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.