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Published July 17, 2012 09:47 AM

Aquarius Reef Base

The NOAA Aquarius Reef Base is an underwater habitat located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, adjacent to Conch Reef. It is one of the few underwater research facilities in the world dedicated to science. The 25-year-old facility, built by the federal government, has hosted everyone from marine biologists studying endangered coral reefs to NASA astronauts training for weightless missions in space. After some years of declining budgets, the Obama administration has eliminated funding for the base, leaving its staff with just two options: either shutdown or find other independent funding. Part of this week's mission is outreach and education aimed at helping save Aquarius Reef.

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Aquarius consists of three compartments. Access to the water is made via the 'wet porch', a chamber equipped with a moon pool, which keeps the air pressure inside the wet porch the same as the water pressure at that depth, about 2.6 atmospheres, through hydrostatic equilibrium. The main living/working compartment is strong enough to maintain a normal atmospheric pressure, and can also be pressurized to ambient pressure, and is usually held at a pressure in between. The smallest compartment, the Entry Lock, is between the these two and functions as an airlock in which personnel wait while pressure is adjusted to match either the wet porch or the main compartment.

Aquarius was built in Victoria, Texas, in 1986. Underwater operations were first planned for Catalina Island, California, but were moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Following Hurricane Hugo in 1989 Aquarius was repaired and then redeployed in the Florida Keys in 1992. Aquarius is located under 20 meters of water at the base of a coral reef within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, an ideal site for studying the health of sensitive coral reefs.

"Typically, our divers stay 10 days [and] make excursions out on the reef for about nine hours down to 95 feet," says director Tom Potts. "So we get about ... 10 times the productivity over diving from the surface."

On Monday, sitting inside the undersea research base, lead researcher Mark Patterson, a marine science professor at the College of William and Mary, took part in a live, online Web chat.

"The whole point of the habitat is actually not to be inside," Patterson said from inside the lab. "So, we're chafing at the bit to get outside into the water and begin doing our science."

Patterson has conducted several missions over the years at Aquarius Reef. Last week, while training in Key Largo, he said it's one of the world's few underwater ecological observatories. It's a place, he said, where scientists are able to conduct measurements and experiments using delicate instruments, something not possible on a two-hour dive.

For further information see Aquarius Funding.

Lab image via Wikipedia.

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