Searching For The Ocean’s Secrets From The Last Undersea Base

Searching For The Ocean’s Secrets From The Last Undersea Base

Two days ago, in the ocean a few kilometres off Key Largo Florida, I watched a woman dive six metres down to a sandy bottom. Conch skittered across sea floor while fish pecked at a nearby reef. A Barracuda snuck up behind me and glittered as it passed by. Then, an odd thing happened. The woman on the sea floor grasped her neck with both hands and a large cloud of air — it appeared to be an entire lung full — escaped from her bright yellow steel dive helmet.

The bubbles scattered the fish. Then, the stream of air stopped entirely.

Her helmet is a special piece of diving gear often used for deep sea pros working on oil rigs or undersea military projects. It weighs 13.6kg on land but nothing in the water.

As the air rushed out of the helmet, the woman closed her eyes, but she didn’t seem anything but calm. That’s because this woman is an aquanaut — an ocean explorer who has lived intimately under the sea for days and sometimes weeks at a time.

This week we’re going Into the Abyss, reporting live from the Aquarius Reef Base, the world’s last undersea research lab, on its last confirmed mission.

The woman is Sylvia Earle, an ocean scientist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, who wasn’t faking a drowning, but was running through safety drills in preparation for her stay at the Aquarius research lab — the most advanced and only remaining undersea scientific habitat of its kind. This mission will be her 10th research expedition where she is required to eat, work, and sleep without returning to the surface for seven days straight.

Sylvia’s life has been about seeing the ocean through technologies like this one — incredible tools that have given mankind the ability to stay down longer and go down deeper. She’s seen the popularization of Scuba, has held the depth record for a human dive, going to 381m of depth off the coast of Hawaii in the exoskeleton-like JIM suit, and she’s spent countless time in research subs as well. Not to mention the time she’s spent in research bases like Aquarius — She lead the first all-woman aquanaut team to live for weeks in NASA’s Tektite undersea lab in 1970, where NASA learned how people would behave under such conditions. That was where Earle realised that after spending enough time with them, fish in a school could be recognised as distinctly by their behaviours as puppies could be in a litter. The New Yorker once referred to her as “Her Deepness” and the name has stuck ever since. All of this makes her at ease in the sea as any human could ever hope to be.

In the water, Sylvia Earle sat up, turned a valve on a stainless steel pipe, flooding the mask instantly with life-giving air. When she returned to the support boat, a Navy Medical Dive Officer stood by wearing a t shirt that said “The Deeper We Go, the Better It Feels” in case anything should go wrong. When they lifted the helmet off of her head, Earle had a generous smile on her face. She said, “I could stay down there all day.”

In a few days, she’ll have her wish.

This coming week, we’ll be diving with Earle and other aquanauts, watching how they live and work under the sea while learning about the technology that makes it possible. We’ll also try to understand why its still important to have manned access to the sea, even in an age of satellites and remote controlled subs. And perhaps, just a little bit, why science under the sea itself is important to the mechanism we recognise as Earth.


The Aquarius Reef Base looks like a sunken yellow airstream that has been overgrown with coral and is swarmed with fish. It is the most advanced habitat and the only remaining one of its kind, and has been host to more than 100 long term scientific expeditions over two decades. One of its greatest values is that scientists are able to spend a full work day undersea in a process called saturation diving. Saturation diving is a process where a diver’s body stays under pressure for a long period of time, needing to decompress slowly over nearly a day before returning to the surface. It can extend working dive times at the bottom from a few minutes to many hours, multiplying and accelerating the efforts of science dive teams and creating a lab-like environment in the real ocean where they can work nine-to-five without worrying about their air supply or getting “bent”.

Aquarius’ strength and value as a scientific tool, aside from the humble abode it provides for its inhabitants, is its steadfastness: Because it has stayed in one place for so long, its location has served as a constant yardstick for the ocean, allowing it to take constant measurements of the health of the coral, sponges, fish activity and ocean chemistry, in one place, for the last 20 years. And the base is outfitted with a megabit internet connection designed by Motorola that spans the nearly 6.4km distance across the water to HQ, allowing scientists and reporters to broadcast live from under the sea. Over the years, the base has itself become covered in coral growth, as much a part of the natural landscape as it is a safe fortress on the frontiers of ocean science. It looks like the underwater base in JJ Abrams’ Lost.

But the main reason why we are visiting Aquarius now, is because the research base is scheduled to cease operations entirely after this mission, when NOAA ceases to continue its funding. Aquarius, its sister program, the Hawaii Undersea Research Lab (HURL), and its two Pisces subs, are planned to lose their budgets come September.

I’ve not found one scientist, engineer, submariner, or diver who does not think this is a mistake.

This mission is its last because, according to director of the Hawaii Undersea Research Lab, John Wiltshire, “NOAA spent too much money on some extra weather satellites that weren’t budgeted.” Weather satellites are important, and almost everyone benefits from their their data, but they’re expensive. Aquarius and the Pisces subs take $US5m a year to operate whereas the weather satellites cost at least 100 times that, according to Wiltshire. Five million dollars for some of the best and only equipment that allows man to explore the deep with its own eyes and ears and hands with what Earle refers to as the best computer around — the human brain.

Sylvia doesn’t try to hide the fact she thinks this is a bad idea. It’s not that she is against unmanned tools that give us access to the sea. It’s that she believes that the oceans are dying and that we need every tool we can possibly find to help us understand it better. She tells me that India, China, France and Russia are all creating subs capable of reaching 6,000 meters, with men inside, at the same time we are cutting our capacity.

Why do we need to continue exploring the ocean? I asked Sylvia that question early this morning. Her answer makes you wonder why we’re not sending boatloads of money to every undersea lab in the world: “The ocean governs climate, weather, temperature, planetary chemistry. Life depends on water, and 97% of Earth’s water is ocean. Over half of our world’s oxygen comes from the Ocean. No ocean, no life, and therefore, no us.”

From NOAA’s perspective, it’s complicated. We reached out to them for comment, and this was their response:

At NOAA, we are facing tough choices of how best to balance the national priorities in science, service and stewardship entrusted to NOAA, while at the same time living within our means. This includes making tough decisions in the face of tightening budgets, with valuable programs reduced or terminated to accommodate critical investments that could not be delayed to ensure we can meet national priorities.

NOAA has had to curtail some important programs, particularly where other avenues of funding might be pursued. The National Undersea Research Program is one such program. Rather than dedicated annual funding, the academic institutions comprising NURP will be eligible to compete for NOAA and other sources of federal funding on an annual basis.

So even though the annual funding is drying up, there is hope that Aquarius could continue its mission. And Earle believes is the Reef Base is capable of remaining active for the next 20 years. Some people who believe in Aquarius and our ability to study the sea by living in it, have started a fundraising campaign called The Aquarius Foundation, in hopes it can continue operating without governmental support. For now, all we know is that there are no missions slated after this one.

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.