In 2007, I had the privilege to provide medical support for an undersea research mission at the only permanent underwater habitat in the U.S. Located about 9 miles off Key Largo, FL, the Aquarius Reef Base is run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) and provides a unique home from which researchers can do extended surveillance and observations of the nearby Conch Reef.
This was an absolute highlight of my Navy career. For about a week, I partnered with the Aquarius staff and the team of researchers who would carry out the mission. In addition to my normal duties, I got to splash down with the rest of the team, carry supplies back and forth from the habitat, and help with maintenance dives. The diving conditions were phenomenal and, as a wannabe research scientist, I had a great time working with the research team and learning about the sponges they were studying.
The reason they chose Aquarius, is because it enables them to dive longer and collect much more data than is possible when diving off a boat or from the beach. Most people know that diving deep for a long time a can require a slow return to the surface, called decompression, in order to avoid the “bends” (decompression sickness). The longer you stay down, the longer and more technically difficult the decompression will be.
In Aquarius, divers stay underwater in a dry environment long enough to become “saturated”. Their bodies have absorbed as much nitrogen (the gas that causes decompression sickness) as they can at that depth. At this point, the amount of time it takes to decompress stays the same whether you do a 10 minute dive or a two-hour dive, and whether you stay in the habitat two days or ten days. This has great benefits for research, since you effectively have no limits on how long you can stay out to get your data collected. You have one long decompression at the end of your mission, but until then you can dive almost as long as you need to.
So why the travelogue? NOAA has announced their intention to cancel funding for the National Undersea Research Program (NURP) which provides funding for Aquarius. Like with NASA, this is the latest in a series of shortsighted government decisions to make miniscule savings in the national budget, while sacrificing unique institutions that are centers of knowledge creation.
Ben Hellwart has written a very good article describing the circumstances surrounding this sad day for American innovation, exploration, and research. You can read about it here. The homepage for Aquarius also has tons of information about the habitat’s history, past missions, current activities, technical specification, videos, webcams, etc.
There is a mission going on right now (July 14-21) that you can follow on Twitter (@reefbase) and via a live webcam.
According to Ben’s article, NOAA is trying to buy time for the Aquarius staff to transition to private sector jobs. Makes me wonder if Aquarius itself might be saved by such a transition. The problem with that is that Florida already has a couple of underwater hotels. Trading off our only undersea research habitat for another hotel doesn’t seem like a good trade.