50@50: World’s only undersea lab featured on ‘Today’ show

To celebrate the university’s 50th anniversary, FIU News is sharing 50 moments in FIU’s history as part of our “50@50″ series.

By Joel Delgado ’12 MS ’17 

After a successful effort by FIU to save the Aquarius Reef Base from near shutdown in 2013, the world’s only underwater research lab finally got its moment in the sun.

NBC’s ‘Today’ show reported live from Aquarius for its the re-opening, which sits in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary 63 feet below the surface of the ocean off the coast of Key Largo, Fla., on Sept. 18, 2013.

It was a festive reboot of sorts for Aquarius, whose history dates back much further.

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration deployed the Aquarius Reef Base in 1993. Aquarius had provided information for hundreds of research papers on conservation, habitat protection and a host of other topics over the course of 117 missions.

But after operating on a modest budget and near obscurity for nearly two decades, looming federal budget cuts in 2012 threatened to shut it down for good.

The plan to save the base involved finding a host institution to maintain operations and develop a business model that would not be dependent on government funding. That’s where FIU came in.

After months of discussions and planning, FIU announced in January 2013 that it would assume operations of the base. Mike Heithaus, former executive director of FIU’s School of Environment, Arts and Society (SEAS) and current dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, was part of the team that helped save Aquarius.

“For our students and our marine sciences program Aquarius offers fantastic new possibilities and is a natural fit for the work we are doing in the Keys and throughout the world,” he said at the time.

Since taking over Aquarius, the base has been involved in important research missions and has had some exciting guests.

In June 2014, filmmaker Fabien Cousteau – the grandson of well-renowned ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau – and a team of FIU students embarked on Mission 31, the longest mission in the underwater lab’s history. For 31 days, students conducted experiments for ongoing research at FIU dealing with coral reef ecosystems, seawater chemistry and large predatory fish. Most importantly, Miami technology entrepreneur Manny Medina, who founded Terremark Worldwide and is now chairman and CEO of Medina Capital Partners stepped forward with a gift to establish the Medina Aquarius Program at FIU, helping to ensure the long-term stability of Aquarius.

RELATED: 8 of the best moments from Mission 31

NASA has also used the base for several missions, conducting activities on the ocean floor that will inform future International Space Station and exploration activities.