The Aquarius Undersea Laboratory
A Most Memorable Dive

by Mellie Lewis

The Aquarius, NOAA's Underwater Habitat, is located about ten miles off Conch Key in 60' of water. The trip out to the site was so far that we completely lost sight of land. Then, on the horizon the Aquarius Support Barge appeared. Near the barge there were two colors of buoys, white and blue. The scientists and government personnel moor at the closer buoy, others at the further buoys.

We were told to go off the bow at a 90 degree angle and descend to the sand channel then follow the sand channel to the Habitat. Due to the depth of the dive we were restricted to a forty-five minute dive. As we began our journey along the sand channel the vegetation changed as we went deeper. We lost the beautiful coral and sea fans.

We were in the water at the depth of hugh basket sponges. I'm a skimpy 5'2" in height, and I could have easily hid inside one of the sponges. The sponges had to be more than five feet in height and two or three feet in diameter - just outstanding!

We followed the sand channel for approximately five minutes and then there it was! Just like a Steven Spielberg or James Bond Movie, the Habitat just appeared out of the void. All of the divers stopped and looked in amazement. We just couldn't believe our eyes.

The Habitat is guarded by a pair of resident barracudas. They checked us all out, but unlike our experience on other dives, they didn't leave. There were many other fish, grunts mostly, swimming around. We didn't see any of the bigger residents.

The Habitat looks like the picture on the web, the only difference being that it's yellow. There are many support and tether cables that you have to swim under and around. The hatch is under the platform; we looked up from the bottom (that's when my dive computer registered 63'), but of course we didn't go in.

The hexagonal structure you see in the foreground of the picture sits on a platform that's approximately eight feet by eight feet and houses many of the underwater instruments. I recognized a couple of different thermometers; Jude will have to tell us in April what the other instruments are.

You can see the NOAA plaque on the front of the superstructure; what you can't see is the beautiful shield that is on the other side of the cylinder. Perhaps we'll see it on when 20/20 airs the Hugh Downs interview with Sylvia Earle, or maybe Jude will get a picture of it when she dives in April. As our B-31Us would say, it's way cool!

Since there was not a mission in progress on August 12th, we were allowed to swim all around, under, over the Habitat. In fact, the only time divers are allowed in this area is between missions. When the JASON Crew is working there, it will be off limits to everyone else.

This dive is etched in my memory forever. We have the dive on video so if you would like to know more, just email me. I'll watch the video again and be ready to answer your questions and describe the minute details, like the beautiful shield.

Mellie Lewis

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