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Is This Floating Eco-Pod the Future of Overwater Bungalows?

By Terry Ward
Condé Nast Traveler

The sounds of the jungle catch me off guard on my first morning waking up in the SeaPod, a futuristic overwater bungalow off the Caribbean coast of Panama that is now open for overnight stays.

Hidden in the lush surrounding terrain, southern house wrens croon their scratchy wake-up call and whistling kiskadees compete with bellowing Howler monkeys. It’s quite the juxtaposition: my ultra-modern accommodation, complete with Starlink internet, touchscreen controls, and more than 100 sensors that measure everything from wind factor and lightning strikes to the SeaPod’s power and water consumption—and the primordial world at its doorstep.

The SeaPod, of which I’m among the first guests, is completely unlike the traditional thatched roof overwater bungalows I’ve visited elsewhere in French Polynesia and Jamaica—not least because it operates almost entirely on solar power, and harvests rain water on its roof. But unlike typical bungalows that rest permanently atop pillars wedged into the sand or rock, it floats on the water’s surface, temporarily tethered to the seabed with anchors that leave a far smaller footprint on the ocean floor.

“You don’t need to destroy the environment to place them there, since they’re truly floating,” says Laura Fernandes de Barros Marangoni, a post-doctoral researcher with Panama’s Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. “Bungalows and standard coastal resorts do touch the seabed—and tend to be more damaging to the local ecosystems.”

It’s this distinguishing feature, in part, that allows it to act as an artificial reef—not only minimizing damage to its environs, but actually restoring it. The invention of the high-tech ocean-innovation company Ocean Builders, the 845-square-foot SeaPod—whose open, circular design accommodates a kitchen, a small living room, and a bedroom and bathroom—is supported by air-filled steel tubes that rest beneath the water’s surface. Using the solar power it collects, the SeaPod generates a mild electrical current that works to attract calcium carbonate—a substance that not only protects the structure from corrosion and rust, but that also happens to be the building block of another crucial material: coral.

Floating eco pods in the forest.

A rendering of the land-based GreenPod Eco and GreenPod Flagship, which Ocean Builders is also currently in the process of developing.

 Ocean Builders

“Calcium carbonate is the best possible substrate for new coral recruits to settle themselves,” says Ronald Osinga, Assistant Professor in Marine Animal Ecology at Wageningen University in The Netherlands, who advises Ocean Builders on reef restoration projects. “So in this way, natural development of coral biodiversity is enhanced. The SeaPod is likely to become a source of a large variety of coral materials for reef renewal.”

Ocean Builders’ founder, Grant Romundt, became convinced of that while testing a prototype for the SeaPod offshore from Phuket, Thailand, in 2019. Within two months of launching the bare-bones beta version, he was amazed to see coral colonizing the structure’s steel tubing.

“Everywhere you looked there were thousands of fish,” Romundt says. “I was really excited. I realized our houses can restore sea life in the ocean as opposed to a house on land, where you cut down nature to build it—then put a potted plant in the corner to replace what you cut down.”

Romundt, who is Canadian, also has Panamanian residency. (The country’s Panama Residence by Investment Program, also known as the Panama golden visa, offers residence to foreigners willing to make a substantial investment into the country.) He chose Panama to launch the project, he told me, not only for its “beautiful marine environment and attractiveness for on-the-water-living,” but because it lies below the hurricane belt, making it a good place to test the concept’s initial viability. (Down the road, he plans to build hurricane-proof SeaPods to put in places like Florida, where there’s been much interest in the project.)

Romundt had originally conceived of the SeaPod as a residential structure, to expand coastal living options in an eco-friendly way. But the idea to turn the SeaPod into a hospitality project came naturally, he says.

“Giving people an amazing experience of what living in a floating home is like is the best way of growing and expanding our vision globally,” he says. “The steps we are taking here in Panama will be the basis for the future expansion of floating resorts in other parts of the world.”

Here, a dedicated concierge can stock your kitchen with local pineapple and lobster, and arrange experiences like in-pod dining with a personal chef, or excursions with Ocean Builders’ partners to visit other eco-restorative projects.

One morning, on a scuba diving adventure into Portobelo National Park with Jean Carlos Blanco, Executive Director of Reef2Reef Restoration Foundation, I donned a scuba tank to dive within a coral nursery, where some 750 individual corals are growing as part of a project with Panama’s Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The goal, Blanco tells me, is to eventually outplant 5,000 corals within the national park. His organization is also testing 3D-printing with Ocean Builders to develop coral to add to the SeaPods’ submerged steel tubing, another potential generator of marine life.

During another excursion—a hike and kayak trip into Portobelo National Park—my guide, Jason Ashcroft of Portobelo Adventures, shuffles a patch of leaves to reveal a green poison dart frog, and guides me to an island abloom with wild orchids.

Beyond Panama, says Romundt, one of the places Ocean Builders has set its sights on is the Maldives, a destination known for overwater bungalows—although none as tech-forward and eco-restorative as the SeaPod, which is the only project of its kind.

The project, which has already been approved by local partners, will “take the over-the-water bungalow concept that is so popular in the region and build out a fully floating resort based on SeaPods,” Romundt says, adding that more details will be available later this year. Ocean Builders is also in talks with partners in Dubai for a project that will mix residential- and hospitality-oriented SeaPods. They’ve also had inquiries from major hospitality chains, he says, who are “interested in how this can change waterfront vacationing and living”—though he can’t currently specify which ones.

For now, this Panamanian SeaPod—accessed through the fishing village of Puerto Lindo, where a floating dock extends out from Linton Bay Marina—is the only one that guests can book, for two-night minimum stays. Others are under construction in the marina, including a deep-sea version that will have an underwater viewing room, as well as the SeaPod Flagship, crafted with a split-level design. The plan for the near future, permits pending, is to move them to a location deeper within the bay to make them feel more remote, says Romundt.

On the last night of my stay, I untie a stand up paddle board tethered to the SeaPod’s dock. Atop water as smooth as glass, I paddle out into the bay, past mangroves where night herons stalk minnows, to a small island covered with the busy silhouettes of ibises in courting mode.

“Living in a SeaPod is like having a glimpse of what life in the future will be like,” Romundt had told me. “Every week there are upgrades and improvements.”

Right here and now already feels pretty magical to me.

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