The Aquarius Reef Base, an underwater ocean laboratory in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, is a home away from home for certain lucky scientists, who get to spend days at a time on missions while living at the lab.
The Reef Base is three and a half miles miles offshore, 60 feet underwater, and has been the site of many accomplishments in its 22-year history: researching sea sponges (don’t laugh, they’re a source of cancer drugs), discovering a disease pathogen that obliterated large hard corals in the Florida Keys, training NASA astronauts for their journeys into space, and more. And now, unless new funding is found, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) will shut it down.
Sylvia Earle (a legendary 76-year-old oceanographer and National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence) and a team of aquanauts embarked this week on a six-day expedition down to Aquarius Reef Base—a cylindrical steel chamber that’s 43 feet long and nine feet in diameter—in what may be the last journey to the underwater lab. The journey is a celebration of 50 years of humans living beneath the sea.
"It’s always been a bit of a struggle," Earle tells us in a call from the Internet, video, and cell-phone equipped Reef Base. "I was chief scientist of NOAA in the early 1990s. It was a time even then when it was hard to convince the powers that be that it was a worthy expenditure of hard-won taxpayer resources, but the dividends that have come forth are really important."
This latest expedition, which is Earle’s third time living at the base for an extended period of time, could yield exciting research. Earle first visited the Florida Keys in 1953, when she says the good health of the reef and corals made it "like a different planet." On this trip, she will do some comparative evaluation of sea plants in the area. At the same time, her fellow Reef Base scientists will examine the health of coral and sponges.
"Some people call it the electric reef," explains Earle, because scientists can plug in all sorts of instruments to the Reef Base to do their research. The base allows them to also stay underwater for long periods of time, so they can get exponentially more work done than if they were doing one-to two-hour traditional dives.
Living at Aquarius Reef Base is "like camping underwater," according to Earle. The aquanauts eat, sleep, and shower at the base. The rest of the time, they get to explore what Earle describes as the best swimming pool in the world. The researchers can even communicate with landlubbers during their expeditions—while underwater, they wear special helmets outfitted with clear face plates and face masks (for speaking) that link back via a cable to the base, and then via another cable up to a surface buoy that wirelessly transmits the signal to the world.
When we spoke to Earle, the aquanauts hadn’t been at the base for long. But one of them had already seen something incredible: At 2 a.m., a giant goliath grouper—about the size of two to three people—cruising around the base, snapping up smaller fish attracted to the light. The grouper, which has been hanging around the base "looks like a big pillow with eyes," says Earle. "She comes out like a lioness on the prowl."
Even though Aquarius Reef Base is set to close, Earle has hope that funding will come through. The new Aquarius Foundation, set up to secure funding, should help—though the base can use all the funding it can get. "It’s a worthy investment. The ocean’s in trouble and that means we’re in trouble. This is part of what it will take to give us the answers that we need," she says. "We’re the luckiest ones ever, I think. Not only are we the first ones to know what we know, we may be the last ones to be able to do something."
Want to keep track of the latest Aquarius Reef Base mission? Check out a livestream at One World One Ocean, an organization that aims to inspire people to protect the ocean.