I had learned about the Aquarius Habitat as an undergraduate at Cornell and a few of my professors had even completed projects there. So when I was offered the chance not only to visit but to work at the habitat I knew this would be a good month. The Aquarius is an underwater habitat run by the National Undersea Research Center (NURC) through NOAA and University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Each mission involves saturation diving for up to ten days. Six aquanauts sleep, eat, and work in the habitat, which lies at about 50 feet, and conduct scientific research, outreach programs, or even NASA projects. Because the aquanauts are saturated with nitrogen, the depth of the habitat is zeroed giving much more time to dive at depths of 50 feet and below. Because of the incredible difficulty of supporting six divers in saturation for 10 days, there is a full time staff at NURC who operate and maintain the habitat during and in between projects.
I had been invited to participate as topside support to a project on barrel sponges lead by principal investigators Niels Lindquist and Chris Martens of UNC Chapel Hill. So, early in October, I packed my car up with SCUBA gear and drove down 95 south all the way to Key Largo, Florida, where Aquarius is based.
My first week at NURC, however, was not spent doing science. I had the great fortune of diving with past scholar Doug Kesling of UNC Wilmington on a closed circuit rebreather. It had been two months since my rebreather course with Jeff Bozanic so I was still a bit nervous about the gear. Doug patiently went through the set up with me and soon I was decked out yet again this time on an Inspiration. The dives went very well and I felt much more comfortable and confident with the technology. We spent most of our dives exploring the outside of the Aquarius and the surrounding reef. It was fascinating to look at. The 43 x 20 x 16.4 foot habitat has become an artificial reef and was teeming with sea life. I was introduced to the star residents: Bob the barracuda (Bob standing for "big ol’ barracuda") and Earl, the 200+ lb Goliath Grouper.
The next few days I began my work as topside support for the project. The team consisted of six aquanauts: scientists Jim Hench, Brian Popp, Howard Mendlovitz, Patrick Gibson, and two technicians: Larry Ward and Otter Hulsbeck and the topside support: myself, Johanna Rosman, Sarah Giddings, Nyssa Sibliger, and Niels Lindquist. Together we brought down the equipment and instruments and began setting up experiments.
The ten-day mission officially began when the aquanauts took their final dive down to the habitat to stay and the science began. As topside support, our job was to bring down extra bottles, bags, or instruments, bring back samples collected by the aquanauts, and collect water and sponge samples. I was also able to put my video skills to good use when Niels set my camera up with a ruler to measure the rate of water movement through barrel sponges. We dove three to four times a day, often staying out on the water for seven hours. The days were long and the work hard but the dives enjoyable. It was wonderful to stop by the habitat in the morning to say hello to the aquanauts. We also kept them happy by sending down treats, pizza, and pictures. Each of us got to spend some time inside the habitat where we were treated to hot chocolate and a chance to call family or friends at 50 feet below.
Mission sponge ended after the aquanauts went through an 18-hour in situ decompression (the habitat is also a hyperbaric chamber) and were brought to surface pressure. That night we held a party where we celebrated everyone’s hard work and thanked the NURC crew for their support. We were each given certificates and I am excited to say that I am now an honorary aquanaut! Over the course of the mission I had collected great film of the work in progress and put together a short video to commemorate everyone’s hard work and fun.
I had an absolutely wonderful time working at NURC and it has been by far one of the coolest things I have ever done. Thanks to Doug Kesling and Otto Rutten for helping set this time for me! The team was wonderful and we had a great time working together and relaxing in the evenings. The contacts I made at NURC will be very valuable to my career as a marine ecologist and I look forward to going back one day perhaps as a true aquanaut.
I did not have much time to reflect on my experience as the following two days were spent completing my PADI Instructor Exam. (IE) I had gone through my PADI Instructor Development Course (IDC) with Patrix Heschel in August but needed to pass this two day-long exam before I could become a PADI Open Water Instructor. I quickly brushed up on my dive theory using my divemaster exams as practice. I was nervous about the exam but worried for nothing because the two days went by quickly and were not only easier than I imagined but were also quite enjoyable. I passed the theory exams with great success and taught my confined and open water presentations with enthusiasm. There were only four of us taking the exam and we all passed! I was thrilled to receive my hard earned certificate. The examiner stressed that not only should we congratulate ourselves for completing the IE but also thank all those who helped us on our way. So, I want to take this opportunity to thank all my instructors, dive buddies, classmates, family, and friends, who provided support and amazing instruction.
I left Key Largo and headed up to Orlando for the DEMA (Diving Equipment and Marketing Association) 2007 convention. DEMA was my first ever dive industry convention and from what I had heard from previous scholars, I was very excited to be there. I was also excited because not only were Robin and Igor coming but also other past scholars including Anya Watson, Delia Ni Chiobhan, Joe Hoyt, Sara Shoemaker Lind, Giancarlo Centrulo, and Doug Kesling. I spent the four days at DEMA walking from booth to booth visiting and thanking my sponsors, meeting new contacts, and learning more about the dive industry. Robin and others were wonderful to introduce me to new contacts and my stack of business cards grew smaller as I learned more and more. Each day at DEMA I met leaders in the dive industry including some very well known artists and photographers. Each person I met received me with open enthusiasm for the scholarship and it was made very clear to me how highly the scholarship is thought of in the dive industry. Igor and I also presented some of our underwater video at the Light and Motion booth and it was a great chance for us to show how our video has developed these past months. Igor and I were hosted by Dan and Betty Orr from Divers Alert Network at the DEMA awards ceremony where Dan graciously introduced us to even more people including the CEOs of my sponsor companies.
At DEMA’s end I packed my car up once more and drove back to Washington DC for a brief stay before heading off to my next adventure in November – to Australia! See everyone down under!
1) About to get ready for a dive a the Aquarius site, National Undersea Research Center, Key Largo
2) The entrance into Aquarius
3) Doug Kesling and I on Evolution Rebreathers
4) Filming the habitat
5) Checking out the surrounding reef
6) On a rebreather unit outside the aquarius
7) The aquanaut team!
Back row from left: Jim, Ross, Howard, Brenna, Niels
Front row from left: Johanna, Patrick, Nyssa, Sara, Tim, Brian
8) Having a cup of hot chocolate on a visit with aquanauts Jim and Patrick
9) Measuring the rate of water movement through barrel sponges
10) I passed my PADI Instructor Exam! Me and Gary, the examiner.
11) DEMA Orlando 2007!
12) Robin and I attempting to win dive holidays at DEMA
13) Pirates Brenna, Igor, and Robin!
14) Igor Valente, Wyland, Rodney and Kay Fox, Brenna, Dan Orr, and Robin Parish
15) Igor and I get interviewed by SCUBA Radio's mermaids
16) Presenting at the Light and Motion booth
17) Scholarship ladies: Sara Shoemaker Lind, Anya Watson, Della Ni Chiobhain, Brenna, and Robin Parish