Aquarius Undersea Laboratory begins 2003 Mission
This story entered on 19th May, 2003 06:12:02 AM PST
Dr. Steven Miller 305-451-0233, Director, NURC/UNCW
Mark Ward 407-254-0840, NURC Public Affairs
Scientists dive deep to investigate the future of coral
reefs in Florida
Key Largo, FL - The first science mission of the Aquarius
2003 season begins May 19 when a research team submerges into the
ocean for the start of a 10-day underwater mission. Aquarius is
located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, 3.5 miles
offshore, adjacent to deep coral reefs. Owned by the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and operated by the University
of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW), Aquarius is a national asset
and is the only undersea research platform of its kind in the world.
Coral reefs support a growing coastal economy in south
Florida that is estimated at $1.2 billion a year. Unfortunately,
catastrophic amounts of coral death have occurred in the last 20
years. The current Aquarius mission is dedicated to understanding
not only the cause of coral decline but also factors related to
the potential recovery of coral reefs. Aquarius is an essential
element in the study because the underwater laboratory provides
a support base for a special type of diving - called saturation
diving - that provides nearly unlimited time underwater to conduct
this research. Aquanauts, the term used to described saturated divers,
will spend up to nine hours a day working underwater to depths over
A week of special training preceded the start of today's
mission to prepare the scientists for the extra hazards of saturation
diving. In conventional diving, if you go too deep or stay too long
underwater, you risk getting a disease call "The Bends,"
which is typically quite painful - but treatable. In saturation
diving, a case of the bends can be fatal so the scientists must
understand and learn to manage the extra risk.
"We have conducted 58 Aquarius saturation missions
in the Florida Keys and never had a serious accident," said
Dr. Steven Miller, director of UNCW's National Undersea Research
Center. He added, "Scientists pay attention to our training
program because they know that they are going to get more work accomplished
in 10 days using Aquarius than they could otherwise conduct in several
months using conventional diving from the surface. It's all about
hard work and risk management, and we have a pristine safety record."
Dr. Mary Alice Coffroth, State University of New York
at Buffalo, and Dr. Jerry Ault, U. of Miami, Rosenstiel School of
Marine and Atmospheric Science, are this month's principal investigators.
This is the second year of a two-year program. "Our research
combines a study of coral sizes, growth rates, mortality estimates,
and fine-scale surveys of coral recruits ("coral babies")
with an analysis of the genetic structure of corals on the reef,"
Coffroth said. "We hope to answer questions about what this
reef will look like in the future, as well as how it functions as
part of a network of Marine Protected Areas throughout the Keys,"
Aquanaut team leader, Dione Swanson, is collecting data
as part of her Ph.D. program with the University of Miami. Swanson,
who has participated in four previous Aquarius missions said, "We
tagged and marked hundreds of corals last year and I can't wait
to see how much they grew, which ones survived, and where new corals
appeared." Leanne Miller Rutten, UNCW, an experienced aquanaut
as well, and Dr. Mark Vermeij, University of Miami and NOAA, will
assist Swanson in her surveys.
Additional science team members include Tonia Shearer,
a Coffroth Ph.D. student whose research examines the potential sources
of corals that will repopulate the reefs. Shearer said, "I'm
doing the genetics work to answer the question -- where do future
generations of corals on the reef come from, the local reef itself
or from distant locations?"
Also during this mission the aquanauts will resurvey
sites first visited in 1994 to assess changes that may have occurred
after almost 10 years. "This project represents a great mix
of innovative field work with state-of-the-art laboratory techniques
to complete the genetics. When complete, the result will represent
a landmark effort in coral reef science that also has real management
implications," said Miller. Two NURC/UNCW staff, Mark Hulsbeck
and Kea Foreman, will saturate with the science team; they will
operate and maintain life support systems and direct dive operations
Live web cameras, expedition journals, an interactive
virtual tour of Aquarius, and detailed project information are available
on the Aquarius website.
For more information, see the Aquarius
website hosted by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
Name: Steven Miller
Tel: (305) 451-233