Celebrating 50 Years of Living Beneath the Sea

Principal Investigator: Dr. Mark Patterson,
Training: July 9 - 13
Saturation: July 14 - 21

This coming July, science and aquanaut pioneers Drs. Sylvia Earle and Mark Patterson will co-lead an expedition to the NOAA Aquarius Undersea Laboratory located 8 miles off Key Largo, Florida and 60 feet below the surface. Their work has helped broaden our understanding of the oceans and the creatures that live in them.

This mission is a celebration of 50 years of human habitation of the sea floor. Ever since Jacques Cousteau's 1962 Conshelf I project, humans have been living on the sea floor for purposes of science, innovation and exploration.

The scientific research conducted by Earle and Patterson during this mission will be focused on the coral reefs and the overall health of our oceans (see details below). In order to share the excitement and inspiration of living beneath the sea, the mission will be available worldwide with a live interactive broadcast from multiple cameras and broadcast specials on Aquarius Reef Base's Ustream channel. The broadcasts will also be made available for schools, science camps, aquariums, and other educational facilities. The advantages of living and working on the seafloor from America's Inner Space Station -Aquarius - will be illustrated by experiments on different corals and algae that cannot be conducted diving from a boat, or from a shore-based lab.

Dr. Sylvia Earle, National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence, led the first team of women scientists to use an undersea habitat (Tektite) in 1970. This tireless voice for ocean conservation issues is a pioneer in the use of advanced technology for human exploration of the seas.

"Being able to study the animals and plants in their home using an underwater habitat gives me the gift of time," says Dr. Earle. "Time to see what these magnificent life forms are actually doing on the reef," she continued. "Time to notice the small and seemingly insignificant that later turn out to be a sea secret. Every time I live underwater I come back with new insights and a hundred new questions," Earle concluded.

Dr. Patterson, Professor of Marine Science, College of William & Mary, introduced the use of computer technology to the NOAA Hydrolab underwater habitat in 1984. With support from the National Science Foundation and NOAA, he is researching how corals cope with environmental stress from global warming and ocean acidification.

Dr. Patterson comments: "Aquarius has allowed me to do experiments that can't be done in the lab. During this mission we will use sophisticated instruments to measure the health of coral colonies on the nearby reef. Our results will help predict how corals will cope, or not, as the oceans change."

Fellow aquanaut, underwater explorer and award-winning filmmaker DJ Roller, will join Earle and Patterson on the expedition. Using his custom designed 3D underwater digital camera system he is able to capture images in resolutions high enough for five-story-tall IMAX screens. Roller and his production team will capture an entirely new view of science and living underwater.

Roller states, "Living underwater and exploring the ocean as an aquanaut is a life- changing experience that has given me a whole new perspective. I believe the 3D camera system creates a window into another world and has scientific merit as the determination of scale and distance not possible from 2D cameras. Being able to observe relationships between coral and creatures or anticipate things around and behind you is almost impossible with an ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle)."

The aquanaut team has invited participation and visits by national and internationally known scientists, policy makers, conservationists, explorers, and other filmmakers to mark this milestone in the history of human exploration of the ocean.

Mission Science Objectives

The aquanaut scientists will be investigating the biology of corals and sponges on the reef. The reef near Aquarius has changed greatly over the last few decades and now is dominated by sponges not corals.

Sponges have been on the planet half a billion years and evolved before corals, and yet and we know very little about them; thus there is great interest in learning how they affect the health of the reef. They also may be a source of bioactive compounds that might be developed into drugs. Sponges are filter feeders, pumping enormous volumes of water through their bodies. The entire water column over a reef passes through the bodies of the sponges every 24-36 hours! They filter the water to extract food particles as small as bacteria. The scientists will be making measurements of the pumping rate of sponges and measuring their metabolic rate using dye experiments and a special underwater instrument made in Denmark. The dye pumping is incredible and will be captured in a compelling way by Roller's custom designed 3D underwater digital camera system.

Corals are under stress world-wide from habitat degradation and global warming. The scientists will be using the same instrument that measures sponge metabolism to also make measurements on the corals, during the day and also at night when the coral's feeding structures, the polyps, are expanded. At night corals turn into amazing predators and catch tiny animal plankton. This is also very visual; the plankton are attracted to dive lights and will be video recorded as they feed while metabolic measurements are taken. During the daytime, the group will also be measuring the photosynthetic performance of the corals using another underwater instrument made in Germany. Even though corals are animals, they have microscopic algae living inside them that help feed the coral colony, so during the hours of sunlight the coral symbiosis behaves like a plant. It is this symbiosis that is in trouble from global warming. When the temperature gets too hot over a reef, the algae inside leave the coral and the colony turns white, a phenomenon called coral bleaching. If bleaching events last too long, the corals die. Coral reefs world-wide are in trouble and they may be the first major ecosystem to dwindle and disappear as the planet warms. In addition to the above, the aquanaut team will be trying to capture some images and data that haven't been gathered before from an underwater habitat:

The group hopes to catch one of the gigantic goliath groupers that live around the laboratory in the act of making a booming sound for which these fish are known. These fish, the largest on Caribbean coral reefs - up to 7 feet long and weighing up to 1000 pounds - have enormous heads. When these fish feed, they expand their cranium in a few hundredths of a second to almost twice the original volume. The resulting pressure drop inside the mouth serving as a vacuum to suck in the prey as the water rushes in from the front. The fish then closes its gill covers during the feeding event. The cause of the sound is still not completely understood but the scientists have a theory: During feeding a cavitation bubble forms and collapses inside the head. Cavitation bubbles form when the pressure drops so low that the water in the fishes mouth turn to a gas (water vapor) for a split second. Then, as the water rushes in, the bubble collapses and makes a sound that can be felt inside your chest. Here's the cool part-for a microsecond as the bubble collapses, the temperature at a point inside the fishes mouth is most likely hotter than the surface of the sun! The goliath groupers in the vicinity of the habitat are habituated to humans and would make great subjects for some experiments to try and capture this phenomenon