Aquarius Lives On

Following uncertainty last year about the future of Aquarius Reef Base, Florida International University undertook stewardship of the program in January 2013.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Aquarius undersea habitat. Deployed in 1993 on Conch Reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, 63 feet beneath the surface and three miles off Key Largo, Fla., Aquarius provides scientists with the unique opportunity to reside under the sea for extended periods. Saturation diving allows training, observations and experiments not possible using traditional diving methods.

Aquarius, which is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has hosted 117 missions since its deployment. Projects have ranged from basic marine science, such as studies of coral feeding mechanics, to educational and outreach missions, such as the Office of National Marine Sanctuary's "If Reefs Could Talk." Even technology-rich, futuristic NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) have been based at Aquarius.

However, by early 2012 even some of the program's most ardent supporters were penning its obituary. Congress had slashed the program's funding and slated it for termination. This ultimately led the University of North Carolina at Wilmington to relinquish its role as the program's host academic institution at year's end.

Supporters and staff viewed these challenges as an opportunity for a relaunch. The business of Aquarius Reef Base is to conduct science and education, but it is a business nonetheless. The need for rapid evolution of Aquarius' business model was paramount. To ignite this transformation, the nonprofit Aquarius Foundation was founded in the late spring 2012. It brought together a host of creative and passionate people who developed ways to capitalize on the program's appeal beyond its traditional user base.

The new business model provided unprecedented media access to the researchers and undersea lab, making Aquarius virtually accessible to people everywhere. During last June's NASA mission and July's "Mission Aquarius," led by Sylvia Earle and Mark Patterson, more than 30 writers, cinematographers, reporters and producers lived and dived among the aquanauts and their support staff. The results were astounding: Nearly 300 news pieces featuring Aquarius were produced for top-tier broadcast, print and online outlets. Coverage reached more than a million people around the world.

The program also began to leverage social media, an underutilized tool in ocean sciences, and invited bloggers at major online news sources to be closely involved with the projects. These efforts engaged readers in an ongoing conversation that built a groundswell of support that continues today.

In the fall of 2012, Florida International University (FIU) began investigating how to become the program's new host. FIU has a long history of research in South Florida's coastal marine environment. This January FIU received a grant from NOAA to continue stewardship of the Aquarius Reef Base for 2013 and to work with the Aquarius Foundation to develop the business model required to make the program sustainable.

The new business model includes support of research and educational activities funded by federal, state and local governments. Other users, such as science and engineering teams from government and industry, can gain access to Aquarius for a contracted fee.

The program is also exploring ways to encourage citizen scientists and other nontraditional users to take advantage of Aquarius' ability to capture the public's imagination and interest in science, technology and the ocean. Donations from private benefactors and partnerships with nonprofits will be important aspects of the program's future. While challenges still remain, the future of Aquarius Reef Base is bright and exciting.
Learn More
For more information about the program or to suggest project ideas, visit
Aquarius Foundation:

© Alert Diver —Spring 2013