ISLAMORADA -- A year ago, the federally owned Aquarius Reef Base — the world’s only operational underwater research habitat — was on life support, doomed by budget cuts to become scrap metal or a museum piece if some entity did not come to its rescue.
Most of the staff had already been given pink slips. A “for sale” sign was in front of the canal-side facility in Key Largo that housed the land operation. After more than 20 years as its operator, the University of North Carolina-Wilmington declared it was ending its affiliation with the program.
But those who valued the habitat did not give up, including renowned ocean explorer Sylvia Earle, known as “Her Deepness.” She led what looked to be Aquarius’ last mission — its 117th — to celebrate the 50th anniversary of human habitation on the sea floor, but mostly to use her fame and reputation to pump up support to save Aquarius.
While all the gloom and doom was going on in the Keys, up the road in Miami the dean and associate dean of the College and Arts and Sciences at Florida International University were brainstorming on ways for their research institution to take over the operation of the one-of-a-kind habitat next to the coral reef, one of the world’s most special marine environments.
At first, FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg admitted he was “skeptical.” He wanted to make sure there was a sound business plan and safety protocol to take over an aging underwater laboratory that costs a minimum of about $1.2 million a year to operate.
But on Wednesday, in FIU’s new Aquarius land base in the former Lady Cyana Divers shop in Islamorada, Rosenberg gushed about the recent completion of its first saturation mission, NASA’s Sea Test II. The mission had four astronauts from three nations living and working at the 63-foot deep habitat for five days.
“This makes it official,” he told a group of dignitaries and media. “FIU’s Age of Aquarius has begun.”
“But for those of us children of the ’60s and ’70s, this is a different kind of Age of Aquarius,” he continued. “One that ultimately will have a huge impact on students. We’ll provide students with cutting-edge learning opportunities, worlds ahead experience that we promised at FIU.”
Rosenberg said Aquarius will help raise the profile of the university. And Wednesday morning, FIU got a big publicity boost when a live segment about the habitat aired on NBC’s Today.
In November, Fabian Cousteau, the grandson of famed underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau, will undertake a record-breaking 31-day mission at Aquarius.
But to make the habitat work financially for the long term, FIU will seek multiple funding sources, unlike UNC-Wilmington — which relied mainly on funding provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
NOAA owns Aquarius, but it will be up to FIU to come up with the money to operate it, although NOAA kicked in $1.1 million in grant money this past year to get FIU started.
Mike Heithaus, executive director of FIU’s School of Environment, Arts and Society and the associate dean who helped land the Aquarius operation, said it will be crucial for FIU to land outside funding sources.
As an example, he cited FIU’s first mission last month, in which the school-bus sized habitat was used for one day with the pressure inside set to that of the surface so that the divers did not need to go through the long process of decompression (when nitrogen is eliminated from the body) before surfacing.