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Its Budget Sunk, Undersea Lab May Have To Surface


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Eight miles off the coast of Key Largo, Florida, and 60 feet underwater, you'll find the Aquarius Reef Base, a science lab on the sea floor and the only one left of its kind. It's cozied up to a coral reef. In fact, the lab itself has become part of the reef, covered in living things. And inside that bubble under the sea is my next guest. She spent all week on the ocean floor exploring the reef and observing its residents, like sponges and corals and goliath groupers.

And she's here to tell us what it's like down there in what could be the lab's last mission. Federal funding was cut for the lab. Sylvia Earle is an oceanographer, chief science adviser for One World One Ocean. She's also explorer-in-residence at National Geographic Society. Welcome back, Sylvia.

SYLVIA EARLE: Well, hello, Ira. Nice to be back onboard.

FLATOW: Thank you. Tell us what you're doing down there.

EARLE: We are really enjoying the opportunity to explore this reef, continuing what scientists have been doing here for about 20 years, getting a great record of the nature of Conch Reef. It's like a microcosm that enables scientists and others to really understand what's happening to reefs around the world. It's generally not good news. You know, reefs have been in great decline since I was a child. Having an underwater laboratory where people can come and spend hours, days, weeks underwater, is such a gift.

Some of my fellow aquanauts here, Mark Patterson in - from Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William and Mary, and Dale Stokes from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and explorer and filmmaker D.J. Roller, we're working together to document questions about ocean acidification, looking at the feeding behavior of a giant fish that lives in this area that was in serious trouble but has been protected and is beginning to come back, the goliath grouper.

It has a wonderful way of feeding, opening its mouth and in so doing creating a bubble of air and water vapor that collapses. And it creates a sound that you can feel, a giant whumph, and in so doing, it sucks in the prey. And being able to document that on film, to observe it, is really part of our mission here.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And I understand that the reef - the laboratory has lost its funding. Is that correct, and it's going away?

EARLE: Well, this marks the 50th anniversary of work that began in 1962 with Jacques Cousteau in Florida, Ed Link and his colleagues, just showing that people can breathe compressed air or exotic mixes of gases and extend the time they can spend underwater. Navies around the world, including our own, industry has adopted this technique. It's used widely in the oil and gas industry to extend the time people can spend at depths, sometimes more than 1,000 feet underwater.

But here we are at 20 meters and spending, in this case, a week. It's proven itself to be valuable time and again. But yes, you're right on, that for whatever reasons, this $3 million project is being zeroed out, along with the entire National Underwater Research Program that includes two little submarines that are out at the University of Hawaii in - and where they can go to 2,000 meters. They're the deepest diving subs available as assets to this country now that Alvin, at least for the time being, is being renovated, currently out of commission.

But we hope to see him back in commission to be able to go to 6,000 meters beneath the ocean. But, you know, the efforts to enable people, not just instruments but human beings, to have access to the sea, they're uncommon at best, and yet they're proven as an approach that, just as it's been invaluable to have astronauts up in the sky, taking that wonderful computer that we call the human brain on the scene, having people actually in the water observing, documenting, using the ocean as a laboratory, it's invaluable. There's nothing that can substitute for the human presence.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Tell us what a typical day like - like is down there. You get up. You eat breakfast. You look at the fish. What do you do in a laboratory down there?

EARLE: Well, the great thing is you have freedom to use the ocean as a laboratory. And you can be up early and you can stay up late. You can go spy on the fish and the sponges and the corals. The day and night are as different as, well, day and night, you know? You have day fish that are out swimming around that tuck in and sleep at night. At night there's another whole category of life that - even some of the corals are closed up by day. And at night that's when they feed.

And to just look at the - for a short glimpse or for only the daylight hours, we really miss out some of the most important action. The live grouper feeds at night. They rest by day. Presently, there's only one giant grouper that set up housekeeping here at Aquarius. But sometimes there have been as many as six that log in here at the laboratory as their home base and then roam out in varying (technical difficulty)

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah, well, I guess - are you there, Sylvia?

EARLE: Yes, I'm here.

FLATOW: Good. We never know with the line under the ocean...


EARLE: I know.

FLATOW: ...is going to be like.

EARLE: Well, we - of course, we have bunks here, and we sleep from time to time. And food, we have a microwave oven. We have a sink. We have a shower (technical difficulty) hot water. You know, it's pretty (technical difficulty)...

FLATOW: Is it light up at all at night when you look outside? Any...

EARLE: Well, we have lights on the laboratory that illuminate a little - individual places. But, of course, it's - the great thing about being out at night is you can see the moon when the moon is full. I've been underwater 50 feet down and actually been able to see stars...

FLATOW: No kidding.

EARLE: ...through 50 feet of water. Yeah.

FLATOW: No kidding.

EARLE: And you can watch the sun come up. I tend to get up early, and it's great to be inside and watch the change from just pitch black to that first light. Now, we don't actually see the sun come up, but we see the change in light, and with it comes a change in the kinds of creatures who swarm around the windows are up and around.

FLATOW: So Aquarius has become part of the reef itself.

EARLE: It has. It's become embroidered with this tapestry of corals and sponges. I spent a lot of time just last night focused on a - just one small area of Aquarius that had at least a dozen of the major divisions of life on Earth. You'd have a hard time going anywhere on the land and seeing that many divisions or kinds of animal life. But in the ocean it's pretty easy. Nearly all of the major kinds of life, divisions of life, phyla of animals, occur in the sea. Only about half of them can make it to land or freshwater. So it's just an extraordinary opportunity that I hope will be maintained.

There's great concern that because Aquarius, along with the rest of the National Underwater Research Program, has been zeroed out by Congress as of September this year, that we're going to lose this asset, this unique capability of being able to explore the ocean by being in the ocean, using the ocean as a laboratory. And, of course, having submarines that can go deeper than divers can go is another great asset that we shouldn't lose(ph) .

I think of what we're doing is looking at the blue homeland of our country. You know that out 200 miles we have jurisdiction. And we know so little about that blue United States. It's - we're just at that beginning era of exploration of the ocean, generally. But even our own blue backyard is largely a mystery. We know how to destroy it. We know how to take the fish. We're really good at doing that. We've managed to globally and even in the United States eliminate on the order 90 percent of the sharks, swordfish, tunas, you know. We certainly can reduce the quantity and even the diversity of life in the sea.

There used to be monk seals in the Gulf of Mexico, probably right here where we're diving around Aquarius. But in 1952 the last one was seen - we - if - but there are other things like the goliath grouper, like the coral reefs themselves. There is hope, but only if we really understand what we're doing and take action while there's still time.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Talking with Sylvia Earle, 20 meters, 60 feet down below off the coast of Florida. Well, let's go to Brian in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN: Hi. How are you doing, Ira?

FLATOW: Hi there.

BRIAN: My question is, are you finding any evidence in the coral reef of a, let's say, last glacial period or any clues to climate change that might help us in the future?

EARLE: Definitely. In work that has been done along this part of the coast and elsewhere in the world, you can actually see old shorelines that have been flooded in the past. Mark Patterson, who's here from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, is conducting experiments on acidification of the ocean. That is another aspect of climate change, that excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is turning to carbonic acid. And in the last 10 years there's been a troublesome - troubling increase, an alarming increase in the pH of the ocean, changing chemistry of the sea. So it's climate change, it's global warming, sea level rise, but it's also changes in chemistry that are of concern, and it's the sort of work that's being looked at here.

Dale Stokes, a physical oceanographer and a scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has in the past and during this trip as well been looking at the deep currents that flow up from the surrounding area, cold water that washes over. And we experienced some of it last night. You could feel the changes in temperatures as this flow of deep cold water comes up into the reef. It's part of what beings nutrients from deep water.

But it also - so all of this - I think the important thing is the body of knowledge over 20 years, the individual projects, the bits and pieces that together are showing us a pattern. For the first time we're able to understand things that we couldn't when we first began exploring Conch Reef or coral reefs generally.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number, talking with Sylvia Earle on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Let's go the phones because people are interested in finding out what it's like down there. Let's go to Mitch in Mendocino, California. Hi, Mitch.


FLATOW: Hi there.

MITCH: Can you, Doctor, can you - is that lab designed so that you can get out of it and pressure up and swim around?

EARLE: Oh, my goodness, yes, that's the whole point. We have the best swimming pool in the world. There's a blue hole in the floor. Water is kept from coming inside by pressure, of course, so the outside pressure and the inside pressure are about the same. So we just have access to the sea. That's the joy of being able to live underwater. It's not just to be in a capsule where you stare out the windows. It's more or less what astronauts do, except for their occasional times to do these - as they say, extra-vehicular activity. But here the whole point is to gain time in the ocean. We do spend a lot of time when we're inside staring out the windows, but mostly we're here so that we can actually be out in the ocean and make excursions.

FLATOW: So there's no hatch on that, not even a door. It's just the air pressure that's keeping the water out.

EARLE: That's right. That seems a little (unintelligible).

FLATOW: Wow. I'd love to be there.


EARLE: Here we are, warm and dry.

FLATOW: All those scuba divers are tweeting us, saying they wish they were down there with you.

EARLE: Oh, I hope they do.


EARLE: We need more of these undersea laboratories. Back in 1970, I really imagined that this would be something that would be so valuable, and people would really understand how important it is to explore the ocean by being in the ocean, to see it from the inside out, actually be able to take sophisticated instruments and put them in the ocean. And as scientists, you know, you're under - your laboratory is there on the reef. They call this the electric reef because instruments can be plugged into the Aquarius, a power source, and monitor the nature of things in a way that - we couldn't do that 50 years ago, 40 years ago, even 30 years ago.

But Aquarius has become a real treasure with a big investment of a lot of people, and it's heartbreaking to see this small investment, $3 million a year, with big returns, just lost. It just doesn't make sense. It's true with the manned submarines too. We just need to have a great and renewed commitment to ocean exploration, research, education and care. That's what should happen on our watch.

FLATOW: Any chance you could get a consortium of universities or whatever to chip in and...

EARLE: Well, actually, a foundation has been established called the Aquarius Foundation that's open for business, open for contributions. And I think it's great, just as a space station is kind of open for business, for private contributions. But it's the legitimate role of government, from national parks, for some of the things that serve all the people, to explore, to give back, to understand how this world works, and that's what Aquarius has been doing. That's what Pisces(ph) out in Hawaii have been doing now for decades. And it's maybe because it's only a program that cost five million instead of five big D billion dollars. If we're big enough in terms of dollars, maybe people would think it's really important. The fact that it costs so little doesn't mean that it is of little importance. It's of enormous importance and...

FLATOW: Well, Sylvia, we've run out of time, and I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today. And who knows - you never know what can happen when people hear about...

EARLE: Yeah. Well, Ira, I'd love to have you conduct a SCIENCE FRIDAY interview from yourself being here on the reef.

FLATOW: Alright.


EARLE: Let's make a date.

FLATOW: I'll get my scuba gear. Thanks very much.

EARLE: All right.

FLATOW: Sylvia Earle, oceanographer and chief science adviser for One World Ocean, also explorer-in-residence at National Geographic Society.

Just a quick reminder, our SCIENCE FRIDAY Book Club is meeting again on August 10, a few weeks from now, and our next pick is "Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety," by Daniel Smith. So get the book, get reading and check the Book Club section of our website @sciencefriday.com. Also our SCIENCE FRIDAY Pick of the Week is up there. We're getting into the Olympic spirit. There is a wonderful video up there on the Fosbury Flop. Flora Lichtman made this terrific video. How do get up - eight feet up the air in a high jump? And it's all explained on a great video up there on our website. Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.