A journey to Aquarius—the last underwater research lab

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.

Read the rest of Brian Lam's tour story at Gizmodo

And check back here later this week for more from Brian Lam about Aquarius, Sylvia Earle, and the science of the ocean!


  1. The last of it’s breed, and the current mission is supposedly the last.  I worked there for a year, and consider it the most exciting, demanding, and inspiring time of my life.    The crew at the helm these days is a hell of a bunch, and it’s damned disappointing that the program is threatened.  It’s a space station for the sea! 

    There are a number of Astronauts and A-Candidates that cycled through the habitat as part of NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) – We called them Aquastronauts..

    Ask /them/ which locale, sea vs space, is a crueler mistress.

    1. Wow, kind of cool. How many Aquanauts are Boing Boing readers? I was a habitat technician for this first mission of this cycle with Sylvia Earle back in 1999.

      Worth mentioning the Aquarius is trying to keep going with donations. If you think we need to continue research in the ocean, support them.


  2. I like to imagine that living there would be something like this:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dWSqUON_hvI

    1. They have a couple of larger pots reclaimed from industrial pressurized painting equipment.   Getting them down there is easy..  finding out which of them have hard drives that will seize up at ‘depth’ is, er, less so.

      Running pots up and down was a fun task – in that you got to exact your ‘transport fee’ on whatever food they had requested.

  3. We need more research centers like this, not less or none at all. Research like this is critical to solving our ocean pollutions and overfishing problems. Just look at the reef they are located off of: http://bloosee.com/r/iFDShc

  4. This is one of the most incredible things I have ever heard…how has such a beautiful research facility been kept out of public attention like this? Deep sea labs? Aquastronauts?! For me, this is like learning that something conjured up from the adventure tales of my childhood has, in fact, been true for decades. 

    Just in time to realize it’s facing extinction…

    1. I blame the UFO cults.  It’s impossible to Google “Undersea Base” or “Undersea Lab” without your first million hits being about the Alien “Greys'” undersea bases.  I had a friend who tried to do actual, serious research on undersea bases and pretty much had to do it off-line.

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