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Posted by: Ellen Prager

The age of Aquarius
Written by Ellen Prager

In the world today, there is only one operating undersea research station, where scientists get firsthand access to a coral reef 24/7 for a period of up to two weeks. It is currently the sole location where divers can stage out from a habitat at 50 feet and spend six to nine hours a day diving down to some 100 feet. It is the Aquarius Reef Base three and a half miles off Key Largo, Florida. And if you are a lover of the undersea world and coral reefs, the views from inside or around it are fantastic.

As divers from the surface we are temporary visitors to the reef, but by living underwater we can become a part of the undersea world for extended periods of time. As a scientist, the access afforded over a short two weeks allows for work that would be logistically difficult and often cost prohibitive. Researchers can do intensive surveys, run 24-hour experiments, test technology or study behaviors that are difficult to monitor while diving from the surface. It is truly a unique facility that has and continues to produce coral reef research on the forefront and inspire people of all ages to learn more about the ocean, conservation, and undersea technology.

Aquarius is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and operated by the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW). It is a product of a past in which the idea of living and working underwater captured people’s imagination and tested their ingenuity. While there were many undersea habitats constructed in the 1960s and 70s, today Aquarius is the sole outpost undersea for those who seek to take advantage of the time and access saturation diving allows for research, training, technology testing, and education and outreach.

The undersea habitat sits in a horseshoe-shaped patch of sand on Conch Reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The location has been designated a research-only zone, which is essential for research, operations, and safety. Six aquanauts live in Aquarius for missions that last up to two weeks. Each mission, the aquanaut team includes two expert habitat technicians from the staff as well as a team at the surface that continually monitors life support systems, safety, and provides daily operational support from the shore base in Key Largo. Upon completion of their underwater mission, aquanauts must go through 17 hours of decompression inside Aquarius to safely return to the surface.

Since 1993, the Aquarius undersea lab has supported over 100 missions, producing more than 300 peer-reviewed scientific publications along with numerous popular science articles, educational programs, and television spots. Hundreds of graduate and undergraduate students have taken part in missions. The Aquarius Reef Base is also supporting one of the longest running and detailed coral reef monitoring programs in the world, an ocean observing platform, and surface-based research in the Florida Keys.

Research during last year’s missions included ongoing studies of the best practices in coral restoration and transplantation and the impacts of ocean acidification on coral reefs. Scientists also lived in Aquarius to investigate sponge biology and nutrient dynamics, to test and continue development of a prototype underwater mass spectrometer, and to study fish behavior in detail as it pertains to the habitat and space requirements of marine reserves. We also embedded a high school teacher in a science mission and shared the excitement through live broadcasts into classrooms and on the Internet from the undersea habitat and by divers.

Research done previously has produced critical information on herbivore interactions in coral reefs, discovered internal waves that regularly result in upwelling of nutrient-rich water onto coral reefs in the Florida Keys, and provided insight into the geologic history of coral reef growth in Florida.

The US Navy and NASA also use Aquarius Reef Base for training and technology testing purposes. Turns out that living undersea in Aquarius is as close as the astronauts can get to the conditions and stress of being in the International Space Station! The world’s only undersea research station is truly a national asset.

Like many people and organizations, the Aquarius Reef Base program continually struggles to remain viable due to funding issues. We have been working closely with our colleagues at NOAA to ensure that the program is being used to meet NOAA and national priorities for ocean science, technology development, training and outreach and doing it in way that is extremely cost-effective. Last year Foundations and individuals played a big role in helping to support science and education at Aquarius. We hope such support will continue.

Within Florida, Aquarius Reef Base provides a critical outpost where scientists can get access to coral reefs so that we can better understand the impacts of climate change, human influences, natural variability, and the effectiveness of marine reserves. Continued studies will provide managers vital information in their efforts to protect Florida’s valuable reefs through ecosystem-based management and restoration strategies.

We are keeping our fingers crossed for this year and hope that maybe in the future we can even begin to think about what the next generation undersea habitat should look like!

To learn more about Aquarius, or the science being conducted or to follow along on missions via live webcams inside the habitat and outside, check out our website. . Dr. Prager is a well known marine scientist and author of popular science and children’s books. She is currently a freelance writer, consultant, and the chief scientist for Aquarius Reef Base, the world's only undersea research station. She has lived underwater in Aquarius for weeks at a time to conduct research, and frequently writes about her experience on NOAA's Aquarius mission blog.

Image Credit: Bernie Campoli