Skip to main content

He spent months underwater. Now he wants to save the ocean.

To confront climate change, scientists like Mark Patterson are tapping into surprise, adventure, and wonder.

By Erick Trickey

Mark Patterson, marine scientist, aquanaut, and inventor of underwater robots, walked into San Diego Comic-Con dressed as a giant coral polyp. He was decked out entirely in orange, with ten fake tentacles dangling from his neck. Green and purple splotches on his shirt front represented microplastics pollution, lodged in his polyp-gut.

This was 2015, and producers of the film Aquaman had invited the Northeastern University professor — who had lived in an underwater research station — to speak on a panel of real-life aquatic adventurers. “I said to my wife, ‘We can’t go to Comic-Con and not have a costume,’” Patterson recalls. So his graduate students made him the polyp suit. He brought along his wife, Susan, costumed as Amphitrite, the Greek goddess of the sea, in a dress made of sheer, flowing strips of blue. And he carried another prop: printed copies of a one-page fact sheet about the problem of microplastics pollution in sea water. He stuffed the flyers down his orange pants and passed them out on the convention floor to cosplaying comics fans — green-haired, black-goggled, purple-face-painted.

“It was the most exhausting six hours of my life,” Patterson says, “because I was constantly getting mobbed by people who were freaked out that they had somehow missed a character in the Universal or DC Comics pantheon of superheroes. So they come running up and go, ‘I don’t recognize you. Who are you? Are you some from-Japan thing that we don’t know about?’ I said, ‘No, I’m Polyp-Man, and I’d like to tell you about microplastics.’”

Afterward, a fellow scientist approached Patterson and told him, “You have a really unusual way of trying to connect with the public.” But in Patterson’s view, the communication of the message can be as important as the message itself — and whimsy, surprise, and intrigue are tools for a serious purpose. Environmental scientists, who have seen climate change and pollution’s effects spread across the globe, can no longer assume that if they publish academic papers for their peers to read, they’ve done their job. “We have to engage in a different way if we’re going to have any impact,” Patterson says. “We need to be much more creative with how we message the insights we get from studying nature and how global change is happening.”

As humanity confronts crises from climate change to COVID-19, scientists like Patterson may be able to lead the public past dystopian fear and toward concrete action by sharing their passion for science and tapping into people’s sense of wonder. It’s something Patterson has managed to do over the course of his career, using showmanship to draw attention, raise questions, and drum up financial support. “I’ve always been interested,” he says, “in trying to communicate the excitement.”

When it comes to capturing the public imagination, it’s hard to compete with the mystique of space: the mystery, the danger, the frontier adventure, the prospect of the undiscovered. That’s why Hollywood pours millions into ever more space movies, why tech billionaires are sending themselves into sub-orbit — and why many scientists of Patterson’s generation cite the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing as their early inspiration.

Patterson, 64, was drawn into science by something else: The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, the 36-episode documentary TV series that aired from 1968 to 1976. In it, the French diver introduced viewers to penguins, squid, and sharks, as well as his inventions, including submersible vehicles, underwater habitats, and breakthrough scuba gear — and demonstrated how to bring science to the public with a mix of adventure and awe. “Long before there was a sprig of grass on Earth,” Cousteau intoned gently at the start of one episode, “there was life in the water.” His show married shimmering undersea footage of whales, fur seals, and sea turtles with the human explorer’s quest: shirtless men shouting in French when they spy a whale’s spout, scuba divers in wetsuits poised to leap from a speedy motorboat. Through it all, Cousteau, white-haired, thin, and fit, his red beanie making him instantly identifiable, narrated the searches of the Calypso, his former naval ship-turned research vessel, with intellectual precision and poetic awe.

“He was an incredible writer,” Patterson says of Cousteau, “with instinct for turns of phrase that would stick in your mind, as he was talking about the silent world.”

“None of us started off being global-change biologists. It’s just that the planet changed underneath us.”

Mark Patterson, marine science professor at Northeastern University

Patterson deliberately set himself on a career path that would bring him to Cousteau’s world, and by 1998, he had reached the ideal place of study: the Aquarius Reef Base, the aquanauts’ International Space Station, where scientists and support staff live underwater for days or weeks at a time. A yellow cylinder about the size of a school bus, it has been moored by heavy stilts to the sea floor, five miles off the coast of Florida, since 1993 (when it was moved from the U.S. Virgin Islands). Patterson has spent a total of 89 days at Aquarius and an earlier submerged base, Hydrolab. In between experiments at the reef next to Aquarius, he spent his downtime watching the creatures swim by: sharks and goliath grouper on their hunts; bunches of jellyfish and lantern fish; permit and pompano, daytime predators, circling the base; plankton-picking fish in enormous schools.

“It’s like going into outer space, but maybe in some ways better,” Patterson says. It’s also a stunning vantage point for watching the planet change. Compared to when Patterson first dove into it, the sea is now filled with warnings about the planet’s transforming climate, and with life threatened by humanity’s effects on the world — life that needs us to change if it’s going to survive. Those coral polyps, like the one Patterson dressed as for Comic-Con, with their tentacles turned orange by algae inside their tissues? Since the 1980s, he’s watched reefs of them bleach white. Coral, under stress from warming water, often expel their algae — the very food source that sustains their life.

“Coral reefs are going to be the first major ecosystem that collapses planetwide at the hand of human beings if we don’t do something really, really quickly,” says Patterson. “And I’m not sure we can pull it off.”

It’s a realization that has struck many earth scientists as they’ve witnessed the rapid changes in the environments they study — and, as a result, have reached beyond academia to warn the public about the dangers of climate change.

“I think that’s really common amongst people like us, where we started studying climate change just because it’s unavoidable,” says Brian Helmuth, a professor of marine science at Northeastern University who studies sustainability and collaborates often with Patterson. “I know for me, my study sites kept dying. And so I could study the biomechanics of fluid flow, but then, if all the corals were dead, what’s the point?”

Patterson gave his first lecture on global warming’s effects on marine organisms in 1990, and found himself increasingly adapting both his research and his communication to climate efforts.

“None of us started off being global-change biologists,” he says. “It’s just that the planet changed underneath us.”

Space exploration has its real-life robots — the Perseverance and Curiosity rovers sampling Mars’ soil — and its sci-fi robot heroes and villains, from R2D2 and C3PO to HAL 9000. Patterson’s sea exploration also depends on a robot, named Fetch. It’s Patterson’s own invention.

Fetch was born, if you can call it that, in a feverish quarantine in the early 1990s. Patterson had joined a three-week scouting trip around the Florida Keys on a research vessel to find a site for Aquarius Reef Base. A few days into the trip, he caught the flu and was isolated in his cabin. His temperature spiked into the low 100s. He grew delirious.

“I’m lying there, and all of a sudden, I had one of those invention moments,” Patterson recalls. He realized that he could make his own underwater robot entirely out of commercially available parts. Patterson sketched out a diagram: a Mac PowerPC processor, an early GPS receiver, and a fluxgate compass for finding the north magnetic pole and reading a craft’s roll, pitch, and yaw.

Patterson’s original Fetch first swam in 1995. About six feet long, weighing 200 pounds, with a hull made of fiberglass, it looks like a sleek white porpoise with a gray head and tail. Its black fins fold up next to its body, like a fish’s fin. “These robots can turn on a dime, like a fish can,” Patterson says. His Fetches can also swim for up to two and a half days at 3 miles per hour, up to 150 miles from their operators, collecting video, photos, sonar and radar readings, temperatures, and measurements of the water’s oxygen content, acidity, and salinity.

Patterson has made 11 Fetches over the years, selling some to clients including the federal government. His own fleet of five Fetches has measured the loss of oxygen due to climate change on coral reefs off the Florida Keys and counted krill in Antarctica to help predict the health of fisheries. Diving into an Icelandic fjord, a Fetch explored a freshwater vent and discovered that it had become a killing field for salt-friendly animal plankton.

Patterson’s do-it-yourself robot invention isn’t just useful, it’s also charming — and not just because of its cute, sleek, marine-mammal-ish design. Fetch both reflects its creator’s personality and has developed one of its own. Years ago, Patterson recorded his then-young daughters speaking for the Fetch: “Glub! Glub! Glub! I’m going on a dive!” “I’m back on the surface!” Though they’re grown now, the Fetch still plays their child-voices out loud as it submerges and surfaces.

Though Patterson designed the Fetch, parts of its personality surprise him. “I tend to view machines sort of like the Inuit in the Canadian north do. They tend to think that inanimate objects actually have a consciousness of a sort,” Patterson says. “I actually jokingly called the [Fetches] my other children, and they have these emergent behaviors that sometimes come out when you least expect it.”

Once, while Patterson was training government scientists in California to use their new Fetch, some male sea lions started chasing it, then played with it underwater and bit its stabilizers before letting it go. Patterson had programmed the Fetches to swim when partially disabled and extract themselves from a muddy sea bottom. After a long wait, the Fetch surfaced, having alternated between its full-speed reverse and surfacing modes, spinning like a maple seed pod falling from a tree.

Patterson was impressed with the Fetch’s instinct for saving itself. “This is very anthropomorphic,” he says, but “I like to think that self-preservation is something that anything with a consciousness wants.”

In 2000, while spending spent 16 days straight at Aquarius, Patterson became famous to a generation of schoolchildren. He appeared from the bottom of the sea in 55 live hourlong broadcasts for students. Each day, at hundreds of sites in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, thousands of kids gathered in auditoriums and museums to watch him and the rest of the station’s crew and ask questions about their work. “It was probably the most fun science outreach I’ve ever done,” says Patterson. “We probably reached close to half a million schoolkids. For the next couple of years, when I was flying on airplanes or in airports, kids would recognize me.”

But his most creative effort as an undersea ambassador for science might have come in 2012, when he used his mission on Aquarius to help save the base itself.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, amid budget troubles, had decided to cut its undersea programs for scientists. “They were actually going to flood the habitat and leave it as an artificial reef on the sea floor at the end of the fiscal year,” Patterson recalls.

But Patterson still had a mission booked. “I did a little bit of a subterfuge. I said, ‘Oh, can we do just one last mission?’” Then he invited Sylvia Earle, the dean of aquanauts. A marine biologist, former NOAA chief scientist, and environmental advocate who’s conducted undersea missions since 1970, Earle is such a commanding figure in oceanography that her peers have given her a royal nickname: Her Deepness.

From Aquarius, Earle and Patterson called the White House, lobbied the Florida congressional delegation, and spoke to journalists at ABC, NPR, and elsewhere, all to advocate for keeping Aquarius open. Online livestreams broadcast Patterson, Earle, and the mission’s other scientists as they worked inside and outside the base. At one point, 30,000 people watched Patterson and another scientist measure sponges on the reef.

The campaign worked. On the mission’s last day, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart scuba-dived to visit Aquarius — and he brought an ocean-loving friend, Miami tech entrepreneur Manuel Medina, along for the dive. Their boat arrived just as Earle and Patterson were surfacing at their mission’s end. Onshore afterward, Patterson and Earle talked with Medina and Diaz-Balart about Aquarius’ scientific importance.

“He was telling me some stories that were pretty amazing, on some of the studies they were doing on goliath groupers,” Medina says of Patterson, who believes that the enormous fish — which can grow to eight feet long and weigh 800 pounds — may stun the smaller fish it preys on by blowing hot bubbles from its mouth. “That’s the kind of study you can only do if you’re immersed down there,” says Medina. Inspired, the businessman donated $1.25 million for Aquarius through Florida International University, which took over stewardship of the base from the federal government.

Among the other visitors during Patterson and Earle’s mission was Fabien Cousteau, Jacques Cousteau’s grandson. He was intrigued that the aquanauts were carrying on a tradition of underwater living that his grandfather had helped pioneer with his Conshelf underwater bases in the 1960s. Cousteau and Patterson hit it off. “We had a chance to ponder on the fragility of the oceans and what state they were in,” Cousteau recalls. “And we really had a camaraderie and commiserated right from the get-go.”

Inspired by the Patterson-Earle adventure, Cousteau decided to book time on Aquarius himself — a lot of time. On his Mission 31, in 2014, his six-person team set a new record — 31 days — for the longest human underwater mission. Patterson helped Cousteau’s team of six scientists and engineers build a schedule for the mission, balancing scientific value with a goal of attracting interest in Aquarius’ work. “I said, ‘What are the most pertinent types of sciences that we can do that are both important and sexy?’” says Cousteau. “There’s a lot of science out there that’s extraordinarily important, but that’s not necessarily visually interesting [or] publicly engaging. Mark knows this full well, being a professor.”

So instead of just putting sensors on a coral reef, Cousteau’s team chose experiments where they interacted with the technology, such as looking through microscopes while in the water. From the surface, Patterson and Helmuth, his Northeastern colleague, dove to Aquarius daily to bring equipment, help with experiments, and ferry samples to dry land. “We’d have a PAM — a pulse amplitude modulated fluorometer — which is sexy and cool-looking, very alien-looking on camera, to look at the fluorescence of coral,” says Cousteau. “Thanks to Mark, we also did a bunch of genomics sampling on various species of sponges. We set up a whole array down below to catch hydrocarbon pollution, to look at … where some of these chemicals are coming from and what the general effects are in the coral reef ecosystem.”

Now, Patterson is working to create a new undersea research station for the next generation of aquanauts — and new ways for those aquanauts to connect with the public. He and Helmuth are advising Cousteau and others on their project, dubbed Proteus. “Imagine a James Cameron Avatar-style cool space station underwater,” Patterson says. Plans call for Proteus to be 4,000 square feet inside, four times larger than Aquarius, which would allow crews of 12 to live underwater at once. Patterson and Helmuth have offered advice on “what you could do from Proteus,” Patterson says, “like testing out new ways of raising food in the sea, or ocean energy harvesting, or new materials, or improving workflow for drug discovery from marine creatures by actually having the [genetic] sequencers on the sea floor.”

Patterson also thinks underwater tourism could help raise money for Proteus, which would be located off the Dutch island of Curacao in the Caribbean. If wealthy people are willing to pay Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic or Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin $200,000 to $500,000 for a suborbital view of the Earth, Patterson thinks, others will pay to live underwater. They’ll be able to immerse with the fish and coral along the reef, help with experiments, and watch each day and night’s visitors swim past. It’ll be one more way that Patterson, and marine scientists like him, can make science captivating to non-scientists. “They would find it mind-blowing,” he says.

Published on

Erick Trickey is Experience's Associate Editor. He has written for Politico Magazine, The Washington Post, Boston magazine, and more.

First Word

Broaden your bookshelf

Northeastern University professors recommend books that inform today’s conversations about identity.