Florida Keys News
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
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Aquarius headquarters moves to new digs at Snake Creek

ISLAMORADA -- The Aquarius Reef Base is moving its headquarters from Key Largo to a bayside location in Islamorada its leader hopes will be permanent.

"We think that it's the perfect place for us," said Florida International University Professor Jim Fourqurean, who is heading the project.

The goal, he says, is to set up shop at the mile marker 85.9 location, but so far the university is only willing to sign a one-year lease agreement.

"We're still finding our way," Fourqurean said.

Before FIU took over Aquarius, it was operated by University of North Carolina-Wilmington, which abandoned the project due to budget cuts. The research base, located near Conch Reef about 6 miles off Key Largo, is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

FIU takes over Aquarius with a $600,000 grant from NOAA, enough money to cover maintenance and monitoring of the 400-square-foot underwater lab for six months.

Fourqurean said he continues to solicit donations to support the project, the only one of its kind, and is optimistic that he has lined up a sizeable private donation and possibly some federal funding from agencies that want to use the lab for training. He declined to say which government entities might be training with the project given Washington's impending sequester, which would impose $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts on domestic and military programs beginning March 1.

"The ink's not dry yet," he said.

In previous years, NASA has used the lab to train astronauts to deal with zero gravity-like conditions.

The Aquarius project has already moved four boats to its new location near the northern base of Snake Creek Bridge.

In Key Largo, Aquarius worked out of a Port Largo location that Fourqurean said was a bit of a hindrance because it was in a residential area.

What the new location lacks, however, are dormitories for people training on the project. Setting up an agreement with local hoteliers is in the works, Fourqurean said.

A benefit of the move is the headquarters' proximity to the Overseas Highway and Coast Guard Station Islamorada.

"People will be able to see us from the highway," Fourqurean said.

The project's staff of four is expected to begin work the new location by May. Eventually, Fourqurean said FIU hopes to increase the staff to 10 and also begin offering upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses on site.

jgore@keysnews.com

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