KEY LARGO -- Florida International University is taking over operations of Aquarius Reef Base off Key Largo, saving the world's last undersea research lab from closure.
"We are very happy that we could finally make this announcement," Jim Fourqurean, the FIU biology professor who will oversee the facility, told the Free Press. "We've been working on this for quite some time."
The Miami-based university takes over Aquarius with a $600,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, enough money to cover maintenance and monitoring of the 400 square-foot underwater lab for six months.
Fourqurean said he's hopeful that after Congress passes a new budget, NOAA will be able to provide an additional $600,000 to last through 2013.
FIU also plans to apply for grants from other federal sources and is seeking private funding as well.
Fourqurean said talks about "sizable donations" are ongoing with individuals in Key Largo's gated Ocean Reef community. He said missions at the lab, which sits in 60 feet of water 3-¬½ miles off Key Largo, could resume by summer.
For the past two decades Aquarius has been used by NOAA and a bevy of scientists to track changes to the reefs of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
The habitat's undersea location allows for longer-than-normal studies. It also enables scientists to use sophisticated equipment that must be hooked up to a power source in an air-conditioned environment.
Aside from reef scientists, NASA has routinely used Aquarius for training exercises because it allows for simulation of zero gravity conditions. NASA's Operation NEEMO, which is readying astronauts to land on an asteroid in 2025, has trained at Aquarius 16 times since 2001.
"Living and working on Aquarius is perhaps the closest thing on Earth to actually being in space," NASA's William Todd, who heads up the NEEMO project, said in response to the FIU announcement.
The fate of the undersea lab had been uncertain for much of the past year, with President Obama's 2013 budget calling for the entire Undersea Research Program, including the $1.2 million that went to Aquarius last year, to be cut.
In an effort to save the program, Aquarius turned its most recent mission, in July, into a media blitz.
At the end of December, the University of North Carolina Wilmington, which had managed the facility through a contract with NOAA, gave up its office space on a residential Key Largo street along the Port Largo canal.
Faced with the uncertainty, five of the 10 members of the UNC Wilmington staff had also left prior to the FIU announcement Tuesday, Fourqurean said.
The other five, including Science Manager Otto Rutten, an 18-year Aquarius veteran, are now FIU employees.
"It's wonderful for Key Largo because Aquarius is one-of-a- kind and we've got it," Monroe County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy said of last week's news. "It would be a shame for that to have ended."
FIU's decision to take over Aquarius is tied directly to the university's broader effort to get more involved in the Keys. For the past several months the School of Environment, Arts and Society has been looking for a property upon which to build an Upper Keys learning center.
The school plans to house scientists at the center, and to also use it for classes and community outreach. Now it will also be the above-the-sea operational base for Aquarius.
In the short term, though, Fourqurean said FIU is close to locking up a lease on a property along the Overseas Highway in Islamorada. He declined to divulge the location until the lease is finalized.
"That will become the inaugural FIU Florida Keys Learning Center," Fourqurean said.