Magazine article Insight on the News

Divers Adapt to the Deep

Magazine article Insight on the News

Divers Adapt to the Deep

Article excerpt

`We want to do for oceans in the next century what we've done for aviation and aerospace In this century,' says Sylvia Earle, an aquanaut advocating new technology to explore the still untouched areas of Earth. One of the first efforts toward that goal: Aquarius, an underwater laboratory off the Florida coast.

There's a barracuda looking at me right now," says explorer Sylvia Earle, as she chats by phone five miles off the coast of Florida -- and 60 feet under water.

The fish and Earle are facing each other through a window in Aquarius, an 860-square-foot laboratory with all the amenities of home -- hot showers, a stocked refrigerator, bunk beds and Internet connections. The lab, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and operated by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, costs $1.2 million a year -- a minuscule amount compared with a space station, notes Earle. Since it was deployed in 1993, the habitat has supported 21 research projects.

Earle, explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, recently spent a week inside Aquarius with three other scientists and two technicians studying the health of Joy of coral reefs off the coast of Key Largo, Fla. The Florida Keys are part of a protected natural area, similar to the national parks on land. Unlike other coral reefs, however, Key Largo is in fairly good condition. But Earle's years as an oceanographer have made her less optimistic about the ocean's health.

"Oceans are in trouble," she says. "What we're putting into the sea is having a deadly impact on the coastal waters. Oceans are our life support .... People don't understand their connection to the ocean."

Coral reefs are particularly sensitive indicators of the health of an ocean. Like tropical rain forests, they are home to an amazing array of creatures. Any damage to the coral affects the underwater ecosystem. The reefs also serve as a barrier against shoreline erosion.

The aquanauts are able to extend their studies of the Key Largo reefs by practicing a new technique known as "saturation diving." Divers can encounter decompression sickness when they venture too far underwater and attempt to resurface. Scientists say saturation diving avoids that danger.

Steven Miller, director of the National Undersea Research Center at the University of North Carolina, explains: Inert gases such as nitrogen build up in a diver's bloodstream but reach a saturation point after 24 hours. If the diver stays underwater longer than that, constantly at the same pressure, returning to the surface is no more of a problem than it would be after a leisurely one-hour trip. …

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