Brian Lam—former editor at Gizmodo, current editor at the ocean-centric Scuttlefish blog—got to visit the world's last remaining underwater scientific research station. Aquarius was built in the late 1980s and launched in 1992, but it was preceded by a huge 1960s-era boom in underwater laboratory development. Conshelf, Sealab, Tektite—these should all be familiar names. But they're all gone now. Which sucks, because having a place where you can study the ocean from inside the ocean is pretty damned useful.
For instance, if you study fish behavior, there's only so much you can learn from watching them in captivity or going on short dives in nature. As Sylvia Earle—grand doyenne of oceanography and the leader of the current Aquarius mission—told Lam, it's actually surprisingly uncommon to see one fish eat another (living, breathing, not-being-tossed-into-a-tank-as-food) fish. And understanding those predatory relationships can be really important to understanding species and ecology.
Aquarius sits on the sea floor, just off the coast of Key Largo, Florida. In a Gizmodo post, Brian Lam describes what's inside the 20-year-old research station, and what it's like to be a visitor there.
In its 20 years of operation, the base has gone from being a pristine piece of yellow painted metal—an alien outpost placed here by man—into an overgrown native of the reef, where sea life and humans live side by side. Fish hang out and pass by every viewport all day, unafraid of the humans inside or visitors like ourselves. Corals grow onto bolts and view ports need to be scraped free of biofouling every week or so using 3m non abrasive pads.
The day before their descent, they placed their clothing, computers, cameras, dive equipment into garbage bags that would be "potted down" into the habitat. They each had to decide what to bring, since space is limited in the habitat. Books are a luxury and some were left behind. Food was potted down, too, which mostly consisted of snacks and junk, with a few fruits that would last. Peanut M&M's were sent in a ration of "at least 3 pounds." They're going to be here for a while.
The wi-fi network is unsecured, but good luck connecting to it from outside of the base.
And check back here later this week for more from Brian Lam about Aquarius, Sylvia Earle, and the science of the ocean!
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.