Friday, August 27, 2010

Aquanauts Living on Ocean Floor Come Up for Air

Wow. Can you imagine a 16-hour deco process? Or, how about spending 9 hours a day diving. And then returning to your underwater lair.

Just another day in the life of these grad students.

From the cramped conditions inside a school-bus-sized metal tube at the bottom of the ocean, scientist Chris Finelli traded his scuba gear for a T-shirt and bare feet, ready to talk about his latest mission: monitoring sponges on Conch Reef, more than three miles off the coast of Florida.

Sponges, bottom-dwelling filter-feeders, are one of two players locked in a silent battle for supremacy that is taking place at these coral reefs and others across the globe.

As coral populations disappear — they're down by 90 percent around Florida — other species are fighting for the newly freed up ocean real estate. The two top contenders to take over are sponges and algae, and which one emerges victorious will have far-reaching consequences for the species that make their homes in coral reefs and for the humans that depend on them.


Finelli, along with several UNCW grad students and technicians, has been living deep under water for nine days now, aboard the Aquarius, the only seafloor laboratory and habitat in the world. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) owns the facility, which is run by UNCW.

Since 1993, the Aquarius has been stationed 63 feet below the waves, in the protected waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, a few miles off the coast, providing an ideal place to study ocean life and even train astronauts for space missions.

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