National Geographic : 2003 Sep
quietly and a little nervously waiting for help. Forty-five minutes later, a crew from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admin istration's (NOAA) National Undersea Research Center finally arrived. Aquarius program tech nician Michael Hutchens popped his head up through the wet-porch door. "You guys all right?" he asked. Up above, the support crew cleared a blockage in the diesel engine's fuel line inside the life-support buoy, and our lives returned to "normal" in our home on the seafloor. $Iymission at Aquarius was to track fish along coral reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary one of 13 marine sanctuaries in the nation. As vice president for global marine pro grams at the New England Aquarium, I wanted to determine how far reef fish routinely swim during their daily migration. This was my third saturation mission in Aquarius, which was built in 1987 by the United States government to enable scientists like me to study the ocean by living on the seafloor. The big advantage in let ting our bodies become saturated with nitrogen was that we could dive all day without risk of decompression sickness, as long as we didn't sur face (see art page 91). Owned and funded by NOAA and operated by the University of North Carolina at Wil mington, Aquarius has hosted more than 70 mis sions. About 200 scientists have used the lab to study ocean issues such as how global warming affects corals, the condition of deep coral reefs, and how the ocean might provide new phar maceutical drugs. Living in Aquarius was like a spaceflight, a submarine ride, and a week in a college dorm wrapped in one. Because of all the valves, elec tronics, bunks, carbon dioxide scrubbers, fresh water jugs, dive gear, computers, and cameras we needed, it got very cramped. As we navi gated the 40 feet from the bunk room to the wet porch we were always bumping into each other, searching for a place to sit or stand. To eat our freeze-dried meals or use our computers, we took turns sitting at a small table. There was so little room for photographer Brian Skerry's gear that he had to sleep with his camera housings and strobes. Even without camera gear, the bunks Underwater Laboratory investigating the impact of humans on the sea, teams of six aquanauts explore the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary around Aquarius. Sticking to a net work of excursion lines and way stations (below), they often dive nine hours a day. In a rare quiet moment, author Greg Stone of the New England Aquarium watches from a porthole (far right).