August 9, 2012
By Katherine Moreno
A trend emerged in the 1960s spawning the construction of over forty sea floor laboratories, or “habitats,” in the U.S. and other countries around the world (Walsh 48). The laboratories, maintaining the same pressure inside as the sea outside, provided a means for marine biologists to conduct lengthy underwater research without having to go through the time-consuming process of decompressing every time they leave the water (Bell). Today, the Aquarius 2000 (called Aquarius prior to 1997) is the only operational sea floor laboratory in the world (Walsh 48).
Constructed in the 1980s and funded by the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA), the Aquarius was originally supposed to be located at the USC Catalina Marine Science Center (CMSC) on Catalina Island. It was planned that the lab would be placed next to the island’s giant kelp forest (Walsh 49). However, USC’s marine science program changed direction, and the NOAA decided to move the underwater lab to the U.S. Virgin Islands (Walsh 49). Following 1989’s Hurricane Hugo, the Aquarius was repaired and then moved to its final home in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, adjacent to the Conch Reef, where it has been used for a variety of purposes, from coral reef research to astronaut training (Allen).
Underwater research laboratories are particularly useful when located near sea-floor features that make good sites for studies that occur over long periods of time and are not disrupted by the comings and goings of researchers, such as the Catalina Island kelp forest and the Conch Reef coral reef. However, the high cost of underwater habitats relative to the cost of conventional methods of working from a research vessel and using SCUBA gear, combined with the fact that sea floor laboratories are fixed in location and limit research opportunities to a specific site, has led to the decline of such facilities (Walsh 49). Even the future of the Aquarius 2000 is now in jeopardy—the Obama administration recently eliminated funding for the facility, which will force it to shut down if its staff is unable to find another way to fund the laboratory’s three million dollar annual budget (Allen).
Marine researchers are currently fighting to prove that the Aquarius 2000 is worth saving. Tom Potts, director of the facility, says divers at the lab get about “ten times the productivity over diving from the surface” (Allen). Sylvia Earle, former chief scientist for the NOAA, says underwater laboratories offer “the gift of time;” researchers get a different perspective when they can observe a fish for hours and hours without having to leave the water (Allen). Mark Patterson, a professor at the College of William and Mary, says the lab allows scientists “to conduct measurements and experiments using delicate instruments, something not possible on a two-hour dive” (Allen).
The loss of the last underwater research habitat would deprive marine researchers of the only existing facility that allows them to conduct long-term underwater studies. Hopefully the Aquarius 2000 will get the funding it needs and we will avoid losing such a unique and valuable resource.
Allen, Greg. “With Funding Gone, Last Undersea Lab Could Surface.” NPR, 17 July 2012. Web. 7 Aug. 2012.
Bell, Peter M. “Underwater lab.” Eos Trans. AGU 64.36 (1983): 537. Web. 7 Aug. 2012
Walsh, Don. “Several firsts and a final farewell.” Sea Power (1998): 41-49. ProQuest. PDF file.
About the author: Katherine Moreno is a senior working toward a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies at USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.