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Is Dusk Descending on Aquarius Seabase?

The author of the new book SEALAB: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor writes that the world’s only undersea base may be wrapping up its last-ever mission as U.S. funding favors unmanned undersea exploration.

If you had no idea the United States owns and maintains an underwater sea base, you are not alone. It’s called Aquarius Reef Base and it’s a school-bus-sized steel structure that sits several miles offshore on the seabed 60 feet below the surface in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. On the inside, it’s like a recreational vehicle outfitted as a laboratory, with room enough for six “aquanauts.”

But federal funding for the world’s only sea base, inner space’s version of the International Space Station, may be drying up, with money for research and exploration flowing instead to improved robotic approaches.

That’s brought more attention than usual to the base during its latest scientific mission, which began July 14 and ended Saturday. After more than 120 missions over the past two decades, this one could be the last.

Perhaps the Aquarius base’s most notable feature, apart from being underwater, is the Jacuzzi-sized opening in the floor where seawater pools. The water stops there and doesn’t rush into the dry quarters because the air inside is pressurized to match the water pressure outside.

Plus, the base’s crew becomes acclimated to the depth.

What makes this possible is a method known as saturation diving, pioneered in the 1960s by the U.S. Navy’s Sealab program. “Sat diving” enables divers to stay underwater indefinitely, provided they have somewhere to live down there.

This was a revelation for marine researchers because they could finally go about their business more like Jane Goodall in the jungle, with the benefit of time to take in their surroundings, set up experiments and run studies.

Researchers like “Her Deepness,” oceanographer Sylvia Earle, who has brought her considerable star power to this week’s crew, can don their diving gear and swim out of the base at any time of day or night. And they can spend hours working in the water instead of the mere minutes they would have if they started each dive from a boat at the surface.

At the dawn of the space age, when this approach to manned undersea exploration was tried out by Jacques Cousteau and others, it seemed as though sea bases might become as common as space shuttles. (Fabien Cousteau, Jacques’s grandson, has paid visits to Aquarius this week.) A half-century later, Aquarius is the only one, which is why base backers like Earle have been focused not just on science this week, but on the public relations equivalent of a Hail Mary pass to spread the word that a valuable national resource is about to lose its funding, typically less than $3 million a year.

A drop in the fiscal bucket, perhaps, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which owns the base, has decided it’s too high a price to pay in these tough budgetary times. Base backers have hurriedly set up the Aquarius Foundation, a nonprofit they hope can raise the money, and do so fast enough, to keep Aquarius open if Congress approves NOAA’s proposed cut in the coming weeks.

NOAA hasn’t given up on ocean exploration, but priorities appear to be shifting toward robotic technologies—an approach similar to sending probes and cameras instead of people into space. Most prominently there is NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer, a former naval surveillance ship, which was fixed up a few years ago with $18 million from the Navy, followed by another $17 million worth of upgrades from NOAA to equip it with the latest in tele-presence and robotic technology, and also to set up a half-dozen terrestrial command centers to remotely receive video and other data during ship cruises.

After shakedown cruises that began in 2008, the Okeanos sailed for its first full season two years ago, to Indonesian waters where it probed the depths of the Sangihe Talaud Region. Later that inaugural year the ship and its crew conducted a major plankton study while cruising from Hawaii to California. Program costs are now running at roughly $5 million a year, based on estimates of the ship being at sea for 130 days and not including costs associated with operating the ship itself, according to NOAA. This sort of thing concerns those who want to keep Aquarius open, and who might like to see a future with more manned in situ undersea missions, not fewer. So in a sub-aquatic version of the people-vs.-probe policy debate familiar from space, it may be high noon at Aquarius.

People like Mark Patterson, a professor of marine science at the College of William & Mary who has been on the Aquarius crew this week, is also a fan of undersea robots. His lab designs and builds them. People and robots are both valuable in marine research, he told me, shortly before leaving on the mission, his eighth at Aquarius. It shouldn’t be an either/or, he said. “I’m a robot partisan, so the fact that I still believe that should carry some weight.”

Time will tell, but for Aquarius time may be running out.