Ben Neal, a PhD candidate at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, wanted to use the habitat for an underwater photography project in which he compiled images to produce a 3D look at the coral reefs. But he had no funding.
At the same time, a group in Hong Kong was looking to do a documentary at Aquarius on a project that was visual and interesting.
The Hong Kong group footed the bill for Neal’s project in exchange for being allowed to do a documentary about it.
“There were three winners,” Heithaus said. “I see a lot of that in the future of the way we fund science.”
He also sees a lot of public outreach, education and “Teacher in the Sea” programs at Aquarius, which can house six people for missions that can be weeks long.
On Tuesday, Heithaus was inside Aquarius, hooked up by the magic of technology to a class of third-graders in Kansas City. While looking out the port hole, he told them: “We might get to see a shark swim by if we’re lucky.”
The kids shrieked in delight.
“With Aquarius we have the ability to spark curiosity and passion for the sea,” Heithaus said. “We want to inspire not only the next marine biologists, but nurses, doctors, lawyers. We want all people to understand how important the oceans are.”
The possibilities are almost endless. Heithaus envisions students being taught at the habitat and teachers teaching from there. “What better place to teach about the coral reef than at the coral reef?” he said.
One graduate student already is working with a faculty member at FIU on a project called the “ecology of fear.” Heithaus did a similar project in Australia, where he helped determine that tiger sharks helped sea grass thrive by scaring grazers such as sea cows and sea turtles from overeating them.
“At the reefs, we don’t know a lot about how important these big predators are in terms of scaring fish,” he said.
One big reason FIU agreed to take over operations of Aquarius is because it has five key members of Aquarius’ technical and operational braintrust working for them. The group has a combined 80 years of experience working at the challenging and unforgiving, saltwater habitat.
It includes Otto Rutten, a 19-year veteran who is among the technicians and divers that keep the habitat operational. “Yahoo,” was his reaction when he heard that he would still have a job at Aquarius. “We’re so fortunate to be part of something so cool and so big,” he said. “It’s tiring [with all the long hours], but it never gets old.”
Tom Potts, the director of the reef base, has been the with the program since it relocated from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands to Key Largo in 1991.
“I always say you can build another habitat with the right type of money, but getting the right personnel to run it and understand what arena you are operating in is very difficult,” Potts said.
When the chiller (an air conditioner inside a waterproof housing) went out for the recent NASA mission, the crew was able to fix it in 24 hours.
Few people were more happy to see the rescue of Aquarius than Bill Todd, founder of NASA’s NEEMO program — which prepares astronauts for space exploration in the extreme living conditions of the sea. NASA has completed 18 missions at the habitat since 2000.
“It’s pretty much a turn-key operation for us,” Todd said. “We’ve had almost 50 astronauts go through the program. There’s no other place like it.”