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.
Present Location and Current Operations
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.
Missions in Aquarius typically last ten days and aquanaut trainees undergo five days of specialized training before each mission starts. Missions are conducted on a monthly basis from April through November. From 1993 to 1996, Aquarius was operated from a large (100 feet long by 50 feet wide) manned barge, known as the MSB (Mobile Support Base), which was located immediately above the underwater laboratory. Offshore operations were supported during missions by staff working on 12 hour rotating shifts. As part of the refurbishment in 1997, the barge was replaced by a semi–autonomous (unmanned) Life Support Buoy (LSB) provided by NOAA’s National Data Buoy Center. The LSB is a large discus buoy, 30 feet in diameter, and hosts generators for power, compressors for air, and a telemetry communications system.
During missions a surface-based support crew monitors the aquanauts and habitat 24/7 from a watch desk and command center at the shore base. Divers are available round the clock for emergencies and a workboat goes out to the site almost every day.