KEY LARGO -- Undergraduate biology students this fall at Roane State Community College will be taught by a professor living in a Key Largo underwater lodge some 21 feet below the surface.
Bruce Cantrell, a biologist at the Eastern Tennessee college and a certified diver, has teamed up with Ian Koblick from Marine Resources Development Foundation to offer a classroom under the sea.
Cantrell and adjunct instructor Jessica Fain plan to spend 72 days at the foundation's Jules' Undersea Lodge. If they succeed, they'll break the current world record for living underwater set at the lodge in 1992 by Richard Presley at 69 days 19 minutes.
Being mentally prepared for this will be the hardest part, says Cantrell, who will need to pass a physical in order to complete the feat.
To the discomfort of his wife, the trip will have Cantrell underwater during the Halloween and Thanksgiving holidays.
"She's not thrilled about it," Cantrell said.
Cantrell, though, is in the process of trying to schedule a couple of husband and wife nights while underwater. The longest he has been submerged at one time is 24 hours.
Koblick has few worries about Fain and Cantrell. He is setting up a program to keep the two occupied, which includes cleaning the lagoon where the lodge is based.
"They are going to be wishing they were back at the lodge," Koblick said jokingly when asked about all of the downtime the two may have.
The meeting between Koblick and Cantrell, which partly prompted the project, was due to chance. While walking around his foundation's facilities at mile marker 102, oceanside, Koblick met Cantrell, who announced an ambitious goal.
"One day, his dream was to set the world record for living underwater," said Koblick who snarls at records as just a way to drum up media attention.
It took a few hours, but eventually Koblick had an epiphany. Cantrell could live underwater for the world record but in doing so he would also give live educational broadcasts. In addition to these videos, Cantrell would have the opportunity to teach a college course from the lodge.
"Mrs. Smith's kindergarten class in California could watch," said Cantrell, who noted the broadcasts would be live and free to anyone.
To Koblick, the project is about informing the public of the state of the ocean. An offshoot of this project could be inspiring more students to pursue science-based careers.
"Even though setting the world record may be a media stunt, it could help shed light on the problems we have with the ocean," Koblick said.
He said the 72-day timespan marks the number of years since Dr. Albert Behnke introduced the concept of saturation diving.
When it comes to a project of this magnitude, Cantrell and others might question why an out-of-state community college with a small staff and budget would be selected to take on such a project.
"I don't know of anyone else that can do it better than they can," Koblick said.
Roane State makes multiple dive trips throughout the year, including an annual trip to introduce students to the lodge.
Koblick traveled to Harriman, Tenn., last week to make the announcement to the college, taking the first step in what was just an idea and turning it into a project.
To help continue to bring attention to the project, Koblick is in the process of scheduling media days with opportunities for press interviews down at the lodge. He is also lining up celebrity guests, including former astronaut Buzz Aldrin and other notable people from the science and entertainment industry.
The team is expected to enter the lodge Oct. 4 and resurface again Dec. 15. The lodge, which usually serves as host to tourists or honeymooners, will be monitored 24 hours throughout the project.
Fundraising efforts are moving forward for both Koblick and Cantrell.
Cantrell will be in Key Largo next month to film a Roane State recruiting commercial and to make sure everything is in line to produce his classroom lectures. Koblick is turning his attention toward financing the project, which will run about $200,000. He told the Free Press last Thursday he has begun drafting letters to potential sponsors.
For the first time, the group will also reach out through PayPal as a means for online donations.
For information on how to help, go to www.mrdf.org.