Mark Patterson, a professor of marine and environmental sciences at Northeastern University, has spent 89 days of his life underwater — most of them at Aquarius Reef Base, a station 60 feet below the ocean’s surface and five miles off the coast of the Florida Keys. Experience associate editor Erick Trickey spoke to Patterson about living on the ocean floor and the future of undersea research.
Why do scientists need an underwater research station?
Scuba diving is the way we can briefly visit the shallow parts of the ocean. But we’re always racing the clock: You can only stay as long as the air lasts in the tank. And if you stay too long, you can get decompression illness. It was always very frustrating, because you never felt like you had enough time to do your science. When these homes on the bottom of the sea for scientists and engineers were made, you got what Sylvia Earle, a famous underwater explorer, calls “the gift of time.” You can put in a full workday on the ocean floor.
What is it like to live down there?
Living in Aquarius is like living in a large school bus or a Winnebago. It’s only 400 square feet and there are six people living in there. Most of the time, you’re outside diving. You’re really only there at night or having meals. But it’s still a crowded, noisy space. There’s a lot of white noise because of the system that’s pumping air in from the surface world. So it’s like being on a noisy jet liner the entire time.
What kind of research have you done at Aquarius?
I’m interested in corals and the health of coral reefs. Corals are very delicate creatures. They have algae living inside them. So they’re actually half plant, half animal, and very sensitive to their environment. If you want to do studies on their physiology, you could rip them off the reef, bring them back to a laboratory, and put them into a seawater table. But that’s not the best way to understand their secrets. The best way would be to do your experiments while they’re still on the reef. You get to study nature as nature is actually unfolding.
Mark Patterson, a professor of marine and environmental sciences at Northeastern University
“Living in Aquarius is like living in a Winnebago.”
What are some experiments you’ve done on coral?
Global warming is possibly going to cause coral reef ecosystems to functionally go extinct, which was very distressing to me as a marine scientist. We wanted to understand the process of how the corals are getting stressed out. So we built little chambers around the coral heads, and then we were able to heat them up as if the ocean were heating up. Then we could examine how fast the metabolic rate of the coral was changing and how fast the metabolic rate of the algae that was living inside the coral was changing.
I imagine you witness a lot under the ocean that you’d never see on a short dive.
It was fun watching the whole predator food web spin up right in front of your very eyes. At night, the lights around the habitat attract plankton, the plankton attract little fish, and the little fish attract big fish. In the Florida Keys, the largest resident predator fish is called a goliath grouper. They look like a big largemouth bass on steroids. They feed by waiting for a fish to get too close. Then they literally unhinge their entire skull and create a low-pressure vacuum in their mouth. That sucks the water in so fast, a small fish can’t swim away in time. It’s called suction feeding.
One night, we were outside watching these fish suctioning up small fish, and we saw one move just a tiny bit. All of a sudden, it explosively undid its head and back. We felt [the pressure] in our chest; it was like being at a rock concert. A couple of fish swimming by started swimming in circles, completely disoriented. The big goliath grouper just swam leisurely over and inhaled them. That’s just one example of the marvelous things that you can see underwater if you don’t have to worry about, “Oh, I’ve only got 45 minutes here and I’ve got to get my science done.”
What is it like to come back up to the surface after a saturation dive on Aquarius?
When the mission is over, the hose that’s been bringing the fresh air down to the habitat starts letting the air out, slowly decreasing the pressure back to sea level. It’s a slow process: it takes a day. Usually we watch lots of movies — and human nature being what it is, we tend to gravitate toward underwater horror films like The Abyss.
At the end, you’re back to sea level pressure, but you’re still on the bottom of the sea. Now you’ve got to get to the surface. Underwater space stations have an airlock: a small room that has a door to the outside. Everybody crowds into the little room. It’s sort of like being in a telephone booth. The support team pressurizes that space, in less than two minutes, back to 60 feet. You jump in the water, they give you a tiny little tank, and you do a short two-minute dive to get back to the surface world.
It’s very disorienting when you get into a boat. You’re not used to feeling wind on your face because you haven’t been in an atmosphere other than inside this artificial environment. The smells are all different than what you’ve been used to. We all feel a little bit sad to be back in the surface world.