July 19, 2012

Right now, Dr. Sylvia Earle, Dr. Mark Patterson, and the rest of the Mission Aquarius team are joining One World One Ocean to celebrate 50 years of humans inhabiting the seafloor by spending six days doing research and outreach while living in the Aquarius Reef Base laboratory. 
Built in 1986 and relocated to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in 1992, Aquarius has allowed researchers and innovators to understand the decline of coral reefs and develop cancer drugs from sea sponges. It has even been used to train NASA astronauts for space! This special “Mission Aquarius” trip coincides with the recent news that the budget supporting the Aquarius Reef Base has been cut. This may be its final mission.

Aquanaut Team (© Kip Evans / Mission Blue)
Without the Aquarius Reef Base, there will no longer be a way for scientists to observe coral reefs from depth around the clock – limiting their ability to understand key ecological factors that could help save reefs from degradation.
The coral reefs surrounding the Florida Keys are a spectacular example of an ecosystem balancing the influences of climate, resources, species interactions, and human activities – something the Mission Aquarius team is experiencing daily. This delicate equilibrium is easily pushed off kilter if any of these factors change significantly. With this concern in mind, Congress established the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (NMS) in 1990 to protect this “Hope Spot” from becoming degraded by oil drilling, poor water quality, and signs of unhealthy reefs in the area.
Aquarius is located within the Florida Keys NMS (© NOAA / UNCW)

Administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and co-managed with the State of Florida, the Florida Keys NMS manages over 2,900 square nautical miles of the marine environment surrounding the Keys (FKNMS, 2012). The Sanctuary is divided into five types of marine zones that regulate a variety of activities depending on the particular vulnerabilities of different areas. One of the most exciting activities this Sanctuary supports is scientific research – like the work going on in the Aquarius Reef Base.

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