Defunded - a heartbreaking look at the state of oceanic research

This week, I'm reporting from the Aquarius undersea research base in Key Largo, Florida. The habitat is the world's last undersea research base. Because NOAA is pulling funding from the 22 year old facility in September, this week's mission is its last scheduled one.

This is a video of oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle that was taken a day or two ago. She's being filmed on Aquarius a Red Camera that is in a waterproof housing tethered to an internet connection in the base. Sylvia's helmet, which is a custom variation of a helmet that working divers use, is equipped with a point of view camera and audio comms. The entire thing was streamed over Ustream a few days ago. This section of the video is of her answering the broad and simple question--Why should we care about the ocean?

The answer she gives above is, in typical Earle style, heartbreaking. The oceans have been in trouble for quite awhile now, but the video above is taking place only because Sylvia is trying to stand up for not only the oceans this week, but the Aquarius habitat itself, which she believes is a critical tool and last of its kind for ocean scientists and the ocean itself.

When the base shuts down, the world will lose its only publically funded saturation diving facility, which is not beneficial to science for three main reasons: In Aquarius, scientists can conduct undersea experiments that are too intricate or dependent on direct observation for robots. And scientists can also stay in deep water 9-10x the time a scuba diver can because Aquanauts never have to surface and risk decompression sickness at the end of a day. Lastly, because the data from the reef has been coming in for the last 20 so years, it serves as a constant yardstick for the health of the oceans in general. That data flow should not be interrupted.

The other thing that is super confusing about the decision to pull the plug on Aquarius's parent program, the National Undersea Research Program (AKA NURP) is that the Hawaii Undersea Research Lab (AKA HURL) under NURP is also being shut down.

While Wood's Hole's Alvin is being recommissioned, the Piscese subs are our only two subs capable of taking man to the depth of 2,000 meters. I spent a lot of time this Spring hanging out on the pier where the Pisces subs are located on the windward side of Hawaii. I was told by Terry Kerby, the longtime pilot of the subs, that the viewports on Pisces IV and V, which are pointed forward and not down as on Navy designed subs which are meant to cruise in the midwater instead of depth, are our two best observational subs.

Meanwhile, China, France, India, Russia and others are building subs capable of 6,000 meters, and James Cameron, Richard Branson and other visionaries of the deep are spending their own money to bring man to the deep.

NOAA is cutting programs largely because of rising costs of weather satellites which are critically important to millions, especially after Katrina. But these satellites cost over $800m and Aquarius and HURL's subs cost $5m total per year, to run. Some public schools cost more than this to run.

It's confusing to me why this is a good idea to handicap the very machines that let us understand the ocean as human beings and not just data collecting bots. Perception that comes from peripheral vision, or the heat felt from a hydro thermal vent, or the inner ear sensations a pilot feels as a strong current jostles a sub are all important.

A lot has been made of the advance of ROVs in the last few years, which are cheaper and more capable than ever. Robot arms can be strong and articulate at the same time. Cameras can see in darker places than our own eyes can. But robots lack the imagination and creativity and intuition that human observers in a habitat or Aquarius can use to create the theories that the data is used to test; they lack the ability to intuit theories which are then backed up by data.

I'm not saying we don't need ROVs. I love ROVs. But asking us to explore the sea without being there is like expecting to explore everest with a telescope.

We have to keep going to the places we seek to understand, to see with our own eyes.

And with that, I am going diving now.


  1. I just watched half the people in line at the post office get arrested.  If you had any illusions of the United States being a first world country, I assure you they are shattered.  Honestly, the problems we have today are massive and the solutions being enacted are only going to exacerbate them. 

    So my hope for the future of scientific research?  None.  Not because it isn’t necessary, or worthwhile, or the engine by which our economy can be made to recover.  But because our leaders are dumber than a sack of door knobs and hate people who can legitimately point that out.

    Wednesdays are always a bit of a downer for me.  Now they can be for you too!

  2. “I just watched half the people in line at the post office get arrested.”

    Do you have more info?  I’m curious about what happened.  Thanks.

  3. I still have my old books from the Mundo Cousteau encyclopedia, filled with gorgeous photographs of the undersea world. Back in the late 70s and early 80s Cousteau was probably one of the most famous men in the planet.

    Now if you stopped a teenager and told his name, the teenager would probably think you’re talking about the food critic in Pixar’s Ratatouille :(

  4. Sorry for you.  I’m sure it was a great  ride while it lasted. But, anyone diving the florida keys for the last 50 years is well aware of the precipitous decline in vigor and diversity there. Spending money to document this in detail around this installation seems redundant. We know human activities are not compatible with thriving coral reef habitat, for that matter, florida bay’s habitat. This will not end differently because someone is watching the decline surrounding the Aquarius base. 

    1. Perhaps if we were to observe the decline, we could come to understand it and why it happened.

  5. Kickstarter project maybe? We could fund a private seaQuest, we just need a Branson of the oceans!

        1. It is being de-funded by the federal government. The foundation is looking for donations to keep it going (subtle hint).

          Long ago, Aquarius used to be allocated a certain amount of money for missions. Sciencetist put together proposals and the ones that seemed to make best use of the underwater habitat were chosen and funded.

          I was poking around the foundation’s web site and I think it could use some jazzing up. How about posting mission proposals and let people vote with their donations. The missions that raise enough money happen. Any similarities between this and our electoral process is purely coincidental.

  6. Did anyone ask James Cameron for a grant? $5 million is nothing to him and obviously he’s very interested in oceanography.

    1. Also, he may have some tips for making a more interesting video. Such as…for example…editing out…the pauses.

        1. There’s no need to tell me to cut her some slack. I’m not complaining that she paused while speaking. It’s obvious that it has something to do with her air regulation. Go back and read what I wrote again if you like.

          I’m just saying, it’s not necessarily beneficial to the effectiveness of the video, which as, after all, produced as a publicity tool. They could have at least explained it in the video.

      1. Dude, she’s 76 years old and still diving.  I see nothing wrong with her monologue.   I hope i’m still SCUBA diving in my 70’s.

  7. This hits close to home for me. In 2008,I lost my job of 7 years with the US Geological Survey (USGS), because of a lack of federal funding. I worked for deep-sea and coastal conservation research scientists in Gainesville, FL. I’ve also done some work for NOAA. Most of our work crew was “let go” then and even more since. I’m sadly still unemployed. The ocean is going to be in even greater dire straights when there is no one researching it and reminding the world of the importance it has to every living thing on this planet. This is very troubling news.

    1. well god bless america!  Yeah but I dont have hope for the future!  its only when we are in dire straits people will want to change but then its too late.  Since now there are so many different varities of sharks that look the same 

  8. I would like to  quote a ex co-worker from the facility:

      ” It doesn’t take that much to run Aquarius if it was properly managed!! Im sick and tired of hearing all this BS! That budget is mostly to ” pay” people to come do their research here.  Who does that??  Get it away from the government, Run it like a business and there would be NO funding issues. “

    1. “Get it away from the government, Run it like a business and there would be NO funding issues.”
      Because that always works, right ? Hey, why don’t we sell the thing to Goldman Sachs ?
      Knee-jerk libertarians annoy the crap out of me. Can you tell ?

    2.  Pure oceanic research as a business? Not going to happen. Unless capitalists can make money from it within five years, they aren’t going to be interested. And if they find a way to turn oceanic research into a business, chances are the research isn’t going to be worth much as research, anyway.

  9. Yeah, but look on the bright side.  We are pumping tons of money into failed solar panel companies run by Obama’s bundlers so all Aquarius has to do is claim they manufacture votes… I mean solar panels and they are golden!

    When you have $16 trillion in debt and $100 trillion in unfunded mandates… and the burn rate is increasing exponentially then something has to give.  So stuff like this is pretty much at the bottom of the worry list.  I just shut my business down and put 34 people out of work due to Obamacare so good luck getting them to pay for anything.  All of the small business guys are heading to the exits.  Nobody signed up for this crap.

    Now if Obama would just quit waging war on commerce we might be able to afford to stave off bankruptcy a little bit longer but it is inevitably coming no matter what you set the tax rate at.  If you think this is bad then you haven’t seen anything compared to what is coming.  We already spent the next generation’s wealth and no tax rate imaginable will ever bring things back in line.  Any tax increase in the teeth of a bad economy will not raise any more money but at the same time the government can’t stop trying to buy our votes with other people’s money.  So now they have resorted to the only thing left… printing money and robbing us through making each dollar worth less… and thus the debt the government has acquired is easier to pay at lower interest rates.  Bugger all of you guys who saved your whole life.  You were suckers.

    People talk about austerity but in reality the feds are spending more money than ever by any measure you want to use.

    But hey, maybe if the government just spends a little more things will get better and it will all work out differently than every other time in history governments have tried this. 

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