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"Goodbye Blockbuster....hello barracuda"

This dispatch of living at the Aquarius underwater habitat in the Florida Keys was written by New England Aquarium Editor Ken Mallory during an expedition this July. Mallory was along to assist Japanese scientists supported by the NOAA's Undersea Research Program (NURP). The scientists were comparing the health of coral reefs in Japan and the Florida Keys. By studying coral reefs, they can learn more about ocean chemistry and climate change. Mallory's underwater experience at the Aquarius will be featured in an upcoming children's book and National Geographic documentary.
More information about the mission
July 13, 1999 - So begins a series of dispatches from a saturation mission beginning at 12:30 PM. I hate to say it but my Newton Messagepad 2000 (Apple has discontinued the series) doesn’t work under these conditions, apparently because there is too much ambient pressure on a pressure sensitive screen. I never like to admit defeat for a Macintosh product but it appears I have no choice.

Goodbye Blockbuster video, Denny’s Cuban Restaurant, Coconut Bar, patio views of canals filled with diving and fishing boats, sunsets, sunrises, and red wine; hello barracuda, sergeant majors, filtered sunlight through a blue waterscape, sand channels that act as highways with a median strip of coral, sponge, and sea fan gardens, and an underwater locomotive called Aquarius fixed 47 feet below the surface on Conch reef seven miles from the habitat’s headquarters in Key Largo, Florida.

I am part of a four man aquanaut crew, two of whom are Japanese scientists, Dr. Mineo Okamoto and Dr. Satoshi Nojima. I write books, mostly children’s books, for the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts and have the good fortune to join the Aquarium’s Conservation Director, Greg Stone on a mission to assist the Japanese in an ambitious project to measure coral productivity—photosynthesis, oxygen and carbon dioxide production for selected corals near the Aquarius habitat. By gathering baseline information about the health of a coral reef, scientists can compare their findings with other coral reefs around the world, especially in this instance, with corals reefs in Japan. In fact, the Japanese scientists on our mission have already started planning their own version of Aquarius in the reefs of Okinawa.

For me the defining moment for what it is like living under the sea came several days earlier when we had been taken to Aquarius for the first time as part of our safety and procedure training. To avoid the problem of getting decompression sickness we had to dive from a boat at the surface into a habitat where the pressure inside equaled the pressure outside—in this case two and one half atmospheres is roughly equal to 40 pounds on every square inch of our bodies (this compares to 14.7 psi at the surface). When we swam through the moon pool-- the dividing line between the ocean outside and our protected air filled living quarters inside—we entered a lockout chamber with two large depth measuring clocks, one that told us the pressure we were currently in and the other the pressure we would have after we left our chamber.

Cliff Rassweiler was our guide --an Aquarius technician and a former professional race car driver-- and as he tripped a switch on a nearby control panel, the tiny room we stood in began to hiss and gurgle and fill with mist. This was no smoke and mirrors magical mystery tour but true to life physical transformation we required to bring our surroundings back to surface pressure so could remain for a while with no threat of the bends. Two hours later we reversed the charges, locked back in the same small room, until we again reached parity with the pressure in the surrounding water 50 feet down, squeezing our noses and wriggling our jaws, to ensure our ears cleared pain free. We could now enter the water again through the moon pool and return to the surface. Today we spent the morning unpacking our gear, preparing the scientific equipment to connect with the respirometer and the 3 D camera that would be set up several hundred feet beyond the bunk room of the habitat. While Mineo san and Satoshi san organized, Cliff Rassweiler led Greg Stone and me on a trip around 2 p.m. to explore the pinnacle, a gazebo with voice contact back to Aquarius about 1000 feet southeast of our home in the sea. Although visibility was somewhat limited today, we still located many corals of potential interest to our science colleagues as well as an inquisitive moray eel that darted between my ankles while I talked at the gazebo.

By the time we returned, the Japanese had begun to deploy cables connecting computers inside Aquarius to sensors outside, and as Greg and I joined in to help them, a two man diving crew from National Geographic television appeared to film us setting up. Our Aquarius mission will be an episode in their Sea Stories series, so the filmmakers Chris Noesztle and Adam Geiger will be daily visitors here as they try to make the most out of their nitrox diving limits to give their viewers a better sense of living beneath the sea.

As I finish writing this, the bunk room I sit in crackles and snaps like the flames of an open fire, our introduction to a chorus of shrimp and other noisy invertebrates which will provide our evening entertainment. Porthole windows are thick with plankton attracted to our night lights, a bonanza for passing fishes that scoop up an unending banquet.

- Ken Mallory

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