This vegetable garden is 25 feet underwater. Take a look.

Off the coast of Italy, Nemo’s Garden grows basil, strawberries, lettuce and other greens -- a novel type of aquaculture focused on sustainability.

A diver, part of Ocean Reef Group, emerges from Nemo's Garden after having harvested the tobacco plants inside Biosphere No. 2.
A diver, part of Ocean Reef Group, emerges from Nemo's Garden after having harvested the tobacco plants inside Biosphere No. 2. (Giacomo d'Orlando)
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About 25 feet under the ocean surface, just off the coast of Noli, Italy, six plastic biospheres glow, part of an experiment with a novel type of aquaculture.

The biospheres, tended by a group of scuba divers, are growing basil, strawberries, lettuce and other greens that are being farmed there for human consumption. Once harvested, the plants have been found to possess higher levels of essential oils and antioxidants — suggesting a potential use in pharmaceuticals — and a purer, more intense taste when eaten.

“I had a sensation that after tasting one leaf of basil, it felt like eating a whole plant,” said Giacomo d’Orlando, a photojournalist who spent months documenting the underwater greenhouse. “I’ve never smelled a basil so perfect.”

It’s all part of a vision by Sergio Gamberini, a chemical engineer and the president of the Ocean Reef Group. Based in Genoa, Italy, the scuba equipment company is cultivating this undersea experiment.

Founded in 2012, the project — dubbed Nemo’s Garden — began as an attempt to combine Gamberini’s passions for scuba diving and gardening. Today, it aims to create a sustainable method of growing food in a world increasingly affected by climate change.

Inside the biospheres, the crops are reared in tightly controlled conditions. They grow without dirt, which means there are no parasites and no need for pesticides. And they are irrigated by the seawater that naturally evaporates and then condensates onto the interior walls of the dome.

“What I’m describing is nothing different than when we were in elementary school, and they explain how rain works,” said Luca Gamberini, Sergio’s son and project manager of Nemo’s Garden. Irrigation through condensation means the biospheres don’t pull from existing freshwater resources.

Outside the biosphere, the consistent temperature of the water creates a stable growing environment for the plants, which is monitored by devices powered via solar panels. All this means that Nemo’s Garden is a completely self-sustaining project.

D’Orlando, a photojournalist with a sharp focus on environmental issues, learned to scuba dive so he could photograph Nemo’s Garden. Just 10 days after he finished his certification, he was in the water with divers installing three new biospheres.

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“I was emotional,” said d’Orlando, recalling that first dive. Being underwater and making pictures of the biospheres, he wanted to stay submerged forever.

“Every time I had to go up, I was in a rush to get my other tank and go down again,” d’Orlando said.

Installing the biospheres is relatively easy, Gamberini said. “Kudos to my engineering team.”

The domes — made of a lightweight, transparent polycarbonate — are mounted on land. Then, they’re flipped upside down for transport. With the curvature of the dome on the bottom, they float, can be guided into position and then flipped right side up. At that point, the dome fills with water and sinks the biosphere to the ocean floor, where it’s chained down and air from a scuba tank is pumped in to displace the water. The air causes the domes to float, held in place by the chains, and divers can install the platform used to stand inside the dome and the necessary electronics, which come by way of waterproof boxes.

“All we did, we did on our own, with rational, limited technology that can be transported,” Gamberini said.

The use of environmentally sustainable methods and lightweight materials, which are easily moved and installed, is intentional. These efforts feed into the larger dream of Nemo’s Garden: to make this technology accessible in areas where climate change, soil desertification and water scarcity have made food production increasingly difficult.

“That’s our ultimate goal,” Gamberini said.

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Should Nemo’s Garden be replicated, d’Orlando wants to be there to see it.

After that initial dive, d’Orlando would periodically return to photograph the seeding and development of plants, the operating space of the Ocean Reef Group, the crop harvest and the chemical testing of the plants done by researchers at Pisa University.

For him, photographing its expansion would be the next logical step in documenting something he believes in.

“I don’t know if, in my life, I will find another project unique like this,” d’Orlando said.

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