Did you know that there are three underwater habitats in the Florida Keys? Neither did I – not until I visited the Aquarius shore base in Islamorada. Two of the underwater habitats, MarineLab and Jules Undersea Lodge, are both located in Key Largo; MarineLab is used for education while Jules operates as an underwater hotel. Aquarius Reef Base, located 63 feet underwater in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary near Conch Reef, is the only currently operating underwater research laboratory1. It is useful for research because aquanauts – divers deployed on a mission to Aquarius – can stay at depths of 95 feet for up to nine hours1.
I had learned a little about saturation diving in college, but we got a thorough explanation of it on our tour of the shore base. When aquanauts live in Aquarius, their tissues become saturated with nitrogen at that depth. No matter how much longer the aquanaut remains in Aquarius, their tissues will not absorb any more gas; this means that decompression will take the same amount of time whether the diver stays at depth for three more minutes or three more weeks1. So, divers can live in Aquarius for as long as they want while making lengthy dives about 30 feet below Aquarius – just like you can make a long 30 foot dive from the surface without much risk of decompression illness. Because aquanauts can linger at depths that ordinary divers can only access for ten to twenty minutes, Aquarius is often used to conduct scientific research on topics such as habitat restoration, climate change, and ocean acidification1. It is also used for the development of undersea technology, observations of corals reefs, and, sometimes, training missions. Including astronaut training missions1.
That’s what was happening on this particular Monday. We meet Cathy Guinovart, Aquarius’s Student Education and Outreach Coordinator, at the Aquarius shore base in the morning for a tour of the facility. The astronauts-in-training are currently living in Aquarius, so they aren’t featured on our tour, but NASA gear is strewn around the base. Even though the mysteries of the ocean have always captured my heart more than those of outer space, I am still pretty starstruck.
Cathy describes how being underwater simulates being in space; working and living at Aquarius helps prepare the astronauts for maneuvering in low gravity environments. She also describes Aquarius’s facilities, shows us the watch desk and command center (where aquanauts are monitored 24/7 during deployment), and lets us take a peek at the hyperbaric chamber they have on site for emergencies.
“We’re having fish taco night at our place. Dinner is around 6:45/7. Come if you can!!”
This text from Shaun Wolfe, the OWUSS National Park Service (NPS) Research Intern, beeps in on Wednesday afternoon. I met Shaun in NYC in April, and I am excited to meet up with him and the NPS crew with whom he will be working in Biscayne National Park. Shaun isn’t here for long – the NPS Intern travels from park to park helping out with different projects (and consequently has a really cool blog – check out some of his posts, if you haven’t already) – but he is in town for a few days. While he’s here, Dave Conlin and Jeneva Wright, both NPS Submerged Resources Center (SRC) staff, kindly agree to let me spend Friday helping Shaun, SRC, and Biscayne National Park Staff look for signs of a nineteenth century shipwreck, the Guerrero. And also, apparently, to let me join them for some delicious fish tacos.
When I arrive at the NPS house in Tavernier, Shaun takes me out to the shed to show me all the NPS gear. Downlines, scale bars, a magnetometer – the shed is chock full of diving equipment and different gadgets, most of it branded with the NPS logo. We return to the house so he can introduce me to the rest of the NPS crew, and they invite me in for a delicious fish dinner. I’ve not met many groups as welcoming as this one – I’m being totally truthful here. After talking over empty plates for a while, I bid them all goodbye until Friday.
Come Friday morning, I hop on a boat with Shaun and the others to go anomaly jumping in Biscayne National Park. For my fellow non-archaeologists, anomaly jumping is when you investigate magnetic anomalies, which is the term for a location where the magnitude of earth’s magnetic field deviates from its expected value. These anomalies are detected by towing an instrument called a magnetometer behind a boat, and the coordinates of the anomalies are stored in a GPS. Why are anomalies important? They indicate that debris or other objects (like maybe…material from a shipwreck) could be present in that location. Our task on Friday is to jump from anomaly to anomaly, snorkel around the location, and investigate what we find.
Before helping out NPS in Biscayne, I knew that shipwrecks could be difficult, sometimes almost impossible, to discover. People spend years searching, and more are being discovered all the time. But I will admit, there was a little voice in my head that protested. “How hard can shipwrecks really be to find?” it would say. “It’s a boat. A really big boat.”
On Friday, I immediately feel silly for thinking that. I quickly realize that an old sunken ship might not be hanging out in one piece; items from a shipwreck could be scattered, and we keep an eye out for them during anomaly jumping. Often, we see nothing at the site of the anomaly. Other times, it is only debris (we find many, many lobster traps). When it isn’t either of these items, it is a heavily encrusted, unidentifiable something. This type of thing is what we are looking for – an item from an nineteenth century wreck aren’t going to look like someone just dropped it into the ocean yesterday – but they are really hard to spot. You have to train your eye to look for straight edges or perfect circles in the mess of fire coral, algae and rubble; several items are invisible to me until my snorkeling buddy, Matt Hanks, points them out. After a promising piece of debris is found, it is photographed and measured.
I never thought I would get to answer the question “What did you do today?” with the sentence, “Oh, I helped the National Park Service look for the wreck of a Spanish slave ship that sunk in 1827.” But, I did indeed get to do just that. And, I quickly straightened out my thinking about shipwrecks. Even in the azure, shallow waters of Biscayne, the ocean felt so vast compared to the hidden collection of items we were trying to locate. In deeper water and lower vis? I can’t imagine. For any archaeologists reading this post: please forgive my naiveté.
Shaun has the day off Saturday, so we decide some diving on Molasses Reef is in order. I snap some photos and do a REEF survey while Shaun practices using his NPS camera gear. With the huge dome lens port and strobes, he looks like he’s on an assignment from National Geographic.
After a fast-paced week, Marie, Ashley, Lawrie and I slow down for a little bit at Florida Keys Brewing Company on Sunday. Unwilling to let things get too boring, though, we play some games of giant Jenga (gathering quite an audience, I might add).
1Aquarius [Internet]. Miami (FL):Florida International University; 2017 [cited 2017 Sep 05]. Available from https://aquarius.fiu.edu/