Washington D.C. -- On Wednesday August 1, 2012, U.S. Rep Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R./FL) and fellow Congress members Mario Diaz-Balart (R./FL) and David Rivera (R./FL) met with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Chief Dr. Jane Lubchenco to discuss the future of Aquarius Reef Base, the world's only functioning underwater laboratory. In its 2013 $5 billion budget request, NOAA, which owns Aquarius, has stripped the $3 million funding it would take to operate Aquarius for the year, ensuring the closure of this one of a kind underwater laboratory, potentially as early as next month if no new funding comes through.
After learning about the budget cuts and plans to close Aquarius, U.S. Rep Ros-Lehtinen and fellow Congress members Mario Diaz-Balart and Rivera traveled four miles off the coast of Key Largo, Florida to visit the underwater lab and witness the final moments of what could be Aquarius's final mission. During their trip, the congressional delegation was joined by a large film crew and a number of support staff in boats anchored above Aquarius. The delegation arrived as a team of six aquanauts surfaced after a week-long mission, dubbed Mission Aquarius.
As the aquanauts pulled themselves up the ladder and onto a boat, they raised their hands in triumph and offered energetic waves to onlookers. Though spirits were high, it was a bittersweet moment given the uncertainties surrounding the future of Aquarius.
"Aquarius is a real national treasure. It is a unique facility," said U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart in an interview with Mission Blue while visiting Aquarius. "What it does for a very small amount of money is frankly very hard to believe."
The director of Aquarius, Tom Potts, said that since 1991, the facility has hosted 117 saturation missions, the majority of which have been strictly science based. "We are just beginning to be able to connect the dots with the brain power of hundreds of scientists and hundreds of experiments, that together show a picture that is unprecedented," explained renowned oceanographer, Mission Blue founder and National Geographic explorer-in-residence Dr. Sylvia Earle. "There is nothing like it in the world. To stop the continuity of more than 20 years of research and knowledge would really be tragic."
Over the years Aquarius has helped support the long-term monitoring of the rich coral reefs that surround it, but that is just the start. From Aquarius, ocean professionals have also tested deep-sea technologies and it's even acted as a training facility for Astronauts. In an interview, Bill Todd, who has directed 16 NASA Extreme Environment Mission Projects (NEMO) from Aquarius, said, "if this goes away, we do not have another place to turn."
Dr. Earle seemed to sum it up well when she told the congressional delegation that the closure of Aquarius is unfathomable. "What is really troublesome is that this [the termination of the Aquarius program] is an indication of neglect for the ocean," warned Dr. Earle.
This post was originally published on Mission Blue.