FIU scientists plan for month-long underwater study off Key Largo

Tight quarters, freeze-dried food and a moon pool are all a part of a Florida International University mission that will take off on Sunday.

The two FIU students participating in Mission 31 are not astronauts voyaging to space. They are aquanauts headed to Aquarius, an underwater laboratory nine miles off Key Largo.

Ocean explorer and filmmaker Fabien Cousteau, grandson of famed undersea adventurer Jacques Cousteau, will lead the eight-member research and educational-outreach expedition that will take place 63 feet underwater.

Mission 31 will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Fabien’s grandfather’s Conshelf Two experiment in the Red Sea, where a team of ocean explorers spent 30 days living underwater. The FIU mission will beat Jacques Cousteau’s mission by one day and be Aquarius’ longest mission ever.

FIU students Andy Shantz and Adam Zenone are traveling with Cousteau on the mission inside the only offshore underwater research lab still in use. The school bus-size lab, next to a deep water coral reef, is equipped with a microwave oven, six bunks, a shower, air conditioning and wireless Internet. It will be Shantz and Zenone’s home for 17 days of the mission.

“Jacques Cousteau did a lot for our understanding of the ocean,” said Zenone, a 24-year-old FIU master’s student. “It’s a real honor to work with his grandson and carry on his message.”

Shantz and Zenone started training for the trip last week. It includes training as if the two are swimming in an underwater cave because swimming to the surface is not an option.

“Our instinct is to normally safely ascend to surface,” said Shantz, a 32-year-old Ph.D. candidate. “Instead, we have to rewire our mentality to handle things underwater.”

To keep from getting too cramped inside, the aquanauts will switch off their time. Two FIU technicians and Costeau will remain aboard Aquarius throughout the month-long mission.

Liz Magee, 29, from Northeastern University also is joining the aquanaut experience.

“I feel very lucky to be a part of it,” Magee said. “I was a last-minute addition. It’s great to get up to speed.”

The Aquarius team hopes to create a human-ocean connection by hosting live chats on their website.

Zenone, originally from Pennsylvania, will participate in live chats with libraries and schools.

Students can follow Mission 31 scientists on Twitter and on their personal blogs.

Some of the mission topics will focus on climate change’s impact on the ocean well as ocean pollution and acidification.

During his time underwater, Shantz will research coral reef health and physiology, specifically the loss of large predators caused by overfishing and the impact it has on coral reefs.

“I think the outreach, and sharing the research and findings, is really important,” Shantz said. “It’s something a lot of people in academia overlook.”

Aquanauts will spend much of their time out of the lab conducting research on the coral reef.

Shantz, who has visited Aquarius once before, said he might have cabin fever by the end of his stint.

His mother has mixed emotions about the Aquarius experience.

“She’s already nervous and not happy that I’m going back down again,” he said.

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