There's some sad news in ocean research. The last underwater research laboratory, Aquarius Reef Base, located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, is about to be shut down unless new funding is found.
To celebrate its limited time, Dr. Sylvia Earle is leading a team of researchers in a last expedition, along with One World One Ocean and MacGillivray Freeman Films which will record their time there. The team arrived earlier this week and is already rolling out some amazing footage (so stay tuned for more posts!). We get to see what it's like to live 60 feet under water, right next to a living coral reef, and conduct scientific research while watching the fish swim by.
"Known as “America’s Inner Space Station,” Aquarius has supported 114 missions since 1993 and is the scene of a number of critical scientific discoveries. From understanding the disappearance of coral reefs, to providing research on sea sponges, the source of multiple cancer drugs, to training NASA astronauts for space, Aquarius is one of the planet’s most important brain trusts," states One World One Ocean.
It's amazing, and deflating, to think that this important research station is shutting down due to lack of funding. Wouldn't the world's oceans -- the source of rain and weather patterns that keep life on Earth functioning, the source of oxygen and a primary carbon storage system, the source of food for billions of people -- be a priority for funding? Sadly, it isn't.
“We know more about the moon than we do about our ocean, which sustains all life on this planet,” said Dr. Sylvia Earle, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and One World One Ocean science advisor who led the first all-women team to the Tektite undersea habitat in 1970. “Only by making undersea exploration and research an international priority can we learn what we need to know about the ocean to protect it and protect ourselves.”
So why is an underwater lab so important? Why is it so deserving of funding? Because only about 5% of the world's oceans have been explored and scientists estimate that the amount of research done in six months using conventional 1 to 2-hour dives from a boat can be accomplished in just 10 days of research using Aquarius. That's a big deal!
As Brian Lam, who is with the expedition this week, states beautifully:
NOAA is cutting programs largely because of rising costs of weather satellites which are critically important to millions, especially after Katrina. But these satellites cost over $800m and Aquarius and HURL's subs cost $5m total per year, to run. Some public schools cost more than this to run. ...
... A lot has been made of the advance of ROVs in the last few years, which are cheaper and more capable than ever. Robot arms can be strong and articulate at the same time. Cameras can see in darker places than our own eyes can. But robots lack the imagination and creativity and intuition that human observers in a habitat or Aquarius can use to create the theories that the data is used to test; they lack the ability to intuit theories which are then backed up by data.
I'm not saying we don't need ROVs. I love ROVs. But asking us to explore the sea without being there is like expecting to explore Everest with a telescope.
Check out what it was like to move in to Aquarius, and see what the undersea lab looks like from the inside: