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Key Largo’s Aquarius, last remaining underwater habitat lab, in jeopardy

In 1962, seven years before astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, Albert Falco and Claude Wesly captured the world’s imagination by becoming the first humans to live under the sea in a strange steel cylinder developed by Jacques Cousteau.

Conshelf I, heralded as the world’s first underwater habitat, was basically a big yellow oil drum with a hole in the bottom — but it had the comforts of home with a TV, radio, library and bed. For one week, Falco and Wesly lived and worked 33 feet under the sea off the coast of Marseilles, France.

The mysterious deep blue oceans became more exciting and more inviting, beginning a new era of exploration and research. Soon, more than 60 underwater habitats from 17 countries would take the plunge, including the U.S. Navy’s SEALAB, the General Electric-developed Tektite, the U.S. government’s Hydrolab and La Chalupa Research Laboratory — developed by ocean explorer and entrepreneur Ian Koblick, who lives in Key Largo.

But over the decades, the excitement for offshore underwater research habitats died down as the money dried up. Today, there is just one operating in the world: Aquarius, anchored for the past 20 years in waters 3½ miles off the shore of Key Largo.

By the end of this year, there could be none.

“It’s a bit disheartening that Aquarius could go away — the last underwater habitat,” said Craig Cooper, who retired two years ago after 19 years as Aquarius’ operations director. “When I was young, I thought we’d all be living down in the sea in condos. But I found out the ocean is a tougher place than it looks to be from the surface.”

In its proposed $5 billion 2013 budget, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which owns Aquarius, has called for termination of the one-of-a-kind reef base program despite its minimal operating cost of $1.2 to $3 million.

“That amount is what people at the Pentagon call decimal dust — a number way too small its past the decimal point in the budget,” said Mark Patterson, professor of marine science at the College of William and Mary. “For that little amount, it could be the end of an era.

“But we all hope not,” he added. “Aquarius is too valuable to lose.”

Leading the battle in Washington is U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who represents the Keys and has made four dives to Aquarius. She and fellow Congress members Mario Diaz-Balart and David Rivera took a boat ride out to Aquarius in mid-July, applauding the aquanauts when they finished their long decompression after a week living in the sea.

“There is no other underwater facility like it,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a phone call from Washington. “It deserves our support.”

The three Congress members will meet Wednesday in Washington with NOAA’s head, Jane Lubchenco, to urge her to divert $2 million to fund Aquarius for next year.

Lubchenco, who SCUBA dived a reef in Key Largo two years ago for a pioneering coral reef restoration project, said in a statement that the Aquarius program has been a “vital part” of ocean research, “but unfortunately our budget environment is very, very challenging and we are unable to do all that we would like.”

Renowned ocean explorer and former NOAA chief scientist Sylvia Earle, known as “Her Deepness,” called the decision to end the underwater research program “stupid.”

Aquarius has served scientists, researchers, underwater filmmakers and Navy divers. Forty NASA astronauts also have trained in the habitat before going to space.

The yellow, 81-ton pressurize tube has six bunks, a bathroom, galley, science station, state-of-the-art communications and “wet porch,” from which aquanauts can enter and exit.

The habitat’s best asset is its ability to give aquanauts the “gift of time.” They can work for long hours in the ocean without worrying about having to surface for air. The habitat also provides an “alien atmosphere” that simulates a space station and the zero gravity of asteroids.

Earlier this month, Earle and Patterson led Aquarius’ 117th — and possibly last — mission. For seven days, six aquanauts lived and worked at 60 feet below the surface at thriving Conch Reef. They conducted three science projects, while celebrating the 50th anniversary of human habitation on the sea floor.

But the mission primarily was a public relations crusade to save Aquarius from being mothballed.

Underwater filmmaker DJ Roller, one of the mission’s aquanauts, provided free streamed footage of the mission. Nearly 250,000 people watched.

“We made a cool discovery,” Patterson said. The aquanauts learned that Goliath groupers disable their prey by blasting them with sound created by cavitation bubbles, which are caused by extreme pressure drops in their mouths.

“When the bubble collapses it makes an incredible shockwave,” Patterson said. “You hear a low base click and hear a thump going through your chest like somebody punched you in the gut.”

Patterson said this discovery likely will become published after peer review. More than 300 scientific papers stemming from work at Aquarius already have been published in major science journals. He said there is so much more to learn, including potential medical breakthroughs. “Locked away in the body of sponges could be the complex compounds that have the cure for cancer,” he said.

Thomas Potts, director of the Aquarius Reef Base Program, said now is not the time to end this last-of-its kind program.

“We should be triple or quadrupling what we are doing,” he said. “We’re just starting to touch the surface of learning about ocean acidification and global climate change on the reefs. We finally have the technology that allows us to develop censors to take a good look in the water column and see what’s happening at the bottom.”

Potts works for the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, which has been operating the program for years with grant money from NOAA. The university will end its affiliation Dec. 31, when the current budget ends. There already is a for sale sign outside the rented house in Key Largo that the program has been using as its land headquarters. Its staff of 17 has been reduced to about five.

Aquarius has faced dire times before. Its original home was in the U.S. Virgin Islands, until Hurricane Hugo destroyed St. Croix in 1989. That led to relocation in Key Largo. During two budget years the program received “zero funding” but got a reprieve. This time, however, was the first time the budget called for the program’s “termination.”

Aquarius employees say they were blindsided with the news in February. Since then, with seed money from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, the nonprofit Aquarius Foundation was formed to try to raise private money to keep the program afloat.

Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., who headed NOAA under George W. Bush’s administration, said he understands Lubchenco’s mandate to fund “high-ticket items” that include climate research and satellites for severe weather forecasting.

“But I really believe it’s a mistake to shut it down,” he said. “It is an important national asset. We’re an island nation, and we depend on the ocean. We need to stay connected to the ocean and understand and learn about it.”

The ocean also has been invaluable about learning about space. Since 2001, Bill Todd has directed 16 NEEMO (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Projects) at Aquarius.

“If this goes away, we do not have another place to turn,” Todd said. “Our ability to do engineering and training is going to be degraded. Can we still go to an asteroid and still train astronauts? Of course. But it’s going to be way more costly.

“I guarantee you in less than five years, people will be kicking themselves saying: ‘What in the hell were we thinking. Why did we get rid of this unbelievable national and global resource that benefits so many for so little?’ ”

Aquarius is not a program without flaws. Many past and current employees of Aquarius say in recent years it suffered from a lack of high-level support from both NOAA and UNC-Wilmington.

“A lack of support was why I left,” said Ellen Prager, Aquarius’ former chief scientist. “You can’t push a program forward and look to the future, while fighting with the organization that is supposed to be running it.”

Aquarius employees say they also were restrained by overzealous safety regulations and fear of litigation, which became worse after the 2009 death of a 36-year-old technical diver while working on a Navy project. The cause of death was a rare malfunction of a rebreather, which scrubs carbon dioxide from exhaled air and recirculates it so air tanks will last longer.

“We had so many ridiculous rules we could barely operate,” said Dominic Landucci, Aquarius’ communications guru, who was laid off this month after nearly 10 years.

Prager and Koblick said they would like to see the development of the next generation of underwater habitats. While NOAA is relying more on remote cameras, remote operating vehicles and censors to do ocean research, Prager and Koblick say they do not replace the curiosity and passion of humans to learn about the sea.

Koblick is one of the pioneers in underwater habitats, first working on the Tektite project in 1969 in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He later developed and operated the La Chalupa Research Laboratory, the largest and most technologically advanced habitat of the time. It operated in more than 100 feet of water off the coast of Puerto Rico until funding ran out in 1976. Years later he was watching a Burt Reynolds movie and saw the habitat virtually abandoned in the New River in Miami. He saved it and turned it into the Jules Undersea Lodge. It sits in a small lagoon in Key Largo, where any diver can get a taste of underwater living. Koblick also heads the Marine Resources Development Foundation that operates MarineLab Underseas Laboratory, a small habitat used primarily by students .

But his underwater habitats do not do man in the sea research. “I’m afraid if Aquarius goes away, there will never be another one,” Koblick said. “It’s too big a job to start from scratch.”

Aquarius has a brain trust that exists nowhere else in the world. The long-term monitoring that is being done at the site also is irreplaceable.

“Some say what we’re doing is old hat, but it’s really not,” said associate operations director Otto Rutten, an 18-year employee of Aquarius.

Cooper, Aquarius’ former operations director, blames himself for not doing enough to publicize their numerous accomplishments on a lean budget. “Not being part of the Beltway three-piece suiters, I felt the best way to survive was stay as invisible as possible,” he said. “Maybe that hurt us.”

But the ocean has always played second fiddle to the atmosphere and space in attention and funding. Ben Hellwarth, who wrote the new book SEALAB: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor, said if Aquarius’ possible last mission had been the United States’ possible last trip to the space station or orbit, “We’d be hearing a lot more about it. Maybe the sea is seen as a dark and spooky place and the heavens up there are good and celestial and sparkling.”