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Making Waves: Episode 62 (October 28, 2010)

[Sounds of diving bubbles in background]

Imagine you’re on a diving trip. You dive down to 10, 20, 30 feet. You get to the bottom, 60 feet down ... and you’re surrounded by coral reefs, tropical fish, and strange creatures crawling along the sea floor. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could stay for a while? A couple of hours? A day. Two days. How about 10 days, or more?

Well, there’s only one place in the world where you can do that ... the Aquarius Reef Base undersea habitat, owned by NOAA and operated by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. This underwater lab is a few miles offshore of Key Largo and 60 feet down, in the heart of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

While only a few get to go to the lab in person ... thanks to modern technology, it is possible to experience it virtually, in real-time, right alongside the Aquanauts living under the sea. Tens of thousands of children and adults did just that this month, and we’re going to talk with the national educational coordinator from NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Office today about this really cool outreach effort that’s spreading the word about the importance of protecting our oceans and reefs and the things that live there.

And just because we know you’re curious, we’re also going to hear from the director of the Aquarius to learn about some of the tech, science and logistics that make this one-of-a-kind underwater lab possible.

We’ve got a lot to cover today, so let’s dive right in. This is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

(Aquarius 2010)

So today we’re going to highlight a 10-day research mission on Aquarius Reef Base that just concluded that also doubled as a powerful outreach event to help spread the word about ocean conservation and to increase ocean literacy. It’s called ‘Aquarius 2010: If Reefs Could Talk,’ and in a few minutes we’re going to hear all about it.

But since this mission took place in such an unusual environment, let’s kick things off by getting a better sense of this special place. To help us do that, we spoke with Saul Rosser, the director of Aquarius Reef Base. We reached Saul by phone in Key Largo, the home base for the onshore facilities that support the underwater habitat.

[SAUL ROSSER] “The Aquarius habitat is about a 43-foot long cylinder in which people can live under water. On the end of the cylinder there’s kind of a square box which we call our wet porch, and that wet porch has a hole in the bottom. And that hole -- kind of a rectangular opening -- is where people enter and exit from the water. Air pressure inside the habitat keeps water from entering into the habitat, and in that way people can live at a depth of 47 feet of sea water, above an ocean floor at 60 feet, and they can enter and exit through this wet porch and go out work in the water for up to nine hours every day.”

And when they come back from these long days of underwater research, they can sleep, eat, analyze their data, and -- through the wonders of modern technology -- communicate with the outside world about what they’re doing down there and why it’s important. But how is it that they can stay underwater so long?  If you’ve ever been diving, you know that you only have a short time before nitrogen levels in your bloodstream get too high. The longer you stay under, the longer you have to decompress to safely get back to the surface. If you don’t do this properly, you can get decompression sickness -- an excruciating and potentially deadly complication. The researchers in Aquarius, though, are staying for days on end. So how do they do it?

[SAUL ROSSER] “Once you’ve stayed at a depth for something like 18 to 24 hours, your body tissues become what’s called ‘saturated,’ which means that they’ve taken on as much nitrogen as they possibly can, and so staying any longer won’t add any more nitrogen and therefore the amount of decompression you have to undergo is fixed. So what that means is: one day takes 17 hours, two days takes 17 hours, and 10 days takes 17 hours to decompress, so you might as well stay for 10 days. And so we generally run our missions for 10 days. We run longer ones, because again you can stay, and there’s no more decompressions obligation.”

OK, that makes sense. But recreational    divers usually decompress by hanging out underwater at a shallow depth for a period of time to allow the nitrogen to escape their bloodstream. So how do the Aquanauts on the Aquarius decompress for a full 17 hours?

[SAUL ROSSER] ”When it comes time for decompression, what we do is the cylinder that is the Aquarius -- the tube -- is a pressure vessel, and we run a hose from this pressure vessel up to the surface and then we open a valve connected to that hose and we let the air inside the habitat go out of this hose and slowly reduce the pressure to one atmosphere. Of course, before we do that, we close the door leading to the wet floor to make sure the water doesn’t rush in, but in this way we can slowly bleed off the pressure over a 17-hour period, and by the end of that you’re back at surface pressure. And once you’re at surface pressure, you can just quickly re-pressurize the habitat, and exit through the wet porch, and swim to the surface, and we’re done.”

So that’s gives you the big picture about how researchers get down there, stay so long, and safely get back out. But that’s not the whole picture. There’s a lot more to Aquarius than the undersea habitat.

[SAUL ROSSER] “Above our habitat, we have a ten-meter diameter -- 30-foot diameter -- container discus buoy that contains compressors and generators and those compressors and generators supply power and air to the habitat via a life support umbilical. It also provides telemetry, which allows us to get our video signals and communications back from the habitat. And then onshore we have a couple of shore facilities where we maintain our gear and maintain our boats and dock our boats. And we also have accommodations for scientists who come and participate -- trying to keep the costs down for the scientists -- so they can focus their money on productive research.  And then finally at our base we have a watch desk, which is kind of a remote control station. We don’t actually control the habitat from there per se, but we sit and we monitor during a mission when people live in the habitat, we have 24 hour a day monitoring, watching video feeds, watching telemetry, pressure and oxygen content and compressor status and all that kind of thing.”

And the Aquarius team also maintains a small fleet of boats, which they use to ferry scientists back and forth from the underwater lab and their onshore facilities. So it’s a complex operation, and Saul said their main goal is to take care of all the hard operational work so the people who come to use the lab can make the most of their limited time.

[SAUL ROSSER]  “What Aquarius Reef Base is primarily is a hosting institution. We have an underwater habitat, which is an incredibly useful and productive facility, but then we draw on scientists from universities around the country to come and do science out of facility. We also support other partners such as NASA, who sends astronauts every year to come and train for the International Space Station and Space Shuttle flights, and we also support U.S. Navy divers who come and train for their specialized activities.  So we’re partnering with all sorts of people. Every month we have a new group in. This month it’s the Sanctuaries, who we love working with, but every month it’s a new group, with a new mission, and a new goal in terms of exploring and promoting our oceans.”

[Spanish language broadcast playing background]

The Sanctuaries group that Saul just alluded to is where we’re going to focus for the rest of the episode. What you’re hearing is a snippet of sound from one of 34 shows broadcast daily in English and Spanish broadcast and streamed live over the Internet during a 10-day mission at Aquarius Reef Base this month.

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that the mission we’re talking about is ‘Aquarius 2010: If Reefs Could Talk,’ an ambitious program aimed at increasing ocean literacy in English- and Spanish- speaking communities around the nation by bringing live ocean research to the web and to classrooms from coast to coast. 

So to tell us more about it, we’re now joined by Kate Thompson, National Education Coordinator for the Sanctuaries office. And just so you know, Kate and Saul were actually in the same room in Key Largo during our phone interview. We talked to both of them on the ninth day of this 10-day outreach and education mission. Here’s Kate:

[KATE THOMPSON]  “Aquarius is a great way to be able to bring the ocean to communities nationwide because it’s the only undersea laboratory in the world, and it’s very unique in that we can talk about science and technology and all the cool things that happen beneath the waves through an educational and outreach experience.”

It’s also a great location to reach out to kids around the nation for another reason.

[KATE THOMPSON] ”Aquarius Reef Base is really wired, and we have video conferencing units that actually allow us to do point-to-point conversations with the students, so we can see them and they can see us, and they can see the habitat, and the divers out on the helmet.”

[KATE THOMPSON]  “We wanted to take advantage of those point-to-point conversation happening and so we’ve been broadcasting live over the internet, but we’re also going through oceanslive.org  -- that’s our website where we have all of the information supporting the mission and the live feed. And also the archived shows. All of the shows we have done in the past days have also been archived up on oceanslive.org, so that’s how people can watch. But the students can interact live. They can ask questions to the divers -- to the Aquanauts in the habitat -- and to us topside hosting the shows. It’s really exciting because they feel like they’re part of a produced show that’s going out live on the internet for everyone to see.”

This the second time that the Sanctuaries office has hosted an outreach mission from Aquarius Reef Base. You could say that the first event back in 2007 was a pilot test for the much larger, much more ambitious program delivered this year.  During the first run a few years ago, they sent out a broadcast over the web, they produced one live show each day in English only, and they held a live point-to-point session with one school.

[KATE THOMPSON] “But this year we’ve expanded it so much so that we’ve reached ten different schools, I believe now four aquariums, a couple of science centers, as well as hundreds of thousands of viewers over the internet.”

Aquarius 2010 connects communities around the nation with real ocean research -- and real ocean researchers -- through live internet broadcasts, live video conferences, at special events, and through social media. As Kate said, this year they reached close to a thousand students at ten schools with live video teleconferences, but they also reached many more kids at select schools with the help of a partner.

[KATE THOMPSON] “We also have what we call hosted sites where are partners with the National Association of Black Scuba Divers and other groups, they actually go and host shows specifically at schools, so I think it’s probably pretty much doubled our reach through the hosted shows through our partnership with NABS, and I can honestly say we’ve probably reached close to two to three thousand students just through point-to-points and hosted shows.”

And as we heard earlier, this year’s mission also heralded in a new Spanish-language component. In addition to the live daily broadcasts in Spanish, the Sanctuaries team also linked up with a few schools that participate in a program from the Channel Islands and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries called MERITO -- which stands for ‘Multicultural Education for Resource Issues Threatening Oceans.’ The word merito also mean  ‘merit’ or ‘worth’ in Spanish.

[KATE THOMPSON] “What’s really cool about this year’s mission is about the programming in Spanish. We’ve been doing both English and Spanish language programming every day, and we’ve actually reach a couple of specific MERITO schools that speak Spanish, and also we went down to Baja Mexico to a university down there and they brought in a bunch of students to the University to also have a discussion back and forth with the Aquanauts and we actually have a habitat technician and supervisor here who also speak Spanish, so it was great to be able to do all of the Spanish programming.”

The Spanish-language segments, along with outreach efforts facilitated by NABS -- the National Association of Black Scuba Divers -- was all about bringing the ocean message to underrepresented communities in areas like Miami, Washington DC, Chicago and Tennessee, so that more students have the chance to explore the wonders of ocean science, technology, and engineering.

At the time of our talk, she said over 150,000 people had been reached so far just through the oceanslive.org online site -- and that’s not counting the thousands of kids reached directly in the classroom around the country. The goal? Kate said the mission was all about building a better understanding of how each of us impacts the ocean and how the ocean impacts us.

[KATE THOMPSON] ”Our biggest thing with education and sanctuaries is, you know, we’re trying to push out these ocean literacy principals, and the two that we’ve been really pushing are that the ocean is vastly unexplored and we have so much more to learn from it, and the Aquarius habitat really helps us to be able to study for long periods of time the ocean, and what we need to learn more about; and then also that humans and the oceans are inextricably interconnected, and it’s really important for students to understand that what they do, what their parents do, their friends do, impact the ocean every day, and in their backyard is a watershed, and that watershed leads to the ocean, whether here in Florida or California or in North Dakota, they need to know that They impact it, and what they can do to make change for the ocean.”

And what they can do to make change for coral reefs in the ocean. Kate said that the research conducted during the 10-day science mission was focused on ‘listening to what the reefs had to say.’

[KATE THOMPSON]  “We’re trying to understand how the different parts of the reef connect and how we connect to them. That’s been the big overarching science message for this mission.”

And it’s important to emphasize this point. Aquarius 2010 was a major education and outreach effort, but it was also a real scientific mission.  Kate said that key parts of the reefs like corals and brittle stars in the area around the Aquarius have been closely monitored since the early 90s to better understand the changes in this fragile habitat.

[KATE THOMPSON] “What they’re noticing this year is, gosh, there’s just not that much going on out there anymore. There’s so much missing. They’re doing diadema counts, or sea urchin counts, and they’ve found maybe one or two the entire time they’ve been out here which is really scary and sad, and the reefs themselves are degrading. They have photographs of the same places for the past 15/20 years, and it’s just showing that coral itself is degrading and becoming covered in algae, and these are some major issues that they need to address.”

In addition to this long-term reef habitat research, there were many other science inquiries going on during Aquarius 2010. For example, researchers from the University of Connecticut and California State University Monterey bay were looking at group foraging in fish to better understand how they cooperate.  And NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science also had researchers on-site. They were tracking fish at night using sensitive sonar systems because we really don’t understand much about where and why fish shuttle back and forth each day from sheltering areas to feeding grounds and how this behavior might be impacted by degraded reefs in the area.

We asked Kate what she hopes the students take away from all of these activities.

[KATE THOMPSON]  “People really need to learn about the problems facing our oceans and they really need to become part of the solutions. We’re seeing so much through our scientists and people studying the reefs, the changes over time on these reefs is really amazing. I’ve began diving down here I think probably ten, twelve years ago and just that span of time since I first dove here is amazing, and what’s happening to these reefs. you know, picking up a clump of algae and pulling it away and seeing the reef suffocate with this algae, and saying ‘OK, what the heck do I need to do in my back yard to make a difference here.”

If this has piqued your curiosity and you missed the live broadcasts, you’re in luck. You can watch all the archived shows from this mission at oceanslive.org. And also be sure to check out sanctuaries.noaa.gov for more info about this mission and all the cool things the sanctuaries office does. And last but not least, we have a short video for you on the Ocean Service YouTube channel at youtube.com/usoceangov, so you can get a visual of what Aquarius Reef Base is all about.

(Closing)

 We’d like to thank Kate Thompson, National Education Coordinator for the NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries, and Saul Rosser, the director of Aquarius Reef Base, for taking the time out to talk with us for this show. Aquarius 2010: “If Reefs Could Talk’ was sponsored by AT&T and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. 

Let’s wrap up the show this week with a last word from Kate.

[KATE THOMPSON] “What’s awesome for me is to being on the other end of a classroom, when the kids stand up and we ask them, ‘what can you do to help protect the ocean?’ And one of the first thing they say is, well you know what? I can recycle! Or, I can screw in a light bulb that saves more energy ... and these kids are coming up with these things on their own. They’re not necessarily hearing them us, and ‘I’m going to go back and talk to my Mom and Dad about what we can do in our backyards to not use fertilizer that’s going to impact these reefs. So it’s really cool for me to be able to see the kids light up when they see a diver do a flip off the Aquarius habitat, or when they see a scientist monitoring of fish out there, and they get so excited when they see a barracuda go in front of the camera. It’s just bringing that connection to them. Bring the oceans live to them is what really gets me excited -- to see their faces, and to see what they could potentially do.”

And that’s all for this show. If you have any questions about this week’s podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean -- or if you have an ocean fact you’d like answered -- send us a note at nos.info@noaa.gov. And be sure to visit us online. We’re at oceanservice.noaa.gov

Now let’s listen to the ocean...  This is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

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