Join me this month for a two-part article series on what the Aquarius Reef Base is like, and what it takes to receive your AAUS Scientific Diving Certification. I’ll be visiting Aquarius this week and reporting back for part two of the series on what it was like in the presence of this one of a kind underwater marine laboratory.
This past month, I have been focusing my energy on studying and training for my American Academy of Underwater Services (AAUS) Scientific Diving Certification, and my upcoming visit to Florida International University’s Aquarius Reef Base located in Key Largo, FL (Coordinates: 24.950°N 80.454°W; you can also google “Aquarius Reef Base” for location on Google Maps). From 1993-2013, the Aquarius Reef Base was owned and operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) until funding was lost in 2013. That same year, Florida International University purchased Aquarius, and has been operating the reef base as a fully functional underwater marine laboratory ever since [e].
About the Aquarius Reef Base
Aquarius Reef Base is the world’s only underwater marine laboratory that allows scientists the opportunity to live under the ocean surface for days at a time while performing research in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Located 5.4 miles off the coast of Key Largo and 62 feet below the ocean surface, Aquarius is a one of a kind habitat that allows scientific divers the ability to make saturation dives for up to 9 hours at a time. Once the body is at depth for 24 continuous hours it becomes saturated with dissolved gas. Scientific divers can then remain at depth for the duration of their mission for days or weeks at a time [a]. Aquarius can accommodate up to 6 inhabitants (usually, 4 divers and 2 technicians) that have the unique advantage of observing coral reefs, aquatic plants, fish, and other marine organisms for longer periods of time. Aquarius also houses sophisticated onsite lab equipment and computers that allow scientists and technicians the ability to perform research and process samples without leaving the underwater realm [c].
Most underwater missions range from 1-10 days, but a few longer missions have been in the marine world limelight. In June 2014, Fabian Cousteau spent 31 days at FIU’s Aquarius Reef Base scuba diving and filming for his documentary, Mission 31. Mission 31 was envisioned as a tribute to Cousteau’s grandfather, Jacques Cousteau, who spent 30 days living underwater in Continental Shelf Station Two (a.k.a. Conshelf Two) in the Red Sea in 1963 [b,d].
NASA also plays an important role in utilizing the Aquarius Reef Base for its trainings and simulations. Known as project NEEMO (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations), NASA astronauts, engineers and scientists are sent to Aquarius for up to three weeks at a time. The underwater experience provides the team with a convincing analog for space exploration. “Aquanauts” can simulate living in a spacecraft while staying inside Aquarius, and practice space walk techniques for future space missions [a]. (Check out pictures from NEEMO here)
The mission statement of AAUS is “to facilitate the development of safe and productive scientific divers through education, research, advocacy, and the advancement of standards for scientific diving practices, certifications, and operations.” The AAUS program was designed for marine scientists as a means to perform research under the marine realm through scuba, applying different standards apart from the regulations for commercial and recreational diving. In 1982, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) exempted scientific diving from commercial diving regulations (29 CFR Part 1910, Subpart T), and the final guidelines for the exemption became effective in 1985 (Federal Register, Vol. 50, No. 6, p. 1046). Since then, OSHA has recognized AAUS as the scientific diving standard organization and has made possible the publication of over 600 research papers involving scientific diving research techniques on over 100 missions [e].
The AAUS Scientific Diving Certification course offered at FIU for students and staff is a professional training certification meant to educate marine scientists on proper sampling techniques and procedures, first aid, rescue diving and safety. The course is quite intense, as it is for professional career purposes and emphasizes the seriousness of safety when diving. Aside from the academic studies (Scientific Divers Safety Manual) necessary for the end of term written examination, there are a series of physical tests required in order to move forward with the course. These tests include a 400 meter swim test in under 12 minutes, a 25 meter single breath underwater swim, 25 meter unconscious diver tow, treading water for 15 minutes, as well as an open water safety and skills checkout dive in the 16 foot divewell at FIU. If you’re planning on taking an AAUS course, I recommend practicing your timed swim and underwater breath-hold as frequent and as far in advance as possible. You must also posses your open water diving certification from an acclaimed institution (SSI, PADI, NAUI, etc.). Once you’ve successful passed your swim tests and written examination, it’s on to the Aquarius Reef Base for five days of hands-on training. You will not be staying in the base, but taking a boat out each day to dive around the structure, and on the last day everyone has the opportunity to enter inside and see exactly what it’s like living in underwater quarters. I hear there is a mini fridge!
Join me for part two of this series to take you through my AAUS scientific diving experience with Florida International University, and the exploration of the Aquarius Reef Base, inside and out. Stay tuned!
a. “NASA Extreme Environment Operations.” <http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/NEEMO/about_neemo.html#.VXJOj89Viko>. 1 April 2011.
b. “About Mission 31.” Fabian Cousteau. < http://mission-31.com/about-mission-31/>.
c. “Aquarius (laboratory).” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aquarius_%28laboratory%29>.
d. “Conshelf Experiments.” Cousteau. <http://www.cousteau.org/technology/conshelf-i-ii-iii/>.
e. Adkins, JoAnn. “Saving Aquarius.” 23 Apr 2014. <http://news.fiu.edu/2014/04/saving-aquarius-reef-base-the-worlds-only-underwater-ocean-laboratory/76146>.