garden; he says the flavor of just one leaf was so powerful he felt like he’d tasted the entire plant. Research indicates that the plants produced in the garden also have a slightly different chemical makeup, and the implications of that finding are vast. “The plants grown in these biospheres are richer in polyphenols and essential oils compared to plants cultivated on land,” d’Orlando explains. “This could be extremely beneficial in the pharmaceutical world.”
The photographer spent seven months covering life at Nemo’s Garden, and he was inspired time and again by the team, led by Sergio Gamberini and his son Luca. As the climate crisis grows increasingly urgent, he remains steadfastly committed to discovering the (often overlooked) stories of those who are making a positive difference. “Finding people who don’t give up in the face of challenges brought by climate change–but instead devote themselves to finding new solutions for our future–makes me more hopeful,” he says.
Last year, d’Orlando’s work at Nemo’s Garden was recognized as part of the Sustainable Cities category at the annual Environmental Photographer of the Year (EPOTY) competition, encouraging people around the world to learn more about this singular project taking place off the coast of Noli. The pictures do it justice, but the photographer says nothing compares to visiting in person. He’ll never forget the first time he entered biosphere; it was, in a word, otherworldly. He remembers, “Being able to breathe normally underwater without an oxygen tank was just unbelievable.”
The Environmental Photographer of the Year competition is now in its fifteenth edition. D’Orlando will be participating again this year, and photographers around the world are invited to submit. The deadline for applications is August 31st. You can follow Giacomo d’Orlando and his work on Instagram at @giacomo_dorlando, and you can check out Nemo’s Garden at @nemos_garden_official.