Aquarius facility allows research at incredible depths, students say

Rebeca Piccardo/BBC Managing Editor

Close to the anniversary of FIU’s Key Largo acquisition, the Aquarius Reef Base, student aquanauts from the November 2013 expedition attest to its value towards conducting research.

“This is a great opportunity to devise multiple projects at the same time because of the increased bottom time that we have,” said Christian Lopes, a junior biology major.


Photo courtesy of Laura Bhatti.
Christian Lopes, a junior biology major, was the only undergraduate student to descend and live inside Aquarius last November.

Lopes, who is a part of multiple other labs and research projects, said that conducting research during normal dives can be quite limiting.

On normal diving expeditions, divers have a limited amount of time to the gather data underwater before coming back to the surface.

Depending on the depth of the dive, Lopes said, he had an hour or even as little as eight minutes to gather data.

Since Aquarius is a fully functional underwater lab, researchers can dive to the habitat and stay there for over a week to conduct research.

“We had four hours a dive,” said Lopes. “This is a ridiculous amount of time to get your science done.”

While living underwater for a week, Lopes, along with three graduate students, conducted daily excursions to gather data for their individual projects.

“Most of my research is focused on sea grasses,” said Lopes. “I look at the carbonic chemistry and how that affects coral reefs.”

The four students were paired up to work on their projects with a diving buddy at all times. Lopes and his buddy, Biology PhD candidate Andrew Shantz, had already worked together on multiple research dives, so teamwork was seamless at Aquarius.

“I have a certain level of comfort diving with Andy,” said Lopes. “I feel like I can talk to him underwater.”

Before diving down to the underwater habitat, the four students stayed at a house in Key Largo conducting a series of swimming tests and simulations, as well as a dive physical with a doctor in order to prepare for saturation diving.

“It’s a little more risky because you can’t return to the surface,” said Shantz.

Although Lopes and Shantz have been diving for years, this mission forced them to adjust their skills to a different diving set up to perform saturation diving.

“I’ve been diving since I was 13, but this is a completely different experience,” said Lopes. “We were diving at a deeper profile, and this requires a certain level of higher diving ability just because problems can escalate quickly.”

To conduct their research, Lopes and Shantz used excursion lines to guide them to their study sites, about 50 meters deeper from the habitat.

“That was a life saver,” said Lopes.


Photo courtesy of Laura Bhatti.
While living in Aquarius for about a week, the students could observe fish in their natural habitat by just looking outside their window.

For Lopes’ project, they took in data to measure alkalinity on a daily basis. For Shantz’s project, which focused on the effect of herbivores in shallow and deeper reefs, they had to follow fish and observe their feeding patterns.

“The fish communities change, the algal communities change, and you see that gradient as you get deeper,” said Lopes.

While living at Aquarius, the students did more than take in data for their research. With wifi in the habitat, the students were able to work on their classes and participate in an outreach program.

“We set up skype chats with classrooms all across the country,” said Shantz.

In these chats, the students shared their research and overall experience at the Aquarius with students from elementary to high school classrooms.

“You get a look at what an important resource the Aquarius Reef Base is,” said Shantz. “It’s been close to being shut down due to funding cuts.”

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