So, you want to become an aquanaut? Do you have the right stuff? What is the right stuff? Do you even know what an Aquanaut is? According to Saul Rosser, Operations Director at Aquarius undersea research base, An aquanaut is a diver that lives under the water for 24 hours or more using saturation diving techniques and an underwater habitat to sleep, eat and work between dives.
The normal max bottom times don't apply when you're an aquanaut as they do in normal divers. This is because a saturation diver doesn't try to avoid their blood and tissues filling up with inert gasses that can kill or maim a diver if they rise too quickly. Saturation divers don't rise at all for many days. Instead, they saturate their body with these inert gases under the high pressure environment and they stay under pressure, resting between dives in a pressurised home like Aquarius that does not allow blood to bubble as it might if a diver tries to swim to the surface without slowly decompressing over the course of a day.
To become an Aquanaut you've got to have a hot research proposal that requires steady, long periods of time studying the ocean itself or its inhabitants. Then, you've got to make sure you can work and live underwater without dying.
That means getting medical sign off by a doctor and being able to swim 25m underwater on one breath, with no fins or mask. And cross 400 meters in 12 minutes. Then there's the dive experience requirement: at least 50 dives at approximately the 18m depth that Aquarius Reef Base exists at. And you must be comfortable diving at night, which is the aquanaut-ical equivalent of an evening stroll. Ultimately, Rosser says you must be "comfortable in the water with the gear and procedures required so that aquanauts aren't surprised."
The divers on the mission next week will be using helmets with tethers that pass audio and a nearly unlimited supply of air through a heavy duty helmet, so they have been practicing using these hats, too. The photos and videos above are of the training session where the Aquanauts were required to flood their helmets and vent them. This is a bit tougher in a 13.6kg helmet that, unlike a scuba mask, will probably make the average diver feel claustrophobic when it fills up with water.
The Aquarius Reef Base's dive specifications are a combination of standards AAUS (The American Academy of Underwater Science) and OSHA, which combine the heavy duty standards of hardhat divers who will be lifting, welding and building things with the more intricate work of scientists which is still more demanding of civilian diving.
How many Aquanauts have existed? Rosser estimates that over 117 Aquarius Reef Base missions, there have been 500 or so. And if you count all the aquatics through the last 50 years of bases — perhaps 60 bases in total — he estimates the numbers in the thousands.
I'll be diving to Aquarius a few times this weekend, but I won't saturate, which requires a day of decompression. So, I can't technically change my title on my driver's licence to aquanaut.
Brian Lam is an ocean exploration journalist and the editor of The Scuttlefish and The Wirecutter. He is a Gizmodo alum and a Wired Magazine contributor. Videos provided by One World One Ocean, a campaign dedicated to telling the story of the ocean through multimedia.