World's last underwater-habitat lab may fall to NOAA budget cut
Once there were as many as 60 underwater habitats around the globe. But excitement for such research habitats dwindled as the money dried up. Today, there is just one operating — Aquarius, off Key Largo — and NOAA plans to kill it.
The Miami Herald
KEY LARGO, Fla. — In 1962, seven years before astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, Albert Falco and Claude Wesly captured the world's imagination by becoming the first humans to live under the sea in a strange steel cylinder developed by Jacques Cousteau.
Conshelf I, heralded as the world's first underwater habitat, was basically a big yellow oil drum with a hole in the bottom — but it had the comforts of home with a TV, radio, library and bed. For one week, Falco and Wesly lived and worked at 33 feet under the sea off the coast of Marseilles, France.
The mysterious deep-blue oceans became more exciting and more inviting, beginning a new era of exploration and research. Soon, more than 60 underwater habitats from 17 countries would take the plunge, including the U.S. Navy's SEALAB, the General Electric-developed Tektite, the U.S. government's Hydrolab and La Chalupa Research Laboratory — developed by ocean explorer and entrepreneur Ian Koblick, who lives in Key Largo.
But over the decades, the excitement for offshore underwater-research habitats died down as the money dried up. Today, there is just one operating in the world: Aquarius, anchored for the past 20 years in waters 3 ½ miles off Key Largo.
By the end of this year, there could be none.
"It's a bit disheartening that Aquarius could go away — the last underwater habitat," said Craig Cooper, who retired two years ago after 19 years as Aquarius' operations director. "When I was young, I thought we'd all be living down in the sea in condos. But I found out the ocean is a tougher place than it looks to be from the surface."
Death by NOAA budget
In its proposed $5 billion 2013 budget, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which owns Aquarius, has called for termination of the one-of-a-kind reef-base program despite its minimal operating cost of $1.2 million to $3 million.
"That amount is what people at the Pentagon call decimal dust — a number way too small it's past the decimal point in the budget," said Mark Patterson, professor of marine science at the College of William and Mary. "For that little amount, it could be the end of an era.
"But we all hope not," he added. "Aquarius is too valuable to lose."
Leading the battle in Washington, D.C., is U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, who represents the Keys and has made four dives to Aquarius. She and fellow Florida House Republicans Mario Diaz-Balart and David Rivera took a boat ride out to Aquarius in mid-July, applauding the aquanauts when they finished their long decompression after a week of living in the sea.
"There is no other underwater facility like it," Ros-Lehtinen said in a phone call from Washington. "It deserves our support."
The three Congress members met this month in Washington with NOAA's head, Jane Lubchenco, to urge her to divert $2 million to fund Aquarius for next year.
Lubchenco said in a statement that the Aquarius program has been a "vital part" of ocean research, "but unfortunately our budget environment is very, very challenging and we are unable to do all that we would like."
Valuable training spot
Renowned ocean explorer and former NOAA chief scientist Sylvia Earle, known as "Her Deepness," called the decision to end the underwater-research program "stupid."
Aquarius has served scientists, researchers, underwater filmmakers and Navy divers. Forty NASA astronauts also have trained in the habitat before going to space.
The yellow, 81-ton pressurized tube has six bunks, a bathroom, galley (kitchen), science station, state-of-the-art communications and "wet porch," from which aquanauts can enter and exit.
The habitat's best asset is its ability to give aquanauts the "gift of time." They can work for long hours in the ocean without worrying about having to surface for air. The habitat also provides an "alien atmosphere" that simulates a space station and the zero gravity of asteroids.
Last month, Earle and Patterson led Aquarius' 117th — and possibly last — mission. For seven days, six aquanauts lived and worked at 60 feet below the surface at thriving Conch Reef. They conducted three science projects, while celebrating the 50th anniversary of human habitation on the seafloor.
But the mission primarily was a public-relations crusade to save Aquarius from being mothballed.
Underwater filmmaker DJ Roller, one of the aquanauts, provided free streamed footage of the mission. Nearly 250,000 people watched.
"We made a cool discovery," Patterson said. The aquanauts learned that Goliath groupers disable their prey by blasting them with sound created by cavitation bubbles, which are caused by extreme pressure drops in their mouths.
"When the bubble collapses it makes an incredible shock wave," Patterson said. "You hear a low base click and hear a thump going through your chest like somebody punched you in the gut."
Patterson said this discovery likely will become published after peer review. More than 300 scientific papers stemming from work at Aquarius already have been published in major science journals.
He said there is so much more to learn, including potential medical breakthroughs. "Locked away in the body of sponges could be the complex compounds that have the cure for cancer," he said.
Thomas Potts, director of the Aquarius Reef Base Program, said now is not the time to end this last-of-its kind program.
"We should be triple or quadrupling what we are doing," he said. "We're just starting to touch the surface of learning about ocean acidification and global climate change on the reefs. We finally have the technology that allows us to develop sensors to take a good look in the water column and see what's happening at the bottom."
Cooper, Aquarius' former operations director, blames himself for not doing enough to publicize their numerous accomplishments on a lean budget. "Not being part of the Beltway three-piece suiters, I felt the best way to survive was stay as invisible as possible," he said. "Maybe that hurt us."
But the ocean has always played second fiddle to the atmosphere and space in attention and funding. Ben Hellwarth, who wrote the new book "SEALAB: America's Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor," said if Aquarius' possible last mission had been the United States' possible last trip to the space station or orbit, "We'd be hearing a lot more about it. Maybe the sea is seen as a dark and spooky place and the heavens up there are good and celestial and sparkling."