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Aquarius Reef Base: A James Bond Kind of Underwater Labs

Updated: Mar 23, 2023


Have you ever wondered about exploring the ocean from an underwater sea lab far, far away from the world above? Well, this might seem like some kind of fantasy-sci-fi movie, but it is a real thing! Aquarius Reef Base is an underwater laboratory located 5.4 miles offshore of Key Largo, Florida, sitting next to deep coral reefs 62 feet below the surface. Originally, Aquarius was built in Florida, Texas, in 1986 and developed in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Aquarius Reef Base. Aquarius Reef Base, underwater research laboratory, underwater sea lab. CarbonEthics Indonesia
Aquarius Reef Base. Source: Florida International University

The base is only 9 feet in diameter and 43 feet long, but it has been occupied with more than 200 scientists representing more than 90 organizations. With Aquarius, six scientists could live and work for weeks at a time without ever going to the surface. With scuba diving, we get to explore only shallow parts of the ocean, breathing with scuba tanks for about an hour. But, even with the limitless scuba tank, we cannot stay too long underwater because of the decompression sickness.


When scuba diving, the pressure from the water that pushes through the lungs will not allow us to breathe unless the regulator supplies air with the same pressure as the water around. The deeper we dive, the greater the pressure will be, meaning the air breathed will be at a higher pressure too. The nitrogen breathed from diving will be accumulated in the tissue of our body. The longer we stay underwater, the more nitrogen accumulates in the body. Therefore, when we get back to the surface with lower ambient pressure, the nitrogen will form bubbles in the blood. The bubbles can be stuck in arteries or veins, blocking circulation and causing immense pain.

Wet Porch. Aquarius Reef Base, underwater research laboratory, underwater sea lab. CarbonEthics Indonesia
Wet Porch. Source: Florida International University

The idea of the Aquarius is to allow scientists to stay for weeks because they do what is called saturation diving. They can dive up to 9 hours per day because the Aquarius has the same interior pressure as the pressure in the surrounding water. In this way, the scientists can observe marine life without interruption, because observing marine life cannot be done in a short time only. It also cuts the cost and time needed for the research. Fabien Cousteau holds the record for the longest to live in Aquarius (31 days), beating his grandfather Jacques Cousteau.


Aquarius has a ‘wet porch’ space that allows the diver to go in and out. The base provided space for a mechanic room, bed bunks, and even a toilet! There is a ‘life support buoy’ that pumps fresh air into the Aquarius all the time. When the scuba tanks get low, there is a place near Aquarius where scientists could refill the air to their tanks.

Life Support Buoy. Aquarius Reef Base, underwater research laboratory, underwater sea lab. CarbonEthics Indonesia
Life Support Buoy. Source: Florida International University

Several achievements from Aquarius Reef Base, including:

  1. Research on the damaging effect of ultraviolet light on coral reefs

  2. Studies about geological fossil reefs to identify the significance of present-day changes in coral reefs

  3. The impact of sharks on coral reef ecosystems and many more

Besides, Aquarius has hosted several educational programs to capture the attention and imagination of students of all ages. Such as the “Experiential Teacher-Under-The-Sea” program aimed to conduct research, develop lessons and activities, and create a community of science and conservation ambassadors. Despite all the achievements made by Aquarius, it faced several challenges including, the death of a diver and an underwater generator fire. At some point, Aquarius was closed because of the loss in funding.

Aquarius is an underwater laboratory that has made many accomplishments in marine studies. It allows scientists to do research underwater for hours without being concerned about such trivial things as decompression sickness. It was a valuable asset to understand deeper about our ocean.


References:

  1. “Aquarius Reef Base: An Actual Underwater Lab, and the Last of a Dying Breed” Article on Predict Website. https://medium.com/predict/aquarius-reef-base-an-actual-underwater-lab-and-the-last-of-a-dying-breed-eacb5b7989c7

  2. “Aquarius Reef Base” Article on Atlas Obscura Website. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/aquarius-reef-base

  3. “About Aquarius” Article on NASA Website. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/NEEMO/facilities.html

  4. “Working with Aquarius” Article on Florida International University Website. https://environment.fiu.edu/aquarius/working-with-aquarius

  5. “Pressure Injuries from Scuba Diving” Article on University of Michigan Health Website. https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/abo0894

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