Media Monday: Hanging out on Aquarius

Google+ has been actively promoting its new Hangout tool, a video chat allowing multiple individuals to “hang out” virtually with each other over an online platform.  From a mobile phone or computer, friends and family can swap stories with up to 9 individuals at a time.  Many of these conversations take place around the dinner table, at a work desk, or on a comfortable couch.  Few, if any, however, take place under the sea.  
National Geographic thought this ought to change, and therefore, invited scientists and filmmakers aboard Aquarius Reef Base to take part in an hour-long Hangout with some of us back here on dry land. The Hangout was broadcast live on National Geographic’s Google+ account, as well as on YouTube. Andrew Howley of the National Geographic Society moderated the discussion with invited discussants Dr. Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence; DJ Roller, a filmmaker; Dr. Mark Patterson, a Professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences; and Dale Stokes, a researcher at the Scripps Institute. Joining Andrew in the discussion from dry land were four participants: Brandon, Lisa, Philip, and Becca, each posing thought-provoking questions around the topics of teaching, education, shark diving, and university studies.
Watch the video below to view the discussion, or read the Explorers Journal for even more about the Hangout. 
Video courtesy of National Geographic.

This was honestly one of the best Google+ Hangouts I have ever participated in.  To have been able to speak to four accomplished explorers about their work, in their element, was outstanding.  Throughout the conversation, fish would swim by the porthole in the background, and bubbles would float toward the surface.  At one point, two divers appeared, peering into the camp and watching the conversation.  They motioned toward the cookies on the table, so Dr. Earle eagerly tried to share her little snack with them, which, of course, didn’t work out too well. As viewers, we were privileged to a virtual tour of the “habitat,” visiting the aquanauts’ bunks, living spaces, kitchen, entry ports, and much more. No interesting element of the living space went unexplored by the Hangout participants.
Otherwise, the discussion revolved around the importance of Aquarius to sea exploration, and the vitality of the habitat as a living coral reef. It is now the only operating seafloor habitat in the world, fifty years after Jacques Cousteau’s initial undersea habitat experiment, Conself I.  Aquarius is facing the possibility of having its approximately $4 million operating budget cut in the coming federal appropriations cycle, ending two decades of seafloor exploration in the Florida Keys.
Some of the issues with closing Aquarius are outlined in the following video, produced by One World, One Ocean.
Introducing Mission Aquarius 
Video courtesy of One World, One Ocean
In the Hangout, Dr. Earle and others pointed to some of the benefits of Aquarius, and what would be lost with its closing.
  • Aquarius gives scientists the ability to perform 9-10 month-long experiments in 9-10 days.
  • The station turns the entire seafloor habitat into a laboratory, allowing the subjects to live in their natural setting while being studied.
  • Without funding, all of the equipment will fall out of repair and will not be fixable.
  • Years of inoperability will cause a loss of brain trust.  The scientists and technicians now responsible for its upkeep will be unable to pass on their skills to the next generation.
  • Some of the filming and long-term science performed is simply not possible from the surface.
  • It would result in the loss of a vital training ground for NASA astronauts, who use the habitat for pre-trip preparation.
  • The ability to conduct long-term research into acidification, coral loss, and various other time-dependent measures of the ocean’s health would be diminished.
Despite being only 50 feet below sea level, Aquarius provides a completely different experience for researchers, photographers, filmmakers, and all who visit the habitat. Its importance to the scientific world is critical, as evidenced throughout the conversation with those aboard during the Hangout.  They live there, self-contained, for weeks on end, among the goliath groupers and sharks that meander by their bunk windows in the evening. 
Interested in helping keep Aquarius going?  Sign on to Dr.Earle’s Save Our Ocean Through Exploration petition to add your voice to Aquarius’ cause.

— Justin Fisch for National Geographic Education

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