The Aquarius undersea laboratory remains the world’s last operational saturation diving facility specifically designed and dedicated to scientific research and education under water. Throughout 2018, the College of Arts, Sciences & Education will celebrate 25 years of Aquarius operations in the Florida Keys.
Funded by NOAA’s National Undersea Research Program in the mid 1980s to replace the successful Hydrolab, Aquarius was deployed in Salt River Canyon off St. Croix USVI. Under the direction of Fairleigh Dickinson University, 13 missions were conducted from January 1988 to August 1989 before Hurricane Hugo devastated the island on September 17, 1989.
The University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) assumed operational control of Aquarius and recovered the lab from the seafloor in 1990. Following a three-year refurbishment, the habitat was redeployed on Conch Reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in 1993. From 1993 through 2012, Aquarius supported 117 saturation missions that ranged from cutting-edge marine ecosystem science projects and innovative extreme environment training programs to novel educational outreach ventures.
In 2012, NOAA began the process of defunding Aquarius. Without Federal funding to continue operations in the future, UNCW relinquished its role as the program’s host academic institution by year’s end. Florida International University (FIU) seized the opportunity to take control of a national asset and in 2013 became the operator of Aquarius and took ownership of the lab in 2014.
FIU has a long history of research in the coastal marine environment in south Florida, and it counts former Aquarius aquanauts on its faculty. Aquarius serves as the cornerstone of the university’s Center for Coastal Oceans Research (CCOR) for the Florida Keys and a generous philanthropic investment secured the purchase of a new shore base in Islamorada, Florida. Under the direction of FIU, Aquarius supported 19 saturation missions, bringing the total mission count to 136 from 1993-2017.
Aquarius not only represents an extensive history of humans living underwater, but also continues to evolve to capitalize on opportunities. As we look to the future, FIU begins to consider options for the next generation of saturation capability. For now, though, 2018 represents an incredible milestone of 25 years of living and working beneath the sea.
Last year, Aquarius Reef base was affected by Hurricane Irma. The reef base was battered but not broken, if you’d like to help the only underwater research habitat recover: Give.