Last September there was one word that dominated life here in the Sunshine State: Irma. After roaring through the Caribbean, the hurricane caused historic damage and destruction in Florida. The Cat-4 storm flooded streets, snapped construction cranes and left 5.8 million (nearly 60 percent) of Florida electricity customers without power.
When Hurricane Irma marched toward the Florida Keys, it passed over the Aquarius Reef Base that sits on a sandy patch near a deep coral reef named Conch Reef. It’s about six miles south off the coast of Key Largo. Irma ripped the laboratory’s 94,000 pound life support buoy from its moorings and blew it about 14 miles away to Lignum Vitae Channel where it became wedged under a bridge. It also bent the underwater laboratory’s living quarters sitting on the ocean floor in water 60 feet deep.
“She was beaten up, shaken, but not broken,” said Jim Fourqurean, Florida International University (FIU) Aquarius Base Reef business development director and biology professor.
“The buoy is being repaired at a Miami boatyard and should be ready by March. The mooring lines should be put out around the same time. We’re expecting our missions to begin in May. There is a Navy mission, a NASA engineering and saturation mission, and a private foundation who’s interested in it for educational purposes. Others will follow.”
Operated by FIU since 2014, the undersea lab remains the world’s only operational underwater saturation diving facility specifically designed and dedicated to scientific research and education. One of Aquarius’ primary missions is to find out what the human body and mind go through living in an underwater habitat. Operating on a budget of $1.2 million a year, this marks 25 years of performance in the Florida Keys.
Utilized by the U. S. Navy and researchers and educators from around the globe, Aquarius also offers unique training opportunities for NASA astronauts. Perfect for the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) program, “aquanauts” train in simulated extreme space environments in zero gravity situations. The astronauts test techniques they would use to explore asteroids and experience working in a hostile environments. The underwater lab is roughly the size of the International Space Station (ISS).
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) owns the pressurized lab located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The 43 foot long metal tube resembles a yellow mobile home encrusted with coral. The 400 square-foot lab accommodates six people and includes bunks and a small kitchen space. Submerged by NOAA in 1993, Aquarius provides unparalleled access to study coral reefs, seagrasses and marine life such as predator and prey behaviors. Through saturation diving techniques scientists can dive and live aboard Aquarius for days, even weeks at a time.
When NOAA began the process of defunding Aquarius in 2012, FIU jumped at the opportunity to take control of a national asset. The Miami university is well known for studies of reefs and marine life, and investigating the effects of pollution, climate change, and ocean acidification. A number of former Aquarius aquanauts are on its faculty. Under FIU’s direction, Aquarius has conducted more than 130 missions to discover, preserve, train and innovate.
The French renowned scientist, researcher and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau established the first underwater colony in human history. During the 1960s Cousteau and his Calypso diving team constructed three Continental Shelf Research Stations. Their saturated missions paved the way for the Aquarius Reef Base, the last remaining search station.
Saturated diving allows the body to gradually soak up inert gases by staying at depth for a long period of time. With the team sleeping in the Aquarius Reef base, at depth— and never surfacing— the divers are free to experience the most useful part of living in Aquarius. They have the ability to dive for six to nine hours a day as opposed to about an hour maximum per day per regular scuba diver down to 95 feet without suffering from decompression sickness, known as the bends. At the end of the mission, the entire base is slowly brought back to normal pressure so that the gases can escape the divers’ bodies safely, at which point the divers are free to scuba dive up to the surface.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Aquarius is its connection to NASA that sends groups of astronauts, engineers and scientists to live in Aquarius for up to three weeks at a time. A crew of astronauts “splash down” in scuba gear into the undersea lab to test new equipment, run experiments and research the crew’s behavior for long-duration missions. NEEMO missions’ crews are international, just like the ISS. Since 2001 Aquarius has hosted 22 NASA astronaut training missions.
Last June mission an international crew splashed down to the undersea laboratory for a ten day stay. It focused on both exploration spacewalks and objectives related to the ISS and deep space. A seven day mission last September evaluated communications operations for the European Space Agency. Both missions experimented with technology that could be used for exploring in varying levels of gravity, from asteroids to Mars and its moons.
At Aquarius there is also plenty to discover about the ocean itself. FIU and the Coral Restoration Foundation have established the world’s deepest coral nursery there to study possible solutions for the rampant loss of coral reefs worldwide. Since the base is in a marine protected area, it’s got a healthier fish and coral population than many other underwater sites. The undersea lab has its own Atlantic Giant Grouper, a massive fish that can reach eight feet long and nearly weigh 800 pounds.
Among Aquarius’ supporters is Miami tech mogul Manny Medina, the chairman and CEO of Medina Capital Partners. His gift of $1.25 million turned out to be key in rescuing the one-of-a-kind facility.
“Manny grew up on the water in Cuba, then in the Florida Keys and has loved scuba diving, fishing, and boating all his life,” said Fourqurean. “He wanted to give back. He had just heard about Aquarius. When he paid us a visit he learned Aquarius provides scientific and training missions as well as education outreach opportunities that are pretty unparalleled.”
Over the years FIU has also hosted virtual field trips to Aquarius for hundreds of schools worldwide.
“We’ve just reached our one millionth student and we’ve been involved with students in 55 countries,” said Fourqurean who’s been involved in studies of mangroves, seagrasses and coral reefs all over the world. “If you’re looking for human interaction with the ocean environment there’s no better way than Aquarius.”
It’s all about capturing the imagination.
“Elon Musk did that recently by launching SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket and sending his personal Tesla roadster into deep space,” Fourqurean noted. “That was very bold. We hope Aquarius in a similar way can do the same for science and the ocean. Spark the imagination of the next generation of scientists and aquanauts.”