Irma battered, but didn’t beat, this beloved underwater lab

Aquanauts gather outside the Florida International University’s Aquarius underwater lab off Key Largo in this undated photo.
Aquanauts gather outside the Florida International University’s Aquarius underwater lab off Key Largo in this undated photo. Courtesy Mark Widick

In the end, Irma was no match for the Aquarius, Florida International University’s beloved underwater lab off Key Largo.

The storm ripped the lab’s 94,000-pound life support buoy from its moorings, blowing it about 14 miles away to Lignum Vitae Channel. It bent the underwater living quarters sitting on the ocean floor in water 60 feet deep and damaged the outside “wet porch.” But the lab remained “horizontal” and intact, said director and biology professor Jim Fourqurean.

“We know we’re going to get her working again,” he said. “She’s battered, but she’ll be back.”

aquarius gazebo
Hurricane Irma damaged the gazebo ‘wet porch’ outside the Aquarius but left the living quarters intact and largely undamaged. Hand Out Florida International University

Already, enthusiastic supporters have raised nearly $12,000 on the crowd-funding website and are rallying to quickly repair it. Fourqurean hopes to have the Aquarius back in action by spring.

Leading up to the storm, Fourqurean said staff detached the buoy’s umbilical cord that connects to the lab and delivers air, water and electricity. The umbilical cord allows scientists to work for hours, days or weeks. The lab is the last of 60 underwater habitats once in operation around the world. FIU took it over in 2013 after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it planned to shutter the facility, no longer willing to spend the $1.2 million to $3 million needed to run it.

After news spread, a backlash by scientists and a campaign led by South Florida political leaders — including Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart — prompted NOAA to award FIU a grant to take over the lab. Over the years, it has hosted more than 120 research missions, drawing aquanauts and other professionals who study underwater habitats and diseases or train for missions.

aquarius fabien
Fabien Cousteau waves from inside Aquarius Reef Basein June 2014. A team of filmmakers and researchers accompanied Cousteau to study the effects of climate change. Wilfredo Lee AP

After the storm, Fourqurean said staff found the buoy floating in the channel. It’s now in a Miami shipyard being refitted.

While they haven’t fully assessed the damage, he estimates it’s at least about $500,000. Supporters hope to raise $100,000.

“I’ve never been involved with a piece of scientific equipment or a program that has such a large and faithful following of citizens and friends and scientists,” he said. “That really says something about this unique facility’s ability to inspire people.”

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich

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