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Sylvia Earle on the importance of the Aquarius laboratory

Sylvia Earle, left, and Fabien Cousteau aboard the Aquarius Reef Undersea Laboratory. (Photo: Mark Widick)

The Aquarius Reef Undersea Laboratory, the only such facility in the world, is losing its funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  AAASMC spoke with Sylvia Earle, also known as "Her Deepness" for her diving exploits, and "The Sturgeon General\ for her passionate advocacy for the oceans and its creatures, about the importance of the Aquarius lab to her work and that of others.

AAAS MemberCentral: You are a National-Geographic Explorer in residence. Is that the greatest job in the world, or what?
Sylvia Earle: Yes, it's the job that I would have wanted when I grew up, if I had known about it. It's a license to play in my big blue laboratory. Michael Fay (another explorer-in —residence) has a green one, Africa. 

AAAS MC: Have you had the opportunity to interact with James Cameron (film producer and also a National Geographic Explorer in Residence who recently made a historic dive to the Challenger Deep)?
Earle: Yes. While Jim is not a pedigreed scientist, in the sense of having degrees, he meets my definition of a scientist, that is, one who observes carefully and reports honestly, plus he is a great story teller. A film like Avatar is not science, but it contains great truths.

I was actually invited to write a National Geographic article early in my career and I refused. I wanted to spend my time on articles for professional journals and I did not want to be seen as a popularizer, someone who was not serious about her work. That was wrong. Scientists have not been great communicators. Ignorance is killing us. We are approaching tipping points with breakneck speed—

AAAS MC: Have you seen measurable changes in the ocean over the course of your career?
Earle: Yes, yes. The ocean is warming and turning more acid. 50 percent of the coral reefs are damaged; probably 85 percent in the Caribbean. 90 percent or more of the population of some of the larger fish and sharks are gone. The monk seal that Christopher Columbus observed in the Caribbean is completely gone, extinct. We can measure all these things, but where is the sense of urgency? We have treated the ocean as if it was too big to fail, taking its resources and using it as a garbage dump. Instead we should take care of the ocean and the planet as if our life depended on it, because it does.

AAAS MC: What was the mission of your latest dive at Aquarius Reef Laboratory?
Earle: It was two fold, first to continue ongoing research, but also to raise public awareness and to celebrate 50 years of saturation diving, which began with Jacques Costeau's Conshelf I in 1962 off the coast of France. We had an undersea interview with Fox News which was picked up by John Stewart in his "moment of zen.\" We were also able to talk to the contestants of the Google Science Fair.

The good news on the dive was that I saw a grouper. The bad news is that there was only one, whereas there should have been dozens.

If you want to have groupers on your plate, you need to not disturb the groupers while they're in the process of making more groupers. Just like Ducks Unlimited has established wetlands where ducks can safely breed, we need protected marine sanctuaries where even the fish are safe (Earle was instrumental in persuading George Bush to establish such a habitat in the northwestern Hawaiian islands).

AAAS MC: What is the importance of the Aquarius Reef Laboratory and why is it threatened?
Earle: Aquarius allows divers to do saturation dives for days and weeks at a time — that is they live underwater, so that they don't have to decompress until the end of the dive. I've done ten saturation dives in my career, three at the Aquarius lab, which is the only undersea lab left in the world. It is like the international space station of the ocean.

Aquarius give you the gift of time, an order of magnitude greater time underwater than you would have doing surface dives.  It gives you the perspective of a resident on the reef instead of just a visitor.

Aquarius has been situated on Conch Reef (near Key Largo) for 22 years, and during that time hundreds of scientists have been able to carry out projects on the reef, so we have a baseline stretching out for decades, something that is very rare in the ocean. We can see changes as they happen. 

It is one thing to put a sponge into a laboratory and measure its pumping action but another entirely to actually measure it on site.  It is the pumping action of sponges that filters the water on the reef.

There's an idea lately that we can do everything remotely, using ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) and machines, but robots can't do it all. As astronaut Kathy Sullivan says, 'a machine can't tell you why it wants to be there.'

NOAA has zeroed out the budget for Aquarius and also for the Pisces submarines. At the same time, they have left in funding for trawling research where they collect samples by dredging the bottom, that's terribly destructive -- destroying the ocean bottom in order to study it.

The Aquarius Foundation has been set up to continue the work of the Aquarius Reef Base and is currently accepting private donations. The Aquarius Foundation also has a Facebook page with many interesting links.

Related Links:

Cutting Edge: Sylvia Earl on the state of our oceans


Representative Image Caption
Sylvia Earle, left, and Fabien Cousteau aboard the Aquarius Reef Undersea Laboratory. (Photo: Mark Widick)
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Steven A. Edwards, Ph.D.

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