Being immersed in the ocean science community, many of this foresaw this inevitability, but there’s nothing like the national e-news to confirm things – Aquarius, the world’s last underwater laboratory dedicated for science is closed.
The symbolism of this closing event is more discouraging than the close itself. From a business perspective, especially given the nature of today’s marine science programs, Aquarius is just too expensive to operate given the output. Indeed, all projects conducted there are hugely beneficial to marine science and humankind, however at the cost of $3 million annually, the government is telling us to ‘find another way’. More broadly however, Aquarius is the last of the iconic life in the sea programs that came about in the 1970’s. This evolution is described well in Ben Hellwarth’s recent book, ‘Sealab’.
One issue with Aquarius, or any underwater habitat, is its permanence. They are all so big and heavy that once deployed, it is there they rest. Much like today’s social and economic enterprises, the sciences need mobility. Couple this mobility with massive bulk data acquisition and transmission, and you create a vehicle that supports a much larger pool of end-users. This remains a difficult task in the ocean sciences, though robotics and sensor arrays are filling that need. Potentially left by the wayside is the value of a human presence – that is where we need to step things up.
While I’m indeed biased to diving, I can say for certain that as a tool for the job it has its time and place where a human mind, eye, and hand cannot be matched in completing an underwater task. The trick now remains how to do something with divers at a scale that warrants massive government and private investments to take ocean sciences and a new human presence to new depths. It’s all there for the taking.
What the future will bring? I have no prediction other than knowing for a fact that I’ll still be out there, working to improve human performance, and doing everything possible to guide us to yet another new life in the sea.