National Geographic : 2003 Sep
surface, I was sitting at the small galley table in the main lock, sipping coffee and looking out the round view port at the mounded coral and schooling fish surrounding Aquarius. "I hope our guys are OK,' I thought, mulling over our recent procedures. At that moment a six-inch-long Spanish hogfish, blue-violet and yellow, stopped outside the view port and gave me a wide-eyed look. Just then I heard my computer beep, as the fish's tag announced his visit. It was one of our former patients-healthy and full of life. ur work at Aquarius was the fulfillment of a once futuristic dream. Forty years ago it was popularly believed that humans would routinely work and live underwater. Robert Stenuit became the first aquanaut to stay underwater in a pressurized environment for 24 Breath hours, on September 7, 1962, after living at a depth of 200 feet compr in the Mediterranean Sea during air ma a research project funded in part by the National Geographic Soci- little el ety. In 1963 U.S. Navy Capt. George Bond, using pressure all the chambers on land, proved that people could live under pressure and be decom pressed safely. A rush of habitats followed, including Jacques Cousteau's Conshelf and the Navy's Sealab programs. All told, governments and scientific organizations around the world built more than 65 underwater habitats. Noting the similarities between underwater habitat missions and space missions, NASA teamed up with the Navy and General Electric in 1969 to build the Tektite habitat. Aquanaut astronauts spent up to 60 days living on the sea floor, at the time the projected length of future space missions. The death of aquanaut Berry Cannon the same year from an improperly prepared rebreather during the initial stages of Sealab III ended the Navy's direct involvement. But underwater hab itat programs continued until the 1980s. By then space exploration had proved better at capturing the public's imagination-and funding. Eventually dreams of underwater cities were replaced by space stations, and all ocean research habitat programs except Aquarius ended. Now the underwater lab is once again attracting Navy 90 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * SEPTEMBER 2003 interest and is also being used by NASA to train astronauts in the ocean equivalent of a space station. After six days on the seafloor it was time to rejoin the world above. The habitat would now serve as our decompression chamber. Known as the "pay as you leave" method of diving, our sat uration required us to decompress for 16.5 hours before returning to the surface. On the last day of our mission everyone came inside and the pressure door was sealed. We lay in our bunks-reading, sleeping, and some of us worrying about how our bodies would handle the change in pressure-while breathing pure oxygen for three 20-minute periods. Then the pressure was slowly lowered in precise increments until the internal pressure was equalized to surface pressure. Finally ing essed deusa uphoric time. surgical ill the pressure would be briefly equalized to the surrounding ocean pressure again, making it possible for us to open the door and swim directly to the surface. I was leaving Aquarius with a feeling of satisfaction. Our underwater tagging had been a success: The fish healed well and behaved normally without post effects. We had also learned that many of the fish did spend most of their time within a limited area. These early results lend hope that marine sanctuaries may prove to be one of our most effective tools for saving the oceans from the overfishing, pollution, and destruction with which humanity has bom barded them for many years. But the oceans need more help. During the 20th century many fish populations declined by 90 percent, and virtually all marine habi tats near human settlements were degraded in some way. Along with other technologies, and information from the ocean animals themselves, the underwater lab has helped show us what the oceans were meant to be like. By allowing us to live with the fish, Aquarius has opened a new window on the What's it like to live under watery 70 percent of the sea? Visit our website to our planet. The space- watch video from inside the ship on the ocean floor Aquarius research station at has become one of the nationalgeographic.com/ oceans' best defenses. ngm/0309.