The near-tragic story of one-of-a-kind technology 60 feet beneath the ocean surface
The first time I saw "The Little Mermaid," the song "Under the Sea" left me wanting to take an underwater vacation.
This line, y'all: "Just look at the world around you. Right here on the ocean floor. Such wonderful things surround you. What more is you looking for?"
Doesn't it make you want to just grow some gills?
We may not be able to live in the ocean, but scientists have developed a way to spend long stretches of time down there.
It's called the Aquarius Reef Base, and it was built a few decades ago, believe it or not. Today, it sits 60 feet underwater among the coral reefs of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
The Aquarius Reef Base is the only undersea laboratory and living space in the world.
Base director Thomas Potts describes Aquarius as "a one-of-a-kind saturation diving unit that is dedicated to science, education, and outreach" and "a complete immersive experience that you can find nowhere else on the planet."
Plus, it saves scientific teams time and money.
Saturation diving allows researchers to maximize their bottom time — or, as Sebastian from "The Little Mermaid" might put it, their time "under da sea." The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says a surface-based scuba mission "would take at least 60-70 days to match the same bottom time as a 10-day saturation mission."
When you consider the questions scientists are trying to answer down there, you realize the reef base isn't just a national treasure, it's a global one.
According to Florida International University:
"At Aquarius, scientists are at the cutting edge of research on coral reefs, ocean acidification, climate change, fisheries and the overall health of the oceans. ... Universities, government agencies and private industry have conducted more than 120 missions to discover, preserve, train and innovate. More than 600 scientific research papers have been published based on Aquarius science."
Stuff's gettin' done on Aquarius. And as if it wasn't already one of the best dollar-for-dollar science structures on the planet, Aquarius is even used to train astronauts before they leave the planet.
Despite its unique and vital role in science, Aquarius has become a victim of politics.
In 2012, funding for the base was slated for elimination when NOAA's national undersea research program was dropped due to budget cuts. The Aquarius budget was less than $4 million, "a drop in the bucket when you compare it to bigger picture items," said Potts. But that was the problem, wrote Ben Hellwarth:
"Ironically, Aquarius's low cost has likely contributed to its low profile. The program can be cut precisely because ordinary citizens haven't heard of it because it isn't expensive enough to be worth cutting. The lab is a perfect example of practical spending."
Suffice it to say, scientists and science lovers across the nation were like, "HOLD UP."
Thankfully, Aquarius was saved by Florida International University, but it was too close for comfort.
We're talking about the future of the planet here, folks, so (1) it shouldn't matter how much it costs to study and protect it, and (2) it's a job that'll have to be done for the entirety of human existence.
So let's not just look at studying the ocean as our duty — which it is, so we have to fund it — but also, it's the ocean. It's huge and awesome and 50% to 80% of all life on Earth lives in it. Why not also view it as one way we celebrate life?
Watch this introduction to the Aquarius Reef Base by One World One Ocean: