Four FIU students embarked on a seven-day mission to Aquarius this week, the first FIU research mission to the world’s only undersea laboratory since the university assumed operations earlier this year.
All Marine Sciences students, the quartet are each exploring unique fields of research that study the reef ecosystem. Two of the students, Laura Bhatti and Andy Shantz, represent professor Deron Burkepile’s lab.
“One of the coolest things about the Aquarius mission for me is that 10 years ago this week, I was doing my first mission as a grad student,” Burkepile said. “Now I have two grad students down there as part of a mission.”
Bhatti and Shantz are joined by Mark Barton from professor Kevin Boswell’s lab and Christian Lopes from professor James Fourqurean’s lab. Lopes is the only undergraduate taking up residence in Aquarius this week.
“We’re trying to understand how the recovery of large predators like grouper, barracuda and sharks affect the behavior of the other fishes on a reef,” Burkepile said. “Aquarius is such a good place to do this because, first it gives us a huge bonus of time we can spend on the reef at these depths. Second, Aquarius is a marine protected area. The area around Aquarius is closed to all other activities besides the science that happens from Aquarius. So there are lots of big grouper, snapper, barracuda, snook, and jacks on the reefs around Aquarius. Its a great place to start to understand how the ecology of fear impacts the ecology of reefs.”
On the surface, additional FIU students, both graduate and undergraduate, are providing diving support for the mission. The aquanauts are slated to surface Sunday, Nov. 24.
The Aquarius Reef Base, submerged by NOAA in 1993, provides unparalleled access to study coral reefs and marine life while also offering opportunities to test state-of-the-art undersea technology, train specialized divers and astronauts. Aquarius was in danger of being decommissioned last year. FIU has put in place an aggressive plan to save Aquarius and has reopened it for the use of scientists, government agencies and private industry. Scientists can dive and live aboard Aquarius for days, even weeks at a time.