environment

Educators aim to set record in Key Largo for longest stint in an underwater habitat

 

cclark@MiamiHerald.com

On July 14, 1992, aquanaut Richard Presley surfaced from a lagoon in Key Largo, ecstatic to see “the colors, the sun and all these palm trees” after 69 days and 19 minutes of living in the sea.

It was a world record.

There was hope the effort would spark renewed interest in underwater habitats, which exploded onto the world scene in the 1960s and ’70s with more than 60 located in 17 countries but died off in the 1980s for lack of funding.

That didn’t happen, and for the past 22 years, no one attempted to break Presley’s record. Until now.

Two educators from a college in landlocked Tennessee — one a 62-year-old Vietnam veteran turned biology professor and the other a 24-year-old adjunct professor — plan to take the plunge Oct. 4 in the same Emerald Lagoon where Presley made history.

If all goes according to plan, Bruce Cantrell and Jessica Fain of Roane State Community College will re-emerge 72 days later from the 600-square-foot underwater habitat —which also serves as the Jules Undersea Lodge — with a new record.

More importantly, they hope to surface with the successful completion of their primary mission: to engage young people in marine biology and underwater exploration.

“We’re not conducting experiments; we’re not trying to discover any new species,” Cantrell said. “Our main goal is to be able to broadcast under the water to show kids what it is like and to get them excited that this science is real.”

From the habitat, Cantrell will teach an online biology class to his students back at Roane State. And the duo will host a once-a-week live broadcast, available free online, on ocean topics. The feat should be easy considering that in 1995, ocean pioneers Scott Carpenter and Ian Koblick spoke from the habitat to astronaut Mike Gernhardt, who was aboard the space shuttle Endeavour.

The programs will feature experts and celebrity guests, including astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second person to walk on the moon.

“Buzz will talk about Mars and how we can learn more about exploring Mars by being in the weightlessness of the ocean,” said Koblick, who owns the habitat and is founder of the Marine Resources Development Foundation, a partner in the project.

“We are not doing this just to set a world record, which would just be a publicity stunt,” Koblick said. “I want to do this to get a message out about the status of our oceans. That’s why our program title is: ‘Our Seas – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.’ 

Other program topics will include underwater archaeology, the Caribbean’s lionfish invasion, the effects of climate change on the oceans and the success of coral restoration.

Koblick, of Key Largo, wrote the book Living and Working in the Sea. In 1969, he worked on the Tektite I mission, in which four U.S. Department of Interior scientists set what was then the saturated diving record of nearly 60 days in a federally funded underwater habitat in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Koblick also has lived under the sea several times; his longest stint was three weeks in Tektite in 1970. That was followed a few years later by a couple of two-week stints in La Chalupa Research Laboratory, which he developed and operated in more than 100 feet of water off the coast of Puerto Rico until funding ran out in 1976.

La Chalupa is now Jules Undersea Lodge. Koblick said he didn’t know what had happened to the lab until he saw a movie that showed it virtually abandoned in Miami. He rescued it, placing it in the lagoon just offshore in only 21 feet of water. Hours-long decompression stops are not required to surface from that depth.

For their world record attempt, the Tennessee professors will have plenty of surface support from volunteers, who will buy their food, do their laundry and take out their garbage.

They know what they’re getting into. Cantrell has spent nearly 200 hours in the habitat, 24 hours at a time, for educational programs with the Marine Resources Development Foundation. He started coming to the marine facility 12 years ago for a teachers’ workshop. He later brought students. Fain has been coming to the facility for three years and has spent 80 hours in the habitat.

While it’s 600 square feet, nearly half of it is a wet room where SCUBA gear is put on and taken off. There’s only 320 square feet of living space, divided into two bedrooms and a common area.

“It is surreal living there, like you are in a fishbowl,” Fain said. “You’ve got fish swimming by the window looking at you.”

She said the mental part of spending nearly 10 weeks in close quarters without sunshine will be as difficult as the physical part. “It will not be a cakewalk,” she said. “We know we will get on each other’s nerves.”

They will spend most of their time working on their weekly programs and the online class. They also will dive the lagoon, not to conduct science but to clean it.

“We’ll be scrubbing the outside of the habitat, cleaning the windows and using a vacuum system to suck the algae out of the lagoon,” Fain said.

Cantrell is a longtime member of the Cousteau Society, whose mission is to protect and explore the ocean world. In 1985, he attended Cousteau’s 75th birthday party in Virginia.

Coincidentally, Fabian Cousteau, a grandson of the famed ocean explorer, is planning a 31-day saturation mission in the world’s only offshore underwater habitat that is still functioning — Aquarius, also in Key Largo. It originally was scheduled for September and October of 2013, but was moved to November to avoid hurricane season, said Cousteau spokeswoman Amy Summers.

In November, Cousteau’s complex mission was delayed again until the early spring, “due in part to science and film permits that were held up during the government shutdown," according to a Mission 31 press release.

In February, it was announced that mobile communications giant Nokia had become the lead sponsor of the mission, projected to cost about $1.8 million. The mission will not splash down this spring, delayed this time due to problems scheduling Aquarius, but a new date will be announced soon, Summers said.

Koblick’s mission has a much lower budget. He’s looking for national sponsors to cover the estimated $250,000 cost of his mission. He’s got one in mind that he thinks would be a great fit: Papa John’s Pizza. After all, he said, “They already deliver to the habitat.”

This story was updated March 19, 2014.

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