Scientific Community Mobilizes to Restore Famous Undersea Lab Damaged by Irma

A group of astronauts in training surrounding the undersea Aquarius laboratory. Image: NASA

Undersea laboratories feel more like a science fiction trope than a real thing, but the world is home to one such fantastical structure, a marine science laboratory called Aquarius located 3.5 miles off Key Largo, an island in the Florida Keys, and 62 feet underwater. It was badly damaged by Hurricane Irma, but in the weeks since, current and former users of Aquarius, and folks supportive of its science, have mobilized a campaign to repair the treasured habitat.

When Irma plowed into the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm last month, models by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration indicated powerful, 30 foot waves crashing right on Aquarius. But it took about a week for scientists at the Florida International University-led habitat to actually get on the water and see how Aquarius had fared. They were relieved to find the station mostly intact—but badly in need of repair.


“Aquarius was pretty severely damaged,” FIU professor and Aquarius director Jim Fourqurean told Earther. “The main part of the habitat seemed to do fine, but lots of things on the outside of the habitat were really badly hit.”

An aquanaut poses by the exterior of Aquarius before Hurricane Irma hit. Image Credit: Kip Evans

Fortunately for Aquarius, the 400-square-foot habitat has developed a fan following since it was first deployed in the Florida Keys in the early 1990s. Hundreds of scientists from all over the world have collectively spent thousands of hours there, using its living quarters and laboratories to study the ecology of the surrounding coral reefs and fish, and to investigate the impacts of climate change on Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary. NASA, through its Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) project, frequently uses the habitat as a training platform for future astronauts, who go there to do practice “spacewalks” and learn how to live in a sealed metal tube with zero privacy. (Apparently, you lose your sense of taste, but your ability to smell the toilet, not so much.)

Through live broadcasts, hundreds of thousands of students around the world have also “visited” the undersea lab and learned about the science taking place there.


As word got out that Aquarius had taken a hit from the storm, current and former users of the habitat, schoolteachers, and others around the world started a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for its repair. In about two weeks, they’ve amassed close to $25,000.


“I’ve never been involved with a research lab that actually inspired people from all walks of life to give money to keep it around,” Fourqurean said. “That was really cool to see.”

But Fourqurean estimates that a lot more money—perhaps half a million dollars—will be needed to repair the undersea habitat and its support infrastructure, including a damaged land base in the Florida Keys community of Islamorada. While the pressurized parts of Aquarius remain intact and dry (on the inside) after the storm, extensive repairs to the exterior are needed in order to restore its life support systems. The habitat’s 94,000-pound Life Support Buoy, which broke free of its mooring lines and wound up 15 miles southwest in the Gulf, is also in need of repair.


“As soon as it’s safe to work out there, we’re committed to commencing on the repairs,” Fourqurean said, adding that in-water work will be conducted by military veterans with special diving training who staff the facility.


“There is no handbook about how to run, maintain, or fix an underwater habitat,” Fourqurean said. Still, he’s hopeful that between money held in reserve for the FIU-managed habitat, and what can be raised by crowdfunding, “we can be operational for our next field season” in the spring of 2018, which will include another NASA NEEMO mission for astronaut training, equipment testing, and scientific research.

Bill Todd, mission director for NASA’s NEEMO project who has overseen nearly two dozen missions to Aquarius—and assisted in the recent crowdfunding campaign—told Earther he’s “super optimistic” the habitat will pull through. Especially considering the swell of support it has seen over the last few weeks.


“I can tell you there are a lot of people—private citizens, marine scientists, and explorers—who care about this facility,” he said. “There is absolutely nothing like it in the world.”

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Maddie Stone

Maddie Stone is a freelancer based in Philadelphia.