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FIU begins operating Aquarius Reef Base in the Keys

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.

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.”