With Funding Gone, Last Undersea Lab Could Surface

While you’re enjoying your coffee this morning, half a dozen scientists are already at work. They’re not sitting at desks, however, but a few miles off the Florida Keys, 60 feet down on the ocean bottom.
The researchers are living and working this week at Aquarius Reef Base, the world’s last undersea research laboratory. The 25-year-old facility, built by the federal government, has hosted everyone from marine biologists studying endangered coral reefs to NASA astronauts training for weightless missions in space. But the Aquarius Reef Base itself is now endangered.
Among marine researchers, there are few people more distinguished or respected than Sylvia Earle. Former chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and now explorer-in-residence at National Geographic, she’s no stranger to what are called "saturation dives."
Those are dives where people spend days, or even weeks, underwater. This dive, Earle says, marks an important scientific anniversary. It’s been 50 years since saturation diving was first pioneered by underwater explorers Ed Link and Jacques Cousteau.
"This is a historic event, and I was invited," Earle said. "I didn’t knock on the door; they knocked on my door, and I said, ‘OK.’ "
In 1970, Earle led the first team of women to conduct a saturation dive — a two-week stay in an undersea lab off the Virgin Islands. She’s now 76 years old, and this week marks her 10th extended stay underwater.
Last week, at Aquarius Reef’s training facility in Key Largo, Fla., Earle said she’s disappointed that saturation diving and the undersea research facilities that make it possible are still uncommon today.