Not long ago, the general consensus was that our planet was flat. Sailing to the horizon would bring certain doom to unwary sailors who feared falling off its edge into oblivion. Lucky for us, some brave adventurers tested pioneering scientific theories of the day and risked their lives to challenge this notion: They sailed to the edge and beyond. It is this spirit of exploration and pushing our boundaries of knowledge that allows us to learn about this “oasis in space” and how we fit within its web of life.
Outer space has always fascinated people. Maybe it’s the mystery of the unknown, or perhaps it’s the possibility that we are not the only planet with life. Whatever the case, our curiosity affords us the luxury of accumulating valuable knowledge. This same curiosity is what drove my grandfather, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, to explore our inner space and pioneer the first undersea habitats exactly 50 years ago. Starting with Conshelf 1 (and later Conshelf 2 and Conshelf 3), he and his team of ocean explorers spent up to three weeks down under and working at depths of over 400 feet. The purpose was to see if humans could live underwater, and to perform scientific studies impossible by any other means. Since 1962, there have been a dozen or so of these marine research labs.
Today, residing 60 feet beneath the surface and eight miles off the shore of Key Largo, the Aquarius is now the only undersea marine lab in the world. I had the opportunity to dive with and visit Dr. Sylvia Earle and her team of aquanauts on what might be Aquarius’s last mission. Sylvia and I had a chance to chat on board the lab about the fate of the oceans and importance of a sea base such as Aquarius. You can see that conversation here:
Its value as an inner space station comes from not only its tenure but also the valuable research lying ahead of it for a decade or more to come. Unfortunately this unique habitat is the latest victim of government budget cuts. As a third generation ocean explorer, it is more than a little puzzling to me because not only is Aquarius a national treasure, but also because its annual budget represents less than one tenth of one percent of what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spends annually. Is that really how little we value the ocean?
Looking at the panorama of modern ocean exploration over the last century we realize that less than 5% of the aquatic world has been revealed. As we continue to dive deeper and longer, we make new and important discoveries. Scientists are finding that the human impact on the ocean world is much more profound than originally thought. The future of ocean exploration is quintessential not only to capture our curiosity but also so that we can better understand the global challenges we face today such as pollution, resource depletion, and climate change repercussions. Only with the continued push for knowledge and with the help of advanced technology such as submersibles, aquatic gliders, ROVs, advanced dive gear and cameras, live uplinks, and especially underwater habitats can we stay down long enough to explore the pulse of our water planet so we can better understand that without healthy oceans there is no such thing as a healthy future.