Aquarius was built in Victoria, Texas, in 1986 by Victoria Machine Works (VMW). Underwater operations first began in the United States Virgin Islands, in St. Croix’s Salt River Canyon (now a national park and previously home to Hydrolab, the predecessor to Aquarius), in 1988. After 13 missions (and Hurricane Hugo), Aquarius was relocated to Wilmington, North Carolina where it was refurbished over an 18-month period by the National Undersea Research Center at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Aquarius remained in Wilmington until 1992 until it was deployed at its present location in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
In 1992, Aquarius was deployed four miles off Key Largo, Florida in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Its base sits at a depth of 62 feet within a sandy patch on Conch Reef, a coral reef site characterized by spur and groove formations to depths of over 100 feet. After conducting 20 missions, Aquarius was retrieved in 1996 due to funding constraints. New operating protocols were then developed, funding was restored, and Aquarius was refurbished at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, FL, during 1997. In 1998, it was redeployed to Conch Reef.