|From left, Fabien Cousteau, Sylvia Earle, and Sam Abeger, hanging out in the galley at Aquarius.|
On July 15 I had the unique experience of diving into the Aquarius Reef Base. Only about 1000 people have ever been inside the habitat over the last two decades, and I was lucky enough to experience that on my sixth dive ever.
I was diving with Fabien Cousteau, Jacques Cousteau’s grandson, and we visited Her Deepness, Sylvia Earle, who is one of the aquanauts saturating in the habitat for the duration of the mission.
This is the last scheduled mission of Aquarius, which loses its funding once the year ends.
Entering the habitat is quite an amazing experience. One has to scuba dive down 50 feet from the surface, and shimmy under a three-foot clearance into a “moon pool” known as the wet porch. Aquarius is completely dry on the inside because it is kept at a pressure that prevents the water from rushing in.
As you get out of your scuba gear and climb a few stairs, you notice your voice sounds different, as if you just inhaled some helium from a birthday balloon. This is because the pressure down at 50 feet constricts your vocal chords in a different way than at the surface. Once you get up the stairs the junior habitat technician directs you to rinse off the salt water to preserve the surfaces of the habitat. Salt erodes things very quickly.
The pressure also allows nitrogen bubbles to enter your bloodstream more easily, giving a narcotic effect. The aquanauts are in a slight state of narcosis throughout the mission, while we only experience it slightly for the time we are there. Narcosis is like being about a few cocktails deep consistently.
Once you enter the first sliding door (just like in sci-fi movies)you realize just how small the place really is. All the photos and videos don’t prepare you well because they are usually shot with a wide-angle lens giving the perspective of a wider area.
|Sam Abeger, Aquarius Aquanaut for an hour.|
Upon entering, the senior technician gives you a briefing about what to do in case of an emergency, where the Built in Breathing Supply (BIBS) are in the habitat and tells you about the “big red button.” He says, “If you think you need to press the red button, press it, don’t ask me if you think you should.” The red button is an emergency shutoff of the main power system in order to control an emergency situation, such as a fire in the habitat.
As soon as the briefing ended, you can roam around and do as you please in the habitat. My objective was to film Fabien Cousteau interacting with the aquanauts, especially Sylvia Earle. So I got right to work. Sylvia and Fabien sat down at the table and started chatting as I set up two cameras to film their discussion. More amazing than being in the presence of two of the greatest ocean personas in the world was the fact that right behind them was a port window looking into the ocean with fish swimming by and a diver taking pictures.
Fabien’s grandfather pioneered underwater habitation with Conshelf I 50 years ago. Sylvia has been part of nine Saturation missions prior to this, and led the first all female saturation mission at Tektike II in 1970. They have met before, but had never met under these circumstances. It was amazing listening to them talk about how we can save our oceans, and projects like the Aquarius reef base, which is integral to the study of how we can preserve the ocean.
Sam Abeger leaving Aquarius Reef Base. Photo: Fabien Cousteau.
All of this was simultaneously being streamed live online; my family was all watching from Southern California to Boston. They all saw me working underwater, filming two great contemporary ocean conservationists. I even was able to call my mom from the phone in the habitat and talk to her while she saw me on the webcams.
After Syliva and Fabien finished their conversation, we all took pictures of one another in the habitat. Sylvia asked Fabien and I to write a note in her book, a request she was going to have of all visitors. I was starting to feel the narcosis a little more at this point and found myself focusing really hard on my spelling because I did not want to have an error in my note to Sylvia. I failed. I misspelled experience (for some reason I wrote it expererience). I crossed the error out as nicely as I could.
Once we got suited up again, we dove back down into the wet porch and out of the habitat, swimming alongside it, getting another peek into the port window and a wave goodbye. Then we swam away, leaving the aquanauts and the habitat behind, slowly ascending and trying to hold on to the amazing experience I just had.
I hope to visit the base again and am awaiting my next opportunity anxiously.