An underwater laboratory off the Florida Keyes serves as a sort of reverse space station for the United States.
A cylindrical steel capsule, 14 meters long and 4 meters in diameter, lies 20 meters below the surface amid a coral reef 4.5 kilometers off the island of Key Largo, which connects to the Florida peninsula by road bridge.
Aquarius is operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Scientists spend extended periods in the pressurized vessel carrying out research and experiments. I paid a visit to the Aquarius in late May.
The dive took about one minute. Entering a downward-facing entrance, I poked my head into the capsule's interior. A technician wearing a T-shirt waved in welcome.
I showered, then entered the laboratory.
When I opened the hatch, students from the University of North Carolina at Willington carrying out research into marine sponges were sipping tea while munching on snacks during their lunch break. At the rear was a sleeping room with two adjacent triple-decker bunk beds. I could see fish through the porthole.
The pressure inside the capsule is 2.5 atmospheres, and the air is rich in oxygen and nitrogen, which caused my voice to sound high-pitched and muffled.
Naked flames cannot be used because of the heavy oxygen content in the air, so food is either retort-packed and heated in a microwave, or freeze-dried and reconstituted with hot water. There is also a refrigerator, and fresh fruit and vegetables are brought in from land.
However, many people say their sense of taste becomes dulled here. One visitor to the Aquarius claims to have poured chili sauce on their cereal. I ate a cookie while inside but it tasted bland, as if it was lacking a certain something.
The capsule has a toilet, but everyone says they carry out their business in the ocean instead. There is a "gazebo" in the shape of an overturned cup outside the capsule, and Aquarius dwellers hold their breaths and swim 2 to 3 meters, then stick their heads in an air pocket while relieving themselves. "Fish are attracted to this 'food' and it soon disappears," says a student. "It feels so good that in the end, nobody uses the toilet anymore."
The students are always laughing. "Inhaling the rich nitrogen in the capsule could cause a kind of nitrogen narcosis, which has a euphoric effect," explains a technician.
I spent about 30 minutes in the capsule, but I failed to notice any difference.
When I left the Aquarius and dived back up, I saw numerous fish that had taken up residence around the capsule. There was even a shark around 2 meters in length. A moray eel that appeared to be over 4 meters long swam nearby.
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Why go to all the trouble to live underwater?
For one thing, divers can only work at depths of 20 meters for only two to three hours a day.
Any more than that, and the person must go through a decompression procedure upon their return to the surface.
Not doing so can result in decompression sickness, known as the bends, which can result in serious problems, and death in some cases.
The interior of the Aquarius has the same atmospheric pressure as the sea around it. Researchers stay here for 10 days to two weeks at a time, and work underwater for six to eight hours a day. When they return to land, they ultimately decompress for around 16 hours.
"We've discovered the ecology of many marine organisms for the first time by living here for extended periods," explains Aquarius science manager Otto Rutten, 50.
Most people who spent time in the Aquarius are marine researchers, but there have also been astronauts and scientists from NASA.
Since 2001, 42 astronauts, including Japan's Koichi Wakata, have experienced undersea life here.
"When we searched for a place that most closely matches the weightlessness of outer space, we found it was under the sea," says Bill Todd, project manager of NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations.
"Underwater is an ideal environment for growing accustomed to the delay in communications with the surface, and learning how to operate machinery." Astronauts count fish numbers, and take photos of coral samples as practice for investigating rocks on asteroids. Those who have returned from space journeys say that the two environments are almost identical.
Attempts at living under the sea were initially made by navies around the world. In Japan in the 1960s, organizations including the then Science and Technology Agency and the Maritime Self-Defense Force carried out trials that were put to practical use in underwater bridge girder construction and oil drilling.
However, as underwater cities failed to become viable and advancements were made in the development of unmanned drones, such initiatives gradually decreased in number. Even the future of the Aquarius is in doubt due to a lack of funding.
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