Visiting the world’s only underwater research station

World Ocean Day
Despite the negative impacts humans continue to have on the oceans, there is hope - hope that it can still support healthy and diverse ecosystems that in turn stabilise a changing planet. Image: Shutterstock

The sun was burning hot and high in the sky above the Florida Keys as we cruised across the aquamarine waters off the Gulf Coast. I could think of no better place to be today, June 8th: World Oceans Day.

Greg Stone underwater

Greg Stone in the Aquarius, the world’s only underwater research station. Image: © Brian Skerry, Conservation International

It was a trip I had made before, but for my companion on this trip to the Aquarius underwater habitat — actor, philanthropist and friend Ian Somerhalder — it was his first time. As I stood on the bow of our boat, my whole body was filled with the ocean breeze; I could smell the lovely salt in the sharp fragrance of the sea.

Soon we arrived at the Aquarius, the world’s only underwater research station. Imagine something akin to the International Space Station, but located about 63 feet [19.2 meters] beneath the ocean surface. We were here to dive and pay a visit to Fabien Cousteau.

As his last name indicates, Fabien is born of an amazing legacy of ocean exploration.

In fact, he is currently living aboard the Aquarius as part of Mission 31, an experiment which echoes the monumental undersea odyssey accomplished by his grandfather Jacques Cousteau, who in 1963 led a team of ocean explorers in the first attempt to live and work underwater aboard Conshelf II in the Red Sea.

Fabien’s mission will last 31 days, aiming to break his grandfather’s 30-day record of living under the sea. Much more than that, however, Mission 31 is trying to show the world the vital human-ocean connection that many people often overlook.

Ian Somerhalder and Fabien Cousteau in the Aquarius

Ian Somerhalder and Fabien Cousteau aboard the Aquarius. Image: © Conservation International/photo by Greg Stone

As we readied our dive gear and prepared to visit a fellow ocean explorer, I recalled the words of a fellow New Englander, President John F. Kennedy:

“All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean [sic], and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea — whether it is to sail or to watch it — we are going back from whence we came.”

Kennedy, perhaps the most visionary president of recent times, is well-known for declaring early in his presidency that the US would put a man on the moon and return him to Earth safely before the end of the 1960s. What is less well-known is that Kennedy also declared the 1960s as the decade of the ocean. Sadly, that vision was never fully realized in his lifetime, or in that decade.

Today, as I gazed out across the sea, I felt that Kennedy would be pleased by initiatives like Mission 31, yet also saddened by how much our global society has degraded the oceans since he made that declaration.

The main reason Fabien is undergoing this historical experience — and Ian and I have joined him — is to use bold acts of exploration and science to bring attention to the problems facing the oceans.

(Learn more in the recording of our Ocean Chat with Greg, Ian and Fabien below.)

For almost the entirety of human existence, we have plodded along not giving a second thought to what is beneath the waves. From the evolution of the earliest submarines in the 17th and 18th centuries, to the invention of scuba by Emile Gagnan and Jacques Cousteau, to the deep dives of the Trieste and the Deepsea Challenger, all of our understanding of what our oceans hold has been driven by adventurous measures of exploration.

We simply cannot know what treasures the natural world has beneath the sea unless we can go there to see and study them.

We were also here with another, more urgent purpose. We wanted to see firsthand the health of the corals and fish populations around Aquarius. This area in the Keys, where Aquarius has rested since the ‘90s, has not lacked scientific study, it is one of the best-monitored regions of the ocean floor. However, that doesn’t mean it is untouched by human impact from the surface.

Overfishing, pollution, climate change impacts and ocean acidification have all been pushing our oceans to the limit

The major problems facing the oceans have largely worsened since Kennedy made his grandiose statement: Overfishing, pollution, climate change impacts and ocean acidification have all been pushing our oceans to the limit. As an ocean explorer and conservationist, I felt a certain duty making this dive — as I have with my involvement with the Ocean Health Index, which measures these human impacts on the oceans.

After our splash-in, Ian and I began our descent through the beautiful underwater world to the Aquarius. About the size of a small school bus, it loomed into my view. I felt like I was visiting an old friend.

Now nestled into the reef and overgrown with coral and sponge, it has become part of this environment. Some of this growth is due to coral transplanting experiments around Aquarius that appear to be taking hold successfully. As the reef grows around her, Aquarius has also become home to reef fish of all shapes and sizes. It’s the booming and busy reef that every diver wants to see.

After popping our heads through the moon pool and greeting Fabien, we took a familiar tour — for me, at least — of the habitat. We spent a few minutes inside with Fabien, talking about ocean issues and Mission 31, before heading back to the sea to explore the reefs.

Though our time was limited on this trip, it was also fruitful. Ian and I were able to observe the bustling reefs around Aquarius. Despite the negative impacts we humans continue to have on the oceans, we saw hope.

We saw hope that the ocean can still be a major source of food for a population speeding toward 9 billion. We saw hope that it can still support healthy and diverse ecosystems that in turn can stabilize our changing planet.

And we saw Fabien, a true ocean pioneer, in action. As he carries on his family’s legacy, he gives me hope for the future — a hope that we will continue to learn from the ocean and become better custodians for our children and grandchildren.

Greg Stone is the executive vice president for CI’s Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science and Oceans. This post originally appeared in Conservation International’s Human Nature blog

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