Yesterday, news that gives us hope for future ocean exploration was confirmed – Aquarius Reef Base off Key Largo has been saved. Through a great deal of work by a great number of dedicated people, including many in the dive industry, the only underwater laboratory on earth has been funded for continued operation. Aquarius is an invaluable tool to study the ocean environment allowing us to gather knowledge of our changing ocean and its inhabitants.
As part of the Sylvia Earle Alliance, last July, Dr. Sylvia Earle and a team of Mission Blue Aquanauts spent a week at Aquarius Reef Base during One World One Ocean’s Mission Aquarius focusing worldwide attention on the imminent loss of funding for the deep sea lab. Special guests Fabien Cousteau of Plant-a-Fish, Bob Weir of Nightline and Dan Orr of Divers Alert Network joined One World One Ocean and the Mission Blue team to maximize exposure for the campaign.
Writing from inside the habitat one evening last summer, Dr. Earle said, “Gone too, would be a priceless living laboratory, the only place in the world where scientists, artists, poets and others can live underwater, using the ocean as a laboratory – an enduring muse.”
Now, 7 months later, the work has all paid off: Florida International University has been awarded a grant to continue stewardship of the Aquarius Reef Base, now the world’s only operational underwater research center.
As a member of the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Science CIMAS, Florida International University (FIU) received a grant to continue maintenance and monitoring of the facility for NOAA in 2013. This will enable FIU to develop a new business model to fund operations at Aquarius. NOAA’s National Undersea Research Program, including Aquarius, was not included in the president’s fiscal 2013 proposal, however, NOAA recognizes that the Aquarius Reef Base is a unique and valuable asset to the scientific community. The new business model would include research and education activities supported by federal, state and local government funding, as well as fees for services from science and engineering teams from government and industry that use the facility. Donations from private benefactors also will be key to ensuring the future of Aquarius.
“Aquarius offers tremendous research opportunities, and we’re ensuring that the investment of American taxpayers continues to provide critical research results to the country,” said Mike Heithaus, executive director of FIU’s School of Environment, Arts and Society (SEAS). “For our students and our marine sciences program Aquarius offers fantastic new possibilities and is a natural fit for the work we are doing in the Keys and throughout the world.”
FIU biology professor Jim Fourqurean is the director of the Marine Education and Research Initiative for the Florida Keys in SEAS, and he will be overseeing activities at Aquarius Reef Base. The existing Aquarius team will become FIU employees.
“Rapid changes in the environment that supports the beauty and economy of South Florida make the observation post of Aquarius even more important,” said Fourqurean. “It gives us a unique vantage point to understand how changing climate, fishing pressure and threats from pollution and oil and gas exploration and production will impact our coastal environment.”
Aquarius provides unparalleled means to study coral reefs and the ocean, test state-of-the-art undersea technology, train specialized divers, and to engage the imagination of students and the public across the globe in ocean science, coral reefs, conservation, and underwater technology. The undersea lab even offers training opportunities for astronauts headed to space.
Mission Blue is a global initiative formed in response to Dr. Sylvia Earle’s 2009 TED Prize wish. Dr. Earle urged people “to use all means at your disposal — films, expeditions, the web, new submarines — to create a campaign to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas; Hope Spots large enough to save and restore the blue heart of the planet.”
An international coalition of partners dedicated to ocean conservation, research, exploration, policy, technology and communication coalesced around Mission Blue, orchestrated by the nonprofit Sylvia Earle Alliance (SEAlliance) and TED. Visit Mission Blue and Sylvia Earle Alliance for more information.
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