Oct. 12, 2010


On Oct. 12, Dr. James Lindholm and graduate student Jessica Watson embarked on a scientific mission inside the world's only undersea research station.

Aquarius undersea labThe station, named the Aquarius Undersea Laboratory, is similar to the International Space Station. But while astronauts explore outer space, "aquanauts explore inner space," said Watson.

The pair, along with four other researchers, will live underwater for 10 days, diving eight hours a day to study coral reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Two other CSUMB students, Chelsea Parrish-Kuhn and Alexandra Davis, are also in Florida, working from the surface to support the underwater team.

The Aquarius is about the size of a mobile home. It's equipped with hot showers, an Internet connection and other communications equipment. (And it's loaded with freeze-dried "hiker foods, reconstituted with hot water," Dr. Lindholm said.)

It's owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and operated by the University of North Carolina Wilmington. It sits 60 feet underwater, four miles from shore off Key Largo. Its mission: scientific research, coral reef and ocean observation, undersea technology development, training, and ocean education and outreach. Since 1994, it has hosted 90 missions.

researcher from AquariusThe current mission is entitled "Aquarius 2010: If Reefs Could Talk." It is designed to bring the science of ocean conservation and the underwater world to classrooms and communities nationwide. Live broadcasts each day will focus on biodiversity, climate change and technology for field science.

Although the aquanauts will be taking the time to conduct live broadcasts, their main focus is still the science behind the mission. They are studying the behavioral interactions of fishes that live in a range of coral habitats across the reef area.

Living in Aquarius, Dr. Lindholm said, allows scientists to conduct research over an extended period of time. It's called saturation diving, when the body is completely saturated with nitrogen.

Surface diving allows scientists a limited amount of time to reach the bottom and collect data before the body begins to "bend" ­– experiencing pain, said Dr. Lindholm, director of the Institute for Applied Marine Ecology or IfAME at CSUMB. But with saturation diving, he said, they can spend hours each day swimming with the fish they are studying.

"There's a lot more time to observe things, things that you may not see elsewhere," he said.

All this information will help marine biologists everywhere have a much better understanding of coral reef communities and how diverse species interact to find prey and avoid predators.

The reason for the educational component is simple: A more informed public will make better decisions about what they do in their everyday lives and how those actions impact the world's most important resource – the oceans.

This is Dr. Lindholm's fifth saturation mission and Watson's first.

"I'm so thankful to have this opportunity," she said a few days before leaving for Florida. "I'll get to see the fish I'm studying." For her master's thesis, Watson is exploring how the feeding and swimming behaviors of three kinds of fish influence their movements.

More information, including a schedule of broadcasts is available here: http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/missions/2010aquarius/

Follow the mission on Twitter: http://twitter.com/sanctuaries