Outside Aquarius Reef Base, Conch Reef, Key Largo

Outside Aquarius Reef Base, Conch Reef, Key Largo

This article is the second part (2 of 2) of a previously published article about an underwater adventure to the world’s only underwater marine laboratory, Aquarius Reef Base.  Join me in this adventure and the obtainment of my AAUS Scientific Dive Certification, below.  Also, if you missed it, check out part 1 of 2 here.

Visiting Aquarius Reef Base: Inside and Out

From the surface of Conch Reef in the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary you can faintly make out the outline of Florida International University’s Aquarius Reef Base that is submerged 20 meters below the ocean’s surface.  Like a sunken ship, it awaits there looming in the blue; its presence both eerie and intriguing. We were under strict orders: descend down the mooring line and head straight to the top of Aquarius Reef Base. Fish of all sizes danced around Aquarius; in and out of every crevice and protrusion from the structure, guarded by damselfish, fire coral, and a mask of invasive orange cup coral that is being seen for the first time on the reef base. Two giant eagle rays soared past like sentient beings and for a moment it felt like an euphoric dream.

One of the two eagle rays that we saw swimming around the habitat.

One of the two eagle rays that we saw swimming around the habitat.

Yellow sting ray

Yellow sting ray

We gathered our bearings and headed 240 degrees horizontal from the top of Aquarius to perform our first surveys at Conch Reef. Conch Reef is a fore-reef, which reaches depths of 5-20 meters and can drop off at abrupt gradients. Wave energy is low and corals remain protected; it is here where you can find some of the most diverse and largest coral heads, though coral species richness will decrease with depth [a].

In this area, we performed five benthic reef surveys from five compass directions along designated transect lines. In the marine field, these sampling methods and techniques are terms you will become familiar with as you study and work in the field, and scientific diving allows you to perfect those skills with lots of practice. All those times you put off using a compass, or followed in the direction of others, instead–those days should be long gone. Being able to navigate by compass is survival 101. It’s imperative that you learn, especially as a diver because even the best can become disoriented underwater. Another useful technique is to know how many fin kicks it takes for you to travel 1 meter. You never know when you may be without a transect tape, or need to count your fin kicks (and use your compass) to get back to the boat in low visibility.

Sean collecting data while performing reef surveys.

Sean collecting data while performing reef surveys.

Brittany performing quadrat surveys.

Brittany performing quadrat surveys.

Diagram of Conch Reef Sanctuary Preservation Area.  Photo source: floridagofishing.com

Diagram of Conch Reef Sanctuary Preservation Area. Photo source: floridagofishing.com

While mastering our compass skills and performing benthic surveys, I was amazed by the numbers of healthy coral species I encountered.  The area that Aquarius is located is the Conch Reef Sanctuary Preservation Area/Research Only Area (SPA/RO), and is designated for the conservation and management of the marine environment.  This area is considered a marine reserve (MR), or no-take reserve that disallows the take of any organisms or disruption to the ecosystem, and focuses on the conservation of biological diversity and fisheries management [b].  These reserves have been mostly successful with protecting life histories of fish species that will develop and mature into healthy and sustainable populations for consumption and ecosystem support.  The effectiveness of the SPA/RO was evident here, and I felt comforted in knowing there was still healthy reef patches that could be appreciated and observed without detriment.

Kelly showing her scuba spirit...

Kelly showing her scuba spirit…

... and Virginia, too!

… and Virginia, too!

We visited other reefs during our stay in Key Largo, like Alligator, Hen and Chickens, Molasses, and Little Conch Reef.  Each day was something new, starting out slow with open water skills check-out in some pretty poor visibility at Hen and Chickens.  That’s a surefire way to jump right into finding your comfort zone, as you remove and retrieve your regulator, signal to your buddy that you’re out of air, and rescue ascend to the surface.  By day two, we jumped right in to full-fledged dive rescues and the seriousness of paying attention to all occurrences in and out of the water at all times.  Working under the water and on a boat takes vigilance.  Conditions could be different on any given day, hour, or minute and it is up to you and your dive leader to determine what the best approach might be for the task.  We’re taught to “plan your dive and dive your plan,” and if something doesn’t feel right, then to call off the dive.  Better to be safe than sorry, then to take the risk and increase your chances of having to perform a real rescue.  Nonetheless, being prepared is the best choice you can make for yourself and those around you.

Live boating and waiting for the signal to dive.  From left to right: Arianna, Sean, and Me

Live boating and waiting for the signal to dive. From left to right: Arianna, Sean, and Me

Rescue drills, as the team administers CPR.

Rescue drills, as the team administers CPR.

Getting our gear stowed away before departure. From left to right: Mike, Sarah, Brittany, Me, Chema

Getting our gear stowed away before departure. From left to right: Mike, Sarah, Brittany, Me, Chema

Dive planning

Dive planning

Kelly collecting data while performing surveys.

Kelly collecting data while performing surveys.

Bijjan masters the back roll.

Bijjan masters the back roll.

Ocean Exploration

The sky and water was brilliant for most of the week, but word caught on that rough weather was coming our way.  We were scheduled to dive down to the Aquarius Reef Base again, and venture inside of the base on our last day of training.  The thought of potentially missing our chance to visit inside Aquarius due to rough seas was gut-wrenching.  Some of my fellow scientific divers in training had dreamed about visiting Aquarius since it was first deployed in 1993.  Exploring the deep ocean or living underwater was something we had associated with our marine biology heroes: Jacques Cousteau, Sylvia Earle, Rachel Carson, and others.  These great explorers were the inspiration behind why we were in our field.

Wednesday morning we awoke from our usual corners of the Medina Aquarius Program Headquarters.  At 7:15 am we were deflating our air mattresses, folding blankets, and clearing the common space for the day’s comings.  By now, we’d all developed a morning routine for preparing breakfast, packing lunch, and gathering our gear before our 8 am briefing in the training room.  Our dive safety officer entered the room to talk about the day’s mission and any workarounds involving the chop on the water.  He revealed that by Friday the weather is supposed to be pretty bad, and he’s discussed it with the team… they’ve decided that today, we’re going in.

The excitement was high and we were all so pumped! Loading the boat took us no time at all, as we’d already filled the tanks the night before and secured everything onto the boat.  Aquarius Reef Base is located about 5 miles from the coast, so it takes a little bit of time to get there.  On the ride out we talked about the conditions of the water and the current that could take hold before you knew it.  We were to jump in “ready,” make an immediate descent and follow our dive leader straight down to the wet porch, or “moon pool.” It felt a little like we were preparing for a reconnaissance mission.

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Entry into Aquarius was so far out.  After descending 15 meters and reaching the moon pool, you pop your head up at depth and find yourself in 1 meter of water.  Here, you hang up your gear and make your way up the stairs to the shower room where you thoroughly wash off all of the saltwater before entering the 3 x 13 meter steel cylinder, known as Aquarius [c].  We had 30 minutes to make our rounds, ask questions, and take photos.  There was a working telephone and WiFi, so some checked into social media, while others called their significant others.  Reef fish swam spontaneously past the portholes, and the two giant eagle rays seen days prior could be spotted soaring silently through the ocean blue.

Inside were system panels for pressure and temperature control, six sleeping bunks stacked 3-and-3, and a small area to prepare food, which appeared to mostly be the same dehydrated meals I had taken with me on camping trips.  I overheard someone call it “astronaut food,” and I was immediately taken back to the 80s, eating my neapolitan astronaut ice cream and watching the first liftoff of Discovery after the fatal Challenger incident.  It was at this moment that I saw the signature of Buzz Aldrin on the wall of Aquarius and felt my life come full circle–this is the kind of stuff kids’ dreams are made of.

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After our departure from Aquarius, we geared up and exited the wet porch back into the ocean depth at 15 meters. We followed each other, single file and swam in a slow spiraling circle around Aquarius as we ascended towards the mooring line. We ascended in awe at the experience of being in the same place as some of our greatest explorers. Only a few hundred people have been inside Aquarius and almost all of them were on missions.

From left to right: Sarah, Brittany, Alec, and Virginia

From left to right: Sarah, Brittany, Alec, and Virginia

From left to right: Me, Ariana, Sean, and Chema

From left to right: Me, Ariana, Sean, and Chema

The rest of our scientific dive training with FIU felt empowering, and receiving our certifications at the end of the week was even more meaningful than any of us could have ever imagined.  The time we shared with each other is something we’ll never forget, and the experience we’ll take away from this training will stay with us forever.  Visiting Aquarius could, by far be the coolest thing we’ll ever do, but something tells me, we’ve only scratched the surface.

Special Thanks

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I’d like to give a special thanks to all of my fellow scientific divers:  Alec Colosi, Ariana Marco, Bijjan Shirvani, Brittany Nguyen, Jose “Chema” Eirin-Lopez, Kelly Heber Dunning, Sara Wilson, Sean Campbell, and Virginia Fourqurean for making this a truly remarkable experience.  Thank you for giving me permission to use some of your photos, along with my own.  And a very special thanks to Florida International University’s Medina Aquarius Program for allowing us to use your facilities and experience Aquarius Reef Base like a true aquanaut.  And most importantly, to our Dive Safety Officers and Instructors for taking the time to teach us all that we need to know about being a safe and skillful scientific diver.  Thank you.

Sources

a. “Coral Reefs: Coral Reef Zonation.” 2012. The Encyclopedia of Earth.

b. Movement behavior of fishes: The role of scale and no-take protection in the Conch Reef SPA/RO.  Principal Investigator: Dr. James Lindholm, PIER. 2015. UNCW.

c. “Overview.” FIU Arts and Sciences Aquarius.  School of Environment, Arts and Society.