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Boundaries and hot sauce are social distancing musts, says FIU aquanaut

Boundaries and hot sauce are social distancing musts, says FIU aquanaut

April 15, 2020 at 12:15pm

By Catherine Guinovart

Mark Hulsbeck knows what it means to stay put and enjoy the space you’re in. The man known to many as Otter is the most experienced aquanaut at FIU Aquarius, the world’s only underwater research laboratory. He’s learned a thing or two about living remotely with others, having spent 292 days of his career living in a school bus-sized habitat 60 feet beneath the ocean’s surface with as many as five other people at a time.

Otter first was a member of a saturation crew at Aquarius in 1999 and is still the go-to aquanaut for technical support during missions today. Whether family, roommates or another living arrangement, Otter offers unique insight on how to find balance with those you live with during this period of social distancing. 

1.  Staying connected also means staying connected to those you are living with

“When I started at Aquarius 20 years ago, we had very limited ability to connect with loved ones. The habitat had direct phone connection and VHF radio connection to the Watch Desk at the Shore Base. Now, our connection abilities allow us to have WiFi, so we can use cell phones, iPads, and computers. We can Facetime or Skype and give video tours of the habitat when we aren’t working. But it’s important not to be all-consumed by technology during your time in isolation though.

I have noticed a change over the years from aquanauts engaged in card games and telling sea stories to often very quiet times with nothing more to be heard except keyboard tapping and notification beeps. Take the time to connect with the people you are in isolation with too.”

2.  Set clear boundaries for a better team dynamic

“You have to be able to play well with others. Everyone has a busy schedule and needs to work as a team. It’s important to be flexible and keep a positive attitude. While the entire habitat functions as a workspace, during downtime we establish boundaries for different types of activities. The bunk room is the quiet area, for reading, Netflix, viewport watching, napping, etc. The galley table is the main gathering area. It only fits four people, so we have to rotate during mealtimes.”

3.  Stock up on foods that will last, especially hot sauce

“We typically buy 10 days (typical mission length) of supplies. Although, as folks at home are probably doing, we tend to overload on things, especially snacks. Try to limit trips to the grocery store by buying an adequate amount of supplies but know your storage capacity and don’t overstock on perishables.

The main meals we eat at Aquarius are Mountain House-brand dehydrated camping meals. We also purchase a small number of fruits and vegetables, but they spoil rapidly. Due to the high-calorie expenditure during dive operations, we tend to eat a lot of foods that we don’t usually eat on land. Pringles (hard can keeps the chips from crushing at depth), candy bars, red licorice, and cookies don’t last long. We also have lots of flavored teas and coffee.

The camping meals can get a little boring, but over the years, I have become a Mountain House gourmet. Hot sauce is crucial as the sense of taste and smell seem to be altered some at depth. If any of you are getting bored of the food in your pantry, add hot sauce. Trust me!”

4.  Telemedicine is great for social distancing and saturating undersea.

“We use hyperbaric-approved disinfectants to wipe down surfaces in the habitat. Also, ‘sick calls’ are held daily by topside medical staff via phone or Skype to deal with potential illnesses.” 

Otter served in the United States Navy as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Corps before joining Aquarius. He is a licensed boat captain, master scuba diver trainer and hyperbaric chamber operator. Today, he is a research technician for FIU Aquarius, providing mission support for researchers, NASA astronauts and others.

Aquarius is the focal point of FIU’s Medina Aquarius Program, a research and community outreach program. The facility allows scientists to live and work underwater for extended periods of time. In addition to FIU research being conducted there on coral reef conservation, predator/prey behaviors and seagrasses, Aquarius also offers unique training opportunities for NASA astronauts and others.

Aquarius operations are currently suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but missions are planned to resume in the fall. To learn more about Aquarius, visit