This is a great video from Mission 31 about the midway aquanaut switch, when Liz and I descended to Aquarius. Aquanauts Adam, Andy and Kip first decompressed in Aquarius and then re-surfaced with outstretched arms to the sun. Liz, Matt and I said goodbye to the surface and dove to the bottom of the sea. Liz and I "high-fived" in the water on the dive down together to Aquarius.
What is historic Mission 31 (and why is it so special?) This great video from Fusion explains the story very well: "Living underwater gives ocean explorers an incredible advantage. Unlike normal surface diving, where a person can only stay underwater a few hours a day, Mission 31 aquanauts can be under the surface for 12 hours or more. This is because their bodies are saturated with nitrogen, allowing them to live at the same pressure as the water that surrounds them."
"To put it in perspective, it would take a normal diver six months to collect the amount of data that the aquanauts can obtain in 31 days."
"To say the least, Mission 31 is ... cool."
The cast of characters includes ... yours truly, Grace under no pressure :)
"This is a story about saving our waters, our oceans, our seas."
We Visited Jacques Cousteau's Grandson at the Bottom of the Ocean, article and video from This is Fusion.
Another great Mission 31 video is Splashdown: Aquanauts Switch Mid-Mission when when Liz, Matt and I splashed down to Aquarius.
I woke up to a dozen text messages asking for spur-of-the-moment interviews with various news media, which I didn't expect. What a way to wake up! Although I couldn't get to reef base in time for big pre-splashdown buzz, I was in time to catch the aquanauts entering Aquarius live. Reef base ("mission control") was chaotic. Various news media, including The Weather Channel, CNN, and NBC were there to cover the splashdown, while Aquarius' operations managers focused on making sure the aquanauts safely entered the habitat and everything went as planned. A couple of news articles from today are here: The Weather Channel and NBC.
At mission control, there were a large group of people, including media, huddled around a computer monitor waiting for Fabien, Andy, and Adam to enter the habitat. Fabien had a huge smile as he entered Aquarius, his home for the next 31 days. I'm looking forward to joining with Liz on the 17th! Meanwhile, I'll be preparing scientific research, supporting with surface dives, and helping with ocean outreach. We all passed training and the mission has officially begun!
Here's the splashdown video!
After things settled down, I joined our publicist Amy, plus Jen Carfagno and Donna from The Weather Channel for a lunch at the fabulous Cheeca Resort. It was a beautiful get-away. After lunch, I moved my things to the mission headquarters house so full-time Aquarius operations staff could take my room near reef base.
Get to know the aquanauts!
I hope to complete podcasts highlighting each of the aquanauts, including the great topside science researchers. In the meantime, CNET released short interviews with each of the Mission 31 aquanauts in the article: Deep thoughts from aquanauts: Meet the Mission 31 undersea team. Here's mine below:
Meanwhile we aquanauts parted ways temporarily. Liz flew back to Boston today so she can train the Northeastern research divers before returning to the Keys when she and I saturate. Andy, Adam, and I had an amazing breakfast at Harriette's Restaurant in Key Largo with some of Andy's research mates, before heading to their research base. We also stopped by the hardware store for some last-minute research prep, and dropped off final supplies at the reef base for transportation to Aquarius tomorrow. At the base, we showed a Weather Channel representative around so she could prepare media coverage for tomorrow.
Back at mission headquarters, it's a little chaotic. Fabien managed to complete a whirlwind of back-to-back interviews for various news sources, including the Weather Channel, Sky News, NBC and others (all listed on the M31 Facebook page). I hope he gets time to relax before splashdown at 10 am tomorrow! Meanwhile the boys and I are planning to spend the evening with popcorn and a movie as they savor their last moments on land (for the next two weeks). We already miss Liz! Can't wait till she returns on the 15th.
It's hard to comprehend all that's happened in the last two weeks. It's been a whirlwind of adventure, meeting new people, learning, and jumping (literally) out of my comfort zone. I can't believe how time has flown by; already, we're done with training!
Today we dove for a little over an hour, getting in final practice with the full face masks and the double tanks. We also did an underwater photo shoot with the ultra-high definition RED camera, for Fabien's documentary film. The RED camera has revolutionized photography with a sensor that has more than 5 times the number of pixels of the very best HD camera. RED: The Camera that Changed Hollywood.
Our final debriefing was sentimental. Roger, chief of Aquarius operations, told us more people have gone into space than have lived underwater, so what we're doing is very special. We have now a unique opportunity to bring ocean science and public awareness to a new level. It's tremendously exciting! Fabien said it only hit him yesterday that this was finally real, really happening. At last, there's no turning back!
In the afternoon, a research team from the Florida Institute of Technology (FIU) showed us how to use their sonar imaging system. This system will help record and monitor fish, and our FIU researchers will use the system to record fish behavior in response to predators.
Splashdown is in 48 hours! Tonight we'll celebrate, somehow.
Manatee at the Dock
When we returned to the aquanaut house, we had the pleasure of meeting a manatee by our dock! I've always wanted to "meet" a manatee, and this one was so friendly! She stared at us and rolled around for quite a bit before heading below the dock.
This evening at mission headquarters, we met with a representative from Nokia, one of our sponsors. She showed us some cool features of our new phones, including its professional-quality camera and image editing capabilities. We also finally got to meet Mission31's publicist, Amy Summers, who visited today. It's so nice to meet the face behind so many emails!
Serious Training . . .
More Grace Under Pressure blog posts here.
Today was fun (...even though we were reviewing some serious emergency situations). We started in the classroom reviewing drills we'd do in the water, including how to use the marine VHF radios and safety sausages (brightly-colored, inflatable buoy columns) we'll always have with us underwater. We all got a little competitive during the emergency drills, which kept everyone's attention piqued.
In the first drill, we practiced navigating with a compass. To make sure we weren't cheating, the instructors put towels over our heads (Mission 31 monogrammed towels, of course), so we had to "blindly" rely on only our compass heading to get where we wanted to go. I'm sure this looked ridiculous to anyone who passed by, but we're all now great at navigating!
Billy Snook, a member of the Mission 31 production team, filmed us underwater today with a Nokia (one of our sponsors) Lumia 1020 camera. Thanks to Billy and Nokia for the photos and video clips bleow!
Here's a video of today's underwater training
and here's some sea life we saw today
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and photos from the boat
My favorite part of the classroom session today was learning about what we can pack. For some odd reason, I've always loved packing for trips. All of our stuff going to Aquarius gets there in pods delivered by Navy divers, so it goes from 1 to 2.5 atmospheres of pressure. That means anything slightly toxic on the surface is 2.5 times more toxic in the habitat (and there's twice as much O2!). For this reason, we're extra cautious about fire hazards and are advised not to use scented products (like antiperspirant) that have toxins in them. Otter told us a fire once started from a Pop-Tart in the microwave!
It's easy to become disoriented underwater; sometimes everything around you looks blue! When we're in the diving helmets, we're always able to follow our air-carrying umbilical cord back to the habitat. While we're in SCUBA gear, we can follow excursion lines (i.e., ropes) leading back to Aquarius.
In an emergency while saturated, your instinct shouldn't be to go to the surface, but back to the habitat. Rushing to the surface while saturation diving is as dangerous as rushing to the bottom of the ocean from land; your body doesn't have time to adjust to pressure differences without careful procedures.
We must also remain cognizant of our surroundings. Visibility (how far you can see underwater) can change on the reef from 100ft to 10ft in a few minutes, meaning one moment you can see your dive buddy next to you and the next she's out of sight. If we ever lose sight of our dive buddy, we need to do a quick circle-swim to look for them and then head back to the habitat to send out a search party. There's always a standby diver in the habitat ready to jump in the water and assist in any sort if rescue.
Running out of air is almost always caused by lack of dive-planning or diver carelessness. All the aquanauts are experienced divers so we're not going to let this happen, plus one of the habitat technicians will also track every dive. He said if we return from a dive as much as a minute later than planned, the search party will deploy. That said, we still practice what to do in case we run out of air! Like I said, we're preparing for every imaginable emergency situation. In case a diver is out if air, they would buddy breathe or use the alternate regulator of their dive buddy. We also tested our respiratory stamina in the pool. We need to know how far we can swim on a single breath so we know our limits. We'll always plan our dives to return to Aquarius with at least 500 psi in our tanks, so if something unexpected happens we'll have enough air to deal with it.
Practically all our gear has fail-safe mechanisms; e.g., on SCUBA we have two regulators with us, two tanks, three ways to inflate/deflate our buoyancy control device, three ways to signal for help (radio, strobe, and inflatable), so in the rare case one failed, we've a backup, or our buddy's extra. It's rare that gear fails, however, but we're prepared for anything.
Kindergarteners I spoke to recently asked me, "What if a shark ate your mouthpiece? What if a shark bit your tank? What if you tripped on a turtle?" With all the fail-safes on my gear and emergency scenario training, I can deal with all those situations.
Apparently the most common medical issues while saturation diving are ear infections and infected cuts. The habitat technicians are trained dive-medical officers so they're prepared for everything. We also need to be aware of hyperthermia. The water feels warm, slightly over 80 degrees, but swimming for three hours (like we'll be doing) can wick away your body heat and lower your body temperature below its normal 98 degrees.
We also claimed Aquarius bunks today. There are two stacks of three bunks. The technicians need the lower bunks so they can get out of bed quickly to fix things. Fabien called the middle starboard bunk because he's left handed. Liz and I wanted top bunks; she's left handed and I'm right handed so we'll split starboard and port. We're a team made in heaven!
The Big Take-Away
- Coral reef health
- Goliath grouper feeding behavior
- Barrel sponges
- Environmental contamination
Principal researchers: Mark Patterson, Brian Helmuth, and Loretta Fernandez
Graduate students: Amanda Dwyer, Alli Matzelle, Jessica Torossian, and Nick Colvard
Technicians: Francis Choi and Sara Williams
Media and Outreach coordinators: Morgan Helmuth, Amanda Padoan, Angela Herring, Ursula August, and Kara Sassone
The Science Details
Coral Reef Health
Our research will help answer: How do corals respond internally to daily fluctuations in external temperature, light, pH, and dissolved oxygen? The topside team will insert Unisense electrodes into three coral polyps per colony underwater to measure the gastrovascular system (the gut) of the corals. Data collected 24/7 over two weeks, creating the first long-term data set from wild corals. In addition to the data from the electrodes, Liz and I will measure corals' photosynthetic performance with a PAM fluorometer.
We'll record unique predatory behavior of the goliath grouper using a state-of-the-art high-speed Edgertronic camera. The results could validate the unproven theory that Goliath Groupers use the sound of a collapsing cavitation bubble formed in their head as a weapon to stun their prey. It'll help answer: What is happening during a grouper's feeding strike, and does the grouper use sound as a weapon?
Every day we'll collect small samples of zooplankton with nets to quantify their presence on the reef. The data will help scientists answer: How are plankton communities changing with climate change? In addition, the ratio of alive to "zoombie" (recently dead, but not broken down or consumed yet) zooplankton in our samples will give insight into the populations and lifespans of these creatures, which are necessary for coral reefs to be resilient against coral bleaching events.
Sponges are prodigious filter feeders. They filter water equal to their entire body volume in less than a minute and remove more than 99% of the particles they inhale, most of which are bacteria. Part of the reason visibility is so good on a coral reef is becuase of the filtering by sponges. We are looking to answer the following research questions: How do barrel sponges filter material and how can we model their behavior? Does their behavior fluctuate over the course of a day in a predictable pattern (circadian rhythm)? Are neighboring sponges pumping at the same rate or is every sponge different? We'll answer these questions using sensors that measure fluctuations in temperature, salinity, pH, dissolved oxygen, and flow over the seafloor and in the water coming out of the sponges. From these measurements, the Northeastern researchers can study how sponges' metabolism and feeding rate respond to changes in the environment. We'll also collect DNA from 14 different sponges for the Ocean Genome Legacy Project.
We'll deploy and recover sensors that absorb and measure environmental contaminants, including PCBs, PAHs, and potentially dispersants from the BP oil spill. They will help us answer: What environmental contaminants are in the coral reef? Based on the findings, Dr. Loretta Fernandez can model contaminants in the area and refine methods for measuring them.
Continue reading. More Grace Under Pressure blog posts here.
Welcome "Back" to Aquarius
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I felt like a superhero being "weightless" underwater, jumping up and over the Aquarius habitat, which is like jumping over a two story building. I also took off my flippers and walked on the edge of the habitat like a tightrope walker. The Bonnet Rogue SCUBA divers caught my ballet "acrobatics" on video, but that footage won't come out until later! It turned out that I didn't need any added weight to reach neutral buoyancy on the seafloor. I also felt like I got the hang of swimming with the extra 30lbs on my head.
I stared eye-to-eye with a barracuda for what seemed like a few minutes. They are a fearsome-looking fish, known for their scary appearance and teeth, but getting scared is one of the worst things you can do underwater because you might hyperventilate, lose control of your buoyancy, etc. Besides, barracuda will only bite if you look/smell like a fish. With bubbles streaming out of my Kirby Morgan and a tank strapped to my back, I don't look like a fish.
A Good End to the Week
Saturday we'll be up early to review Mission 31 science research plans!
We dove in the Kirby Morgan helmets again today, but this time down to Aquarius! It was my first time to the undersea habitat, my future home, and it was surreal. I felt like a fish finding the toy castle in the fish bowl.
Even though I'd viewed plenty of photos of the habitat before the trip, seeing the structure appear out of the blue (literally) and swimming alongside it was nothing like I could've imagined. Underwater for the last 21 years, it's a living reef, covered in corals, soft sponges, and other marine life. Fish swam everywhere, accustomed to divers' presence. We saw a goliath grouper, tarpon, snook, a sea cucumber, and many more marine creatures.
Today Aquarius staff were installing equipment (including the microwave!) inside the habitat. I waved at them and they waved back through a port window. Other divers were outside cleaning the sides of the habitat. Two Bonnet Rouge cameramen joined us.
Our gear from Oceanic arrived yesterday screen printed with the Mission 31 logo, so today we all wore matching fins, wetsuits, and booties. We looked like a team! More photos of the team gear to come. Also, more videos to come! Back at the house, the Bonnet Rouge team continued to edit footage from today.
More high speed video tests
Right now the plan is to tether the camera (via it's underwater housing) to the habitat for power and ethernet connection. But it's also possible to power the camera with batteries inside the case, and maybe connect the camera to a small screen inside the housing. I saw Eric Cheng do essentially this with an iPad and wireless router. I wonder if I could plug the camera's Ethernet into a Nokia smart phone via an adapter that went to the phone's miniUSB.
I'm exhausted. Good night -- off to bed.
By the end of this week, we should all be able to use the dive helmets in our sleep. We'll also be prepared for every conceivable emergency situation, no matter how unlikely. One of the most important things to remember is to stay calm if something goes unexpectedly wrong. Freaking out is one of the worst things you can do underwater because you'll overuse your air supply and make less than best decisions. If you stay calm, however, it's all about remembering the training and/or following muscle memory. Team members at the control center are always monitoring us and in communication with us via the helmets, so we'll also be talking with them constantly about what things are going well, what aren't, or even what the weather's like on land.
Mid-morning the aquanauts and working divers headed to the pool where we passed swimming tests, including treading water for 10 min, swimming 400m, swimming 25m holding breath, and mask-snorkel recovery exercises.
I've been hearing from past aquanauts that your senses of taste and smell are dulled while living underwater. One group of researchers on Aquarius apparently did a study on it, but no one is sure where the results are. I thought I might as well do a quick study before leaving . . . and it might as well be Goldfish we taste test.
Liz Magee (Northeastern scientist) and I traveled from Boston to Miami this morning. We met Fabien Cousteau (and his seven cases with 350lbs of camera equipment!) at the airport. He introduced us to team members Kip Evans, who'll live in Aquarius at the beginning of June, and Billy Snook, a dive shop owner and member of topside crew.
We packed into SUVs provided by Mission sponsor Ford and headed to Costco. We had an extensive shopping list from the team at the base, including food, various batteries and extension cables.
Mission headquarters is a house converted into a warehouse/meeting space/lodging. It's fascinating to see some of the equipment Fabien Cousteau's film production team, Bonnet Rouge, will use. I saw the underwater housing (about the size of a microwave) for the RED digital camera (the same type of camera Peter Jackson used to film The Hobbit), and looked at dozens of underwater lights, tripods, and other equipment.
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Grace is an MIT ocean engineer, aquanaut, and scientist with Cousteau's Mission 31. She's currently a PhD student at University of Oxford, chief scientist for the Pisces VI deepsea submarine, and National Geographic Emerging Explorer.