June 16, 2008

Another Age of Aquarius

By Kevin Wadlow, Florida Keys Keynoter, Marathon

Jun. 14--Latest mission: Determine why some transplanted corals succeed, other don't

In the dark of the pre-dawn ocean, Ken Nedimyer saw the soft glow of coral fluorescence.

When he looks out the window during meals, a Goliath grouper often looks back.

"These aren't the things we're down here to look at, but it's still a very cool thing," Nedimyer said from the Aquarius underwater laboratory oceanside off Key Largo.

Lauri MacLaughlin watched oysters and bivalves spawn, sending orange and white streams drifting to the depths.

She thinks about "saving our babies" - hundreds of coral pieces now being transplanted to a permanent sub-sea garden as a long-term research project at the Aquarius.

"Just to have such incredible access to the water and be part of the ocean system is an amazing experience," said MacLaughlin, a 21-year Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary staffer known universally to fellow divers as Lauri Mac.

MacLaughlin and Nedimyer, both coral experts and longtime Keys residents, were welcomed Wednesday into the select society of aquanauts - those who have spent at least 24 hours in an underwater habitat.

They won't surface until Tuesday, when the six-member team finishes its weeklong mission to establish a coral-transplant research garden.

"A lot of coral people like me dream about doing something big and significant," Nedimyer said. "This is it. I've been thinking about it going to bed and waking up."

The Aquarius, in 60 feet of water at Conch Reef, is owned by the federal government and operated by the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. It hosts from six to eight missions a year, which often include weightlessness training for NASA astronauts.

Sleeping aboard the Aquarius - the only functioning underwater lab in the world - occurs in a small bunk in a cramped space shared with team members.

But 12-hour workdays, with six hours of diving, makes slumber in the unnatural setting easy.

"I slept like a baby," Nedimyer said of his first night. "It's a long day with a lot of swimming around. It's tiring. Once it gets dark, things here slow down and everybody turns in pretty early."

The aim of the coral-garden project, headed by scientist Margaret Miller from the National Marine Fisheries Service, is to find out why some transplanted corals fare better than others. Miller is part of the surface support team for the mission.

"Very little is known about the underlying biological reasons why one coral may survive and grow beautifully when transplanted to a reef while another may sicken or die," Miller noted in a project summary.

The team will establish 34 quads, each containing nine pieces of transplanted corals.

For control purposes, only mountain star and staghorn corals are being used. Varying factors include depth of the transplants and whether the original location of the corals matters.

The transplants come from six sources, including coral rescued from seawalls being removed from Key West and the Upper Keys. MacLaughlin spearheads the effort.

"Most of these are rescued corals that would have otherwise been lost," MacLaughlin said. "Now they're being put to a beneficial use."

Tavernier resident Nedimyer, a professional collector for aquarists, launched his own coral transplant project seven years ago. It has expanded into a nonprofit organization involving high school and college students helping with research.

"There are a lot of questions [about coral transplants] that need to be answered, and we hope this project will do that," Nedimyer said.

Although both Nedimyer and MacLaughlin spend much of their working lives underwater, they both said they're thrilled to have the unmatched bottom time made possible by staying aboard the Aquarius.

"The neatest thing is being so close to everything," MacLaughlin said. "You get up in the morning and just slip into the water because it's right there."

She said, "I was a little worried that I'd start to get cold after a two-hour dive, but now two hours isn't enough. You always want to be out in the water."

Using double tanks for the first time, Nedimyer said he was amazed to return after a two-hour dive "and you still have half your air."

Divers working from the Aquarius can refill their tanks at an underwater "gazebo" and return to work.

Stays aboard the Aquarius are hazardous because once submerged for several hours, divers cannot surface before undergoing a lengthy decompression period, performed by slowly changing pressure aboard the habitat.

To prepare for their first mission, Nedimyer and MacLaughlin underwent a week of rigorous training that included skills such as being able to navigate and perform emergency tasks without a mask.

"Now that I'm out here, I get it," Nedimyer said. "Everything makes sense."

Teams aboard the Aquarius are constantly observed and monitored from the facility's land base in Key Largo.

About Aquarius

-- The Aquarius can house six aquanauts for one- to two-week missions. It's about four miles off Islamorada and nine miles south of Key Largo in 60 feet of water at the base of Conch Reef.

-- It's an 80-ton cylindrical steel chamber 43 feet long and 9 feet in diameter that's anchored to the seabed with a base plate.

-- It has eight exterior view ports.

-- It has two pressurized compartments, or locks, with separate life-support controls and communications: A main lock with kitchen, work area and six-person bunkroom; and an entry lock with large workspace.

-- It has backup oxygen and medical supplies

To e-mail the aquanaut crew or watch live Web cams of them in action, go to www.uncw.edu/aquarius/index.html.

- UNC-Wilmington


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