31-Day Undersea Mission has Been a Boon for Marine Scientists

A young researcher talks about Fabien Cousteau’s underwater living experiment

Three years ago, I dove 63 feet undersea at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to visit Aquarius — the world’s only remaining underwater research lab — and gawked through the portholes at the researchers (they are called “aquanauts,” by the way) living inside the 81 ton, 43 by 20 by 16.5 foot, yellow, not-quite submarine (it’s stationary). I’ve been fascinated with that lab ever since and have been keeping track of its fate, from its near death by federal budget cuts in 2012, to its miraculous rescue in 2013 by Florida International University (FIU).

Aquarius Reef BasePhoto by Kip Evans/Mission31Aquarius residents can spend up to nine hours a day diving to depths of 99 feet without risking decompression sickness — a gift of time that allows researchers to accomplish in a few days what would otherwise take several weeks or months of diving from a boat.

The Aquarius Reef Base, as it’s officially called, is all kinds of cool. The structure is pressurized so that researchers can live for weeks underwater. It can sleep six people, has hot water, power, and high speed Internet. Using a technique known as “saturation diving,” Aquarius residents can spend up to nine hours a day diving to depths of 99 feet without risking decompression sickness — a gift of time that allows researchers to accomplish in a few days what would otherwise take several weeks or months of diving from a boat. Built by the federal government and currently managed by FIU, the 27-year-old facility has hosted everyone from marine biologists studying ocean ecosystems and endangered corals to NASA astronauts training for near-zero gravity missions in space.

Right now the Aquarius is hosting a unique 31-day research and education outreach mission spearheaded by ocean explorer and documentary filmmaker Fabien Cousteau. The Mission 31 expedition, which ends tomorrow, was conceived as an homage to the first underwater living experiments in the Red Sea 50 years ago pioneered by Cousteau’s grandfather, the legendary French ocean explorer Jacques Yves Cousteau. (Mission 31 is so named because it will last one day longer than that first expedition in 1963.)

A team of filmmakers and researchers dove to Aquarius with Cousteau on June 1. After 15 days, the FIU researchers traded places with researchers from Northeastern University, who will emerge from the waters with Cousteau and the filmmakers tomorrow. This is the first time anyone has stayed in the Aquarius for such a long period, and with just a day left, it seems to have proceeded without any serious problems, apart from an air conditioning failure one night.

Over the weekend, I corresponded via email with the youngest team member, 21-year-old Grace Young who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this month with a bachelor of science in mechanical and ocean engineering. Young, who was invited on the mission by Cousteau, sent such informative and refreshing answers to my questions from down under, that I’m just going to run them here with some minor edits for length and clarity.

Fabien Cousteau looks out of a porthole Photo by Kip Evans/Mission31Fabien Cousteau conceived Mission 31 as an homage to the first underwater living experiments
in the Red Sea pioneered by his grandfather, the legendary French ocean explorer
Jacques Yves Cousteau.

Maureen Nandini Mitra: What inspired your interest in the oceans?
Grace Young: Growing up, I’ve always been around water. I just love it, whether I’m sailing, swimming, diving, or venturing below the waves, I’m happiest when I’m on or under the sea. It’s incredibly humbling to explore such a vast, vibrant new world that still remains 95 percent unknown to man, yet upon which our survival depends. It’s both awe-inspiring and frightening to know that the oceans produce up to 70 percent of our oxygen and essential food for at least one third of the world’s population. Without the oceans, Earth is no different than any other rock in space. Yet, we know so little about it and are so careless in our treatment of it. How can I not be inspired to explore and try to do something about it? We’re all on this mission together.

Tell me a little bit about the kind of research you are doing and how it can inform us about the current environmental crisis facing our oceans.

Because those of us living in Aquarius are “saturated,” we can dive for as many hours as we want every day (at a certain depth) without danger, so we can achieve this month what would take years if we were only surface diving. That’s what makes this mission so unique. Moreover, we’re collaborating with a surface research team that includes dozens of people, regularly surface diving to support us, so we can get a lot done. This makes for a long answer, but here’s the gist of our research focus:

Coral Reef Health: Coral reefs are among the most biological diverse and complex ecosystems in the world. They are fundamental to one third of all marine species, and therefore critical to supporting human life. Yet human activity, principally acidification from carbon emissions absorbed by the ocean and other pollutants, has depleted or completely destroyed 70 percent of all coral reefs. One of our projects is determining how corals respond internally to daily fluctuations in external temperature, light, pH, and dissolved oxygen…. Once we understand more precisely the cause and effect of corals’ deterioration, we can hopefully design and implement remediation measures before it’s too late.

Goliath Grouper: Living as an accepted alien for weeks in this undersea world is not only an incredible experience, but it gives us the opportunity of time to solve riddles that are impossible to do from brief surface dives. One of those fascinating riddles is how the goliath grouper hunts its prey. Using the high-speed Edgertronic camera, [we are trying] to record their unique predatory behavior that has puzzled marine biologists for years. We hope to validate an unproven theory that goliath groupers use the sound of a collapsing cavitation bubble formed in their head as a weapon to stun their prey before moving in to swallow them. While this may not be a life and death issue, it sure is interesting, and the more we know about other species, maybe the more concerned we’ll be about their survival and our mutual role in the global ecosystem.

Profile shot of Grace Young Photo provided“I’m not sure we’re the Earth’s alpha-species,” says the
youngest mission member, 21-year-old Grace Young.

Zoopoankton: Zooplankton are amazing! They are the very first link in the marine animal food chain, so it’s no understatement to say that marine life as we know it totally depends on zooplankton. Also, most people don’t realize that zooplankton are a huge disease reservoir. Bacterium, even cholera bacterium, attaches itself to zooplankton’s exoskeletons to feed on its carbon and nitrogen, all of which is very good for us! Not only do zooplankton feed all other marine animals, but they’re happy hosts to a huge amount of bacteria that consumes carbon and nitrogen from the ocean, and prevents them for spreading disease to humans. Wow! Every day we collect small samples of zooplankton with nets to quantify their presence on the reef. The data will help scientists answer how plankton communities are changing with climate change. In addition, measuring the ratio of alive to “zombie” (recently dead, but not broken down or consumed yet) zooplankton in our samples will give insight into the populations and lifespans of these incredible creatures, which are necessary for coral reefs to resist events like acidification.

Barrel Sponges: Sponges are another of those amazing creatures that we know too little about, yet they’re so beneficial to mankind. They’re prodigious filter feeders. They filter water equal to their entire body volume in less than a minute and remove more than 99 percent of the particles they inhale, most of which are bacteria. One of the reasons visibility is so good around a coral reef is because of filtering by sponges. We’re looking to answer: How do barrel sponges filter material and how can we model and even replicate their behavior? …We’ll answer these questions using sensors that measure fluctuations in temperature, salinity, pH, dissolved oxygen, and flow over the seafloor and in the water coming out of the sponges. From these measurements, the Northeastern researchers can study how sponges’ metabolism and feeding rate respond to changes in the environment. We’ll also collect DNA from 14 different sponges for the Ocean Genome Legacy Project.

Environmental Contamination: It’s heartbreaking to see the amount of human waste in the ocean. It’s become a global garbage can. It’s even more heart-wrenching to see its effect on marine life — including dolphins and whales washing up on shore with stomachs bloated with plastics. This is yet another area where we hope more knowledge will lead to remedial action. So we deploy and recover sensors that absorb and measure environmental contaminants, including PCBs, PAHs, and possibly dispersants from the BP oil spill. We hope to determine what environmental contaminants are affecting the coral reef and how. Based on our findings, Dr. Loretta Fernandez, one of our collaborating scientists, will model contaminants in the area and refine methods for measuring them. Again, more knowledge will hopefully lead to us a fix.

Dynamics of Fear: This may seem odd and unrelated to our environmental mission, but it’s fascinating nonetheless. With the high-speed Edgertronc camera, we can capture and study behavior that happens too fast for the human eye to register. It’s like watching a tiny part of the world in ultra-slow motion with a degree of clarity that’s breathtaking. Marine life is a very complex ecosystem that’s finely balance between predator and prey. Using the Edgertronic, we can see and evaluate the behavior of prey in the immediate vicinity of a predator in the nanoseconds before capture or escape… While this won’t solve our more pressing problems from global warming, acidification, pollution, overfishing, etc., it still adds to our body of knowledge that hopefully will lead to more universal sensitivity toward our fellow creatures on Earth.

group shot of aquanauts inside AquariusPhoto by Kip Evans/Mission31The crew wore red caps made famous by Jacques-Yves Cousteau on his birthday on 11 June.

Related to this collection and dissemination of knowledge is Mission 31’s education and outreach mission. We’re filming a documentary film and connecting with at least 310 million people through a host of media about the importance of ocean exploration and conservation. Based on current trends, I’ll see the death of our oceans and extinction of all marine life in my lifetime if our generation doesn’t radically reform and remediate. That’s why our outreach is so important, especially to young people.

Have you learned anything new about the ocean environment during this stay or is it too early to tell?
Yes, and yes. Everyday I’m so overwhelmed by new knowledge that sometimes I feel like my brain is short-circuiting. It’s incredibly exhilarating and stimulating. Each new discovery seems to lead to new research ideas. Our ability to take advantage of this intellectual “snowball” effect is one of the great benefits of living and working down here for so long.

Living in such closed quarters with a group of people, including a celebrity of sorts, for such an extended period of time can be hard. Is there anything new you’ve learned about yourself during this time?
Of course! All of us down here are very comfortable in the water, but we’re all doing something we’ve never done before, and so we’re “out of our comfort zone,” which is a healthy thing. It’s interesting to see how people act in the face of uncertainty, so to speak, and when things — like aspects of a dive plan, or how a shot is framed — aren’t perfect. Fabien is the celebrity, yet he’s also the one that keeps us together. He reviews our dive plans with us each day, reviews with the production team their filming schedule, and keeps us all amused with his good humor. Without his leadership, this mission wouldn’t be possible. His grandfather must have had the same ability to keep a team focused and working together.

Is there anything you miss about being up on dry land?
I miss my friends and family the most. One thing I didn’t expect to miss, though, is dry hair! We spend so much time in the water (which I love!) that my hair never has time to dry. But frankly, I can definitely imagine having an undersea vacation home someday. You’ve no idea what it’s like to have all sorts of beautiful sea creatures come right up to your dining room window to investigate us aliens. I can sit and stare at them for hours, completely mesmerized.

At the end of the day, what’s been the most important thing you’ve learned during this mission?
I’m not sure we’re the Earth’s alpha-species. If we are, we’re making a total hash of our stewardship responsibility and need to reform quickly. Our generation has a lot to do, but I’m hopeful we’re up to the task.

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