Underwater Habitat, Aquarius 2000, Returns To Sea Floor Off Key Largo; Science Missions To Resume In Spring 1998

December 11, 1997

FT. PIERCE, FL - Aquarius, the world's only underwater laboratory, was today re-installed on the sea floor at a depth of 63 feet at Conch Reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. After a series of systems tests, certification and dive training, science missions in Aquarius will resume in late March or April 1998.

Aquarius makes it possible for aquanaut-scientists to live and work under water continuously during 10-day missions to study North America's largest living coral reef system.

With eight science missions planned for 1998, Aquarius is the centerpiece of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) comprehensive environmental research program aimed at better understanding and preserving endangered coral reef ecosystems in U.S. waters.

The Aquarius, originally built in 1987, was first deployed in the Salt River Canyon off St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Operations were suspended in that area following Hurricane Hugo in 1989. The habitat was later restationed in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary off Conch Reef, where it supported over twenty science missions from September 1993 to May 1996.

Aquarius was retrieved from the Florida Keys and moved to Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, Inc., Fort Pierce, in September 1996 to be refurbished and upgraded to improve efficiency, safety and scientific operations. Previously, operations were monitored 24 hours a day from a support barge moored above Aquarius. The new system, dubbed "Aquarius 2000," instead operates using a stand-alone support buoy that will use microwave telemetry to provide live data, audio and video links from Aquarius to shore and to the Internet.

The renovation project, the result of a partnership among Aquarius owner, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); its operator, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW); ocean engineers at Harbor Branch (HBOI) and satellite engineers at Harris Corporation, Melbourne, Florida began earlier this year. To give the system new life, engineers renovated a large discus-shaped navigational buoy with diesel generators and compressors to supply the laboratory's electrical power, breathing air and a variety of other life support systems. Instead of having to rely on a 12-person manned barge permanently moored over the Aquarius to provide support for the undersea lab, the new system will operate with only a single unmanned 30-foot diameter buoy moored overhead.

Redubbed Aquarius 2000 to signify the habitat=s preamble into the 21st century, the system has been refurbished with state-of-the-art communication and life support equipment that will greatly enhance the underwater laboratory=s effectiveness while substantially reducing its operating costs. A microwave communication system links the buoy to an onshore base station seven miles away. The wireless communications link will allow the laboratory to be controlled and monitored remotely. Scientists studying the coral reef will be able to beam back to shore high resolution color video images and data describing other subsea phenomena. Computer and electronic capabilities in Aquarius, plus the extensive bottom time for aquanaut-scientists working from Aquarius, make it possible to conduct research that could not be done from the surface. Links to the Internet will provide other scientists and the public with a virtual window to Aquarius and Conch Reef while aquanauts conduct their studies.

During the Aquarius science missions beginning next year, teams of four scientists from various universities will spend up to nine hours a day diving to conduct environmental research to better understand factors that affect the condition of coral reefs in Florida in particular, and the health of the coastal oceans in general. Aquarius operations are planned at Conch Reef through 2001.

The following are the missions anticipated in 1998 (in alphabetical order by principal investigator):

Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution

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