The Laboratory Under the Sea

Aquarius, the world’s only underwater habitat, is run out of what’s essentially a dorm room. Saul Rosser, 32, operations director, invites me into the observation deck. In front of him are three computer monitors, a red telephone… and a logbook.

A closed-circuit video feed in front of him shows a grainy image of a hand applying ointment to a knee. Rosser documents every word in the logbook. He stares at the video screen as the woman replaces the cap on the tube of ointment.

The woman, Lindsey Deignan, is a sponge researcher from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Deignan and five other researchers, called aquanauts, have volunteered to have their bodies supercompressed to the same pressure that’s found 60 ft deep on the ocean floor – about 36 pounds per square inch (psi) – so they can dive for as long as they want without ever having to worry about decompression sickness.

The only requirement is that once the aquanauts head down to Aquarius, seven miles off the coast from where we’re sitting, they’ll have to stay there for a week-and-a-half, until the mission is over. Then they’ll be decompressed, a 17-hour process that brings their bodies back to surface pressure and allows the nitrogen gas that has accumulated in their bloodstreams to diffuse safely.

Today, almost all ocean research is done topside via robots dropped from the decks of boats. Aquarius is one of the last oceanic institutions where researchers get wet and stay wet. The prospect of one’s head exploding is only one of the inconveniences of living underwater in a steel box. Even with air conditioners, nothing ever really dries down there.

If the moisture in Aquarius doesn’t get you, the pressure might. One-hundred-and-twelve tons of water press down on Aquarius at all times. To keep the water out, the habitat must be pressurised at a high level, which, at around 60 ft below the surface, works out to about two-and-a-half times the pressure at sea level. Being inside Aquarius feels the opposite of what it would feel like to be 13,000 ft up. Bags of crisps become pancake-flat. Bread becomes dense and hard. Years back, a surface-support-crew diver delivered a lemon meringue pie in an airtight container to the aquanauts. It was a sheet of white-and-yellow goo by the time it was opened.

Aquarius is under 24-hour surveillance. Every movement, motion and action is logged. Air pressure, temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide and oxygen levels are checked by a computer every few seconds. Valves are checked every hour. The smallest break in the system could lead to flooding in the living chamber, which would instantly drown the aquanauts. Rosser and the other managers are there to make sure it doesn’t happen. Over the past two decades, Aquarius has run more than 115 missions, and there’s been only one death, caused by a malfunction on a rebreather device that had nothing to do with the laboratory itself.

The ocean occupies 71 per cent of the Earth’s surface and is home to about 50 per cent of its known creatures — the largest inhabited area found anywhere in the universe so far. The photic (“sunlight”) zone is the only place in the ocean where there’s enough light to support photosynthesis. It houses around 90 per cent of known life. Fish, seals and crustaceans call it home. Sea algae, which makes up 98 per cent of the biomass in the ocean and can grow nowhere else but in the photic zone, is essential to all life. Seventy per cent of the oxygen on Earth comes from ocean algae. Without it, we couldn’t breathe. How algae can generate so much oxygen and how that might be affected by climate change, nobody knows. That’s part of what the Aquarius aquanauts are trying to find out.

They’re also trying to crack more mystical marine riddles, such as the secret behind coral’s “telepathic” communication.

Every year on the same day, at the same hour, usually within the same minute, corals of the same species spawn in perfect synchronicity. Distance has no effect; if you placed a chunk of coral in a bucket beneath a sink in London, that chunk would, in most cases, spawn at the same time as other coral of the same species around the world.

Coral is one of the most primitive animals on Earth. It has no eyes, no ears and no brain. Yet it can communicate in a way far more sophisticated than anyone ever thought.

But coral colonies have been dying off at record rates. Fifty per cent of the corals along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have died. In some areas of the Caribbean, populations have shrunk by 95 per cent. In 50 years, coral may be gone, and with it one of Nature’s great unsolved mysteries. For the Aquarius aquanauts researching coral, their work is a race against time.

Ever since Aristotle proposed turning a giant jar upside down, putting a man inside it and sinking it, humans have devised all sorts of grand schemes to explore the waters of the photic zone. The world’s first self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, or scuba, was invented by a Brooklyn machinist named Charles Condert. It consisted of 4ft of copper tube, which Condert mounted onto his back, and a pump made from a shotgun barrel, which pulled air into a rubber mask covering his face. Other inventions soon followed. Eventually, engineers developed elaborate systems to protect the body from underwater forces. They figured out how pressures changed at depth and how oxygen could become toxic.

The first underwater habitat, built by Jacques Cousteau, was set up 33 ft below the ocean in an area off the coast of Marseilles. Called Conshelf, it was about as big as the cabin of a Volkswagen bus and just as cold and wet.

By the late Sixties, more than 50 undersea habitats around the world were being built. Australia, Japan, Germany, Canada and Italy were all going deep. The race for inner space, it seemed, was on. And then, just as suddenly, it was off. After just a few years, all but a handful of the habitats were scrapped. This was the space age, after all; men were landing on the moon and building houses in orbit, so spending weeks underwater in a cold, wet box seemed pointless.

 

View original article at: The Laboratory Under the Sea

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