Imagine a space station built to explore the incredible universe beneath the sea: An underwater lab where marine scientists could literally immerse themselves in research on ocean life. How cool would that be?
As the many scientists who have worked at the Aquarius Reef Base can tell you, very cool. It’s a little known fact that the United States has been home to the only such research lab in the world for 50 years. You can experience life in Aquarius by watching the above video from One World One Ocean.
Three-and-a-half miles from shore and 60 feet down, the base sits right next to a spectacular coral reef in the Florida Keyes National Marine Sanctuary. It’s owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and run by the University of North Carolina Wilmington. The base has allowed scientists to study the ocean much like astronauts study space.
Here today, gone tomorrow
But now its hatches are slated to be closed in December. That’s right, Aquarius is a victim of the federal budget crunch. Just recently, renowned oceanographer and former Ocean Conservancy board member Sylvia Earle led a team of “aquanauts” on the last Aquarius expedition. That’s not a good sign for the future of ocean conservation.
“As the inevitable budget cuts hit, ocean science and education will be battered,” says Dr. Ellen Prager, former chief scientist at the Aquarius Research Base. “Let’s hope we are still left with programs that allow humans a real presence in the sea and the ability to observe the ocean firsthand.”
While NOAA has increased funding requests for national weather satellites, ocean programs are the poor cousins. And growing poorer.
A frontier filled with benefits
Ocean research and conservation budgets are shrinking, yet we’ve explored only a fraction of this frontier that is essential to life on Earth—our planet’s life-support system. The ocean gives us so much, including:
- air to breathe,
- clean water,
- economic support for countless communities, and
- food for a hungry and growing world population.
We need more knowledge to better protect the ocean and all it offers—and to discover invaluable benefits we don’t even know about yet.
For example, scientists have only just begun to inventory the potential of ocean life for improving human health. Cancer and pain medications from the sea that make human lives better today could be followed by many more—if studies are funded.
“Research about ocean life and habitats may take place below the surface of the sea, but shouldn’t be at the bottom of the budgeting priority list,” says my colleague Emily Woglom, director of government relations here at Ocean Conservancy.
Conservation efforts like protecting the fragile Arctic from possible oil drilling impacts or restoring the Gulf of Mexico’s health require a foundation of robust scientific research on our coasts and in the sea. We need funding for aquanauts and other researchers so we can count on the best possible future for our ocean—and ourselves.