KEY LARGO -- NOAA's Aquarius Reef Base will be conducting a major public outreach campaign later this month during what is, at least for now, scheduled to be the underwater research station's final mission.
The theme of the outreach message will be a celebration of the 50 years that humans have used underwater habitats, such a Aquarius, to stay below the surface for days at a time.
The Aquarius habitat follows in the footsteps of the first such laboratory, Conchshelf I, which famed explorer Jacque Cousteau used in 1962 to conduct observations of sea life off the French coast.
Aquarius Operations Director Saul Rosser said science and the history of underwater habitats will remain the focus throughout the weeklong mission. But with the Aquarius' funding likely to be cut from the 2013 federal budget, he acknowledged that the research station's uncertain fate will also be lurking below the surface during the mission.
"The direct thing we are doing is just getting people engaged," Rosser said. "Hopefully it will help with the political stuff, but we're trying to avoid being directly involved with that."
Located three and a half miles off Key Largo in 60 feet of water, Aquarius is the world's only existing undersea research station, NOAA says. For the past two decades, the station has been used by scientists from NOAA, the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and elsewhere who are tracking changes to the coral reefs of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
This year Aquarius received $1.2 million in federal funding. But in better times, funding levels were in the $2.5 million to $3 million range. The likelihood that the underwater habitat will receive no funding at all next year has led to the recent creation of the Aquarius Foundation, which is seeking to raise private funds to keep Aquarius submerged.
Should the funding go away, the agency could turn the Aquarius station over to an organization like the Aquarius Foundation, provided that the organization is capable of operating the undersea laboratory, said Fred Gorell, a NOAA public affairs officer.
The Aquarius Foundation, which is still awaiting official status as a nonprofit corporation, is pushing to raise $500,000 in the next 60 days, said director Deborah Iles, in order to prove its viability.
This public outreach effort during Aquarius' July 14-21 mission will be keyed by the presence of world-renowned undersea explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle.
In 1970 off the Virgin Islands, Earle led the first team of woman scientists to use an undersea habitat. She'll be a participant in what Rosser said he expects will be two broadcasts per day, streamed online from under the sea.
Aquarius officials have also reached out to national media, including television networks. Participating media, Rosser said, will have the opportunity to watch targeted broadcasts as well to conduct interviews with aquanauts like Earle while they are stationed below the sea.
Scientists on the mission will focus their study efforts on sponges, corals and the goliath grouper, which is the largest species in the grouper family.
But unlike the typical Aquarius mission, they will spend about half of their time engaging the media, educators, museum administrators and other targeted members of the public, Rosser said.