It reminds me of an iconic image of a NASA mission control center. Except, in this case, the console with the video image and life support information is located in Islamorada at the land- base center for the Medina Aquarius Program.
Roger Garcia, operations director, has the watch. There is an important mission in progress. Ocean explorer and documentary filmmaker Fabien Cousteau, first grandson of famed Jacques Cousteau, and a team of ocean researchers, technicians and cinematographers are conducting a 31-day expedition at the undersea Aquarius Reef Base. The base, located 3.5 miles offshore from Key Largo on Conch Reef, rests in approximately 60 feet of water.
Tom Potts, director of the Aquarius Reef Base, greets me and we walk to the “watch desk” where Potts relieves Garcia for a break.
“I’ll be back for my full shift at 10 p.m.,” Potts says sitting down in front of the monitors.
Behind us written on a “white board” is a list of additional items to be included in the next regular supply run to the underwater base: “hot sauce, cinnamon, aqua-com chargers, package for Adam, phone for Cousteau.”
Garcia returns to the watch desk, and we exit to the dock behind the building. Prominently moored is a rescue craft that carries an emergency decompression chamber, and a complement of crew, divers and medics. Also moored are a resupply vessel and a boat used for different research projects.
The Aquarius program consists of the mission control center, an underwater habitat and a surface life support buoy that houses power generators, air compressors and data connections. The interior of the habitat contains air compressed to an equivalent of approximately 48 feet of sea water. The sea-base has a 400 square feet interior that houses a kitchen, lab and bunks for six divers.
To enter the habitat, a diver goes up through a “moon pool,” takes off his or her gear at a “wet porch” and then takes a fresh water shower before going into the “main lock.”
“Salt water plays havoc on the equipment,” says Potts explaining the need for the shower. The habitat is kept at a toasty 76 degrees Fahrenheit.
Every new scuba diver is taught that there are maximum limits, based on time and depth under water, which must be closely monitored to avoid the “bends,” or decompression sickness. If a diver does not adhere to the limits, he or she must stop at specified depths while ascending to the surface.
These so-called decompression stops help the diver’s body remove excess inert gas through respiration. The time length of these stops is based on mathematical models relating to the absorption of inert gases by the human body at the increased ambient pressures found the deeper a diver goes under the sea.
Aquarius aquanauts use a technique known as saturation diving, meaning their tissues absorb the maximum inert gas for a given depth. They are able to spend days-to-weeks underwater conducting research for nine hours a day at depths up to 95 feet.
“That’s the beauty of Aquarius,” says Potts. “Divers can spend two days or weeks underwater and the decompression time, conducted in a safe warm environment, remains the same-15 hours and 48 minutes.”
Aquarius has endured moves, funding crises and changes in operational management. It was originally planned for deployment on a rail system, which would facilitate bringing it to the surface, near Catalina Island in Southern California,
It spent some time off the island of Saint Croix until Hurricane Hugo devastated the Island in 1989.
Aquarius was retrieved by the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, in 1990 and redeployed to Conch Reef in 1993. The university operated Aquarius for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration until late 2012 when federal funding dried up.
In 2013 Florida International University was awarded a grant to continue stewardship for NOAA. Since then it, developed a business model based on research and education activities supported by government funding, fees and donations.
“Mission 31 with Fabien Cousteau provides us a great start and excellent public awareness for the importance of Aquarius,” says Potts.
Over the years, Aquarius has been the site of marine ecosystem science, coral observation, undersea equipment testing, and training and for NASA and the U.S. Navy.
“Living and working in Aquarius is perhaps the closet thing on earth to actually being in space,” said William L. Todd, a program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
“Facing global climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing and species extinctions, we are at a critical time in history to understand, restore and protect coral reefs. Aquarius is the only facility of its kind. It offers maximum efficiency and access for the study and exploration of a region particularly susceptible to global environment threats,” according to the Aquarius program literature.
As I was leaving Aquarius mission control center, Potts looked at me and said, “Over the eons mankind has been inextricably tied to the sea. We still don’t know over 90 percent of what is under there. Maybe we will discover the cure for a variety of serious diseases.”
Next up for Aquarius are NASA missions in late summer and a U.S. Navy mission in September.
Those of us who call the Florida Keys home are fortunate to have the Medina Aquarius Program in our back yard.
Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 28 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier three years ago where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers.