Aquanauts Are Losing Their Only Underwater Lab

Stories from New Scientist.
Aug. 5 2012 7:00 AM

The End of the Age of Aquarius

The world’s only undersea lab may be sunk.

Aquarius Reef Base is an underwater research laboratory located within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Aquarius Reef Base is an underwater research laboratory within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Photo by NOAA.

Aquanaut  Sylvia Earle is a marine biologist and deep-sea explorer who heads Mission Blue, a worldwide alliance for ocean protection. Last week, she co-led the last scheduled mission to the Aquarius Reef Base off Key Largo, Fla., the world's only undersea lab. She says the oceans need protecting more than ever—don't pull funding.

Jon White: As we speak, you are 18 meters underwater in the Aquarius Reef Base off Key Largo in Florida. Why are you there?
Sylvia Earle: It's 50 years since underwater habitats for people were first pioneered by Jacques Cousteau, so part of the purpose is to celebrate the past, while also conducting what may be the last experiments on the corals and sponges around Aquarius. It's also about looking to the future: How we can inspire people about why the oceans matter.

JW: What do you think of the decision [by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] to pull the funding for Aquarius?
SE: There's no substitute for the human presence, whether it's astronauts in the sky or people living underwater as aquanauts. It's just a foolish loss of capability, when we need all the help we can muster to understand the ocean and get measures to protect it. It's a trend—who needs the ocean, it seems to say.

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JW: Do you think that autonomous submarines are sidelining the likes of Aquarius?
SE: My perspective, after thousands of hours of using both remotely operated systems and by being here at Aquarius, is that you need both.

JW: You've long been a vocal campaigner for the oceans. Are you optimistic for their future?
SE: You could say, in despair, that half the coral reefs are gone. Or you could say, we still have half the coral reefs, there's still a great chance but not a lot of time. The next 10 years could be the most important. This is the sweet spot in history. Never before could we know what we now know and never again will we have the chance that is now available to us.

JW: How do you increase public support for ocean research?
SE: It's all about knowing. People can't care if they don't know. Even here in Key Largo, people are blissfully unaware that this world-class facility exists in their backyard. The space program has a voice, and people can more readily see what goes up in the sky. When a submarine sinks into the water or when divers go below the surface, they disappear.

JW: Does any moment stand out from your many trips to seabed bases?
SE: The first time that I lived underwater, in 1970, I didn't fully appreciate that every fish, every shrimp, every lobster is different. Fish have personalities: Some are more reserved, some are just so curious. You get to know them, get to know their faces.

JW: On this mission, you want to film fish called goliath groupers making their bizarre booming noise. Tell me about that.
SE: These groupers have this trick of expanding their mouth and creating an airspace that water collapses into. It's like a shockwave. If you're next to a grouper when it does this woomph thing, you can hear it but you can also feel it. There's a famous grouper at the Steinhart Aquarium in California that broke the glass in its tank doing this.

This article originally appeared in New Scientist.