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Educators in Florida aim to set record for longest stint in an underwater habitat

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On July 14, 1992, aquanaut Richard Presley surfaced from a lagoon in Key Largo, ecstatic to see “the colors, the sun and all these palm trees” after 69 days and 19 minutes of living in the sea.

It was a world record.

There was hope the effort would spark renewed interest in underwater habitats, which exploded onto the world scene in the 1960s and ’70s with more than 60 located in 17 countries but died off in the 1980s for lack of funding.

That didn’t happen, and for the past 22 years, no one attempted to break Presley’s record. Until now.

Two educators from a college in landlocked Tennessee — one a 62-year-old Vietnam veteran turned biology professor and the other a 24-year-old adjunct professor — plan to take the plunge on the 4th October in the same Emerald Lagoon where Presley made history.

If all goes according to plan, Bruce Cantrell and Jessica Fain of Roane State Community College will re-emerge 72 days later from the 600-square-foot underwater habitat —which also serves as the Jules Undersea Lodge — with a new record.

More importantly, they hope to surface with the successful completion of their primary mission: to engage young people in marine biology and underwater exploration.

“We’re not conducting experiments; we’re not trying to discover any new species,” Cantrell said. “Our main goal is to be able to broadcast under the water to show kids what it is like and to get them excited that this science is real.”

Habitat 2From the habitat, Cantrell will teach an online biology class to his students back at Roane State. And the duo will host a once-a-week live broadcast, available free online, on ocean topics. The feat should be easy considering that in 1995, ocean pioneers Scott Carpenter and Ian Koblick spoke from the habitat to astronaut Mike Gernhardt, who was aboard the space shuttle Endeavour.

The programs will feature experts and celebrity guests, including astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second person to walk on the moon.

“Buzz will talk about Mars and how we can learn more about exploring Mars by being in the weightlessness of the ocean,” said Koblick, who owns the habitat and is founder of the Marine Resources Development Foundation, a partner in the project.

“We are not doing this just to set a world record, which would just be a publicity stunt,” Koblick said. “I want to do this to get a message out about the status of our oceans. That’s why our program title is: ‘Our Seas – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.’ ”

Other program topics will include underwater archaeology, the Caribbean’s lionfish invasion, the effects of climate change on the oceans and the success of coral restoration.

Koblick, of Key Largo, wrote the book Living and Working in the Sea. In 1969, he worked on the Tektite I mission, in which four U.S. Department of Interior scientists set what was then the saturated diving record of nearly 60 days in a federally funded underwater habitat in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Koblick also has lived under the sea several times; his longest stint was three weeks in Tektite in 1970. That was followed a few years later by a couple of two-week stints in La Chalupa Research Laboratory, which he developed and operated in more than 100 feet of water off the coast of Puerto Rico until funding ran out in 1976.

La Chalupa is now Jules Undersea Lodge. Koblick said he didn’t know what had happened to the lab until he saw a movie that showed it virtually abandoned in Miami. He rescued it, placing it in the lagoon just offshore in only 21 feet of water. Hours-long decompression stops are not required to surface from that depth.

For their world record attempt, the Tennessee professors will have plenty of surface support from volunteers, who will buy their food, do their laundry and take out their garbage.

They know what they’re getting into. Cantrell has spent nearly 200 hours in the habitat, 24 hours at a time, for educational programs with the Marine Resources Development Foundation. He started coming to the marine facility 12 years ago for a teachers’ workshop. He later brought students. Fain has been coming to the facility for three years and has spent 80 hours in the habitat.

While it’s 600 square feet, nearly half of it is a wet room where SCUBA gear is put on and taken off. There’s only 320 square feet of living space, divided into two bedrooms and a common area.

“It is surreal living there, like you are in a fishbowl,” Fain said. “You’ve got fish swimming by the window looking at you.”

She said the mental part of spending nearly 10 weeks in close quarters without sunshine will be as difficult as the physical part. “It will not be a cakewalk,” she said. “We know we will get on each other’s nerves.”

They will spend most of their time working on their weekly programs and the online class. They also will dive the lagoon, not to conduct science but to clean it.

“We’ll be scrubbing the outside of the habitat, cleaning the windows and using a vacuum system to suck the algae out of the lagoon,” Fain said.

Cantrell is a longtime member of the Cousteau Society, whose mission is to protect and explore the ocean world. In 1985, he attended Cousteau’s 75th birthday party in Virginia.

Coincidentally, Fabian Cousteau, a grandson of the famed ocean explorer, is planning a 31-day saturation mission in the world’s only offshore underwater habitat that is still functioning — Aquarius, also in Key Largo. It’s tentatively set for May, but could be delayed by difficulties raising the estimated $1.8 million budget.

Koblick is looking for national sponsors to cover the $250,000 cost of his mission. He’s got one in mind that he thinks would be a great fit: Papa John’s Pizza. After all, he said, “They already deliver to the habitat.”

 

Marine Life & Conservation

Jeff chats to… Paul Cox, CEO of the Shark Trust about the Big Shark Pledge (Watch Video)

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In this exclusive Zoom interview, Jeff Goodman, Scubaverse Editor-at-Large, chats to Paul Cox, CEO of the Shark Trust UK about the Big Shark Pledge.

The Big Shark Pledge aims to build one of the biggest campaigning communities in the history of shark conservation. To put pressure on governments and fisheries. And make the positive changes required to safeguard awesome sharks and rays.

Find out more at: www.bigsharkpledge.org and www.sharktrust.org.


Rather listen to a podcast? Listen to the audio HERE on the new Scubaverse podcast channel at Anchor FM.

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Into the Blue – Part Two

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By now, you will have hopefully read the first blog from my recent trip to the Red Sea with The Scuba Place on M/Y Big Blue. If you haven’t, you can find the link to the blog here.

I’ve been diving since 2011, although I didn’t get really serious about diving until 2013. In the November of that year I joined Scuba School on a trip to Sharm El Sheikh to complete my Advanced Open Water course. That was the first time I heard about the famous SS Thistlegorm and its cult status in the wreck diving world. Unfortunately, as I, along with a lot of the group were novice divers, and so we were unable to dive it on that 2013 trip, along with a lot of the other famous wrecks from the North. Little did I know, I wouldn’t return to the Northern Red Sea until this trip in September 2022 with The Scuba Place. The wrecks remained mysterious all those years but I was soon getting the full experience. After the first two and a half days exploring the amazing reefs, it was time to break my Thistlegorm virginity and get the true “lust for rust” experience of the Northern itinerary.

A school of batfish greeted us on our safety stop after an amazing introduction to the SS Thistlegorm.

As we moored up at the SS Thistlegorm for the afternoon dive, I got a strange sense of anticipation run through my body. More so than at any other specific dive site. Strange really, as I don’t normally get excited about wreck diving, but here was a site that I’d heard so much about but was still so mysterious. I’d always thought it was a difficult dive and had a slight fear of it, as I wasn’t allowed to do it all those years back. Then, after watching a 20 minute film explaining the story of the wreck and listening to the stories of survivors,. I knew it was a site that demanded respect. As Mo went through the dive briefing, I quickly realised it seemed a lot more simple than I had in mind. I then became more excited than fearful as me and my dive buddy went through our plan. 

A diver explores one of the decks inside the SS Thistlegorm holding some of the vehicles onboard.

There was an eerie feeling as we submerged below the gentle swell. The visibility was a lot more milky compared to the clear blue I was used to in the Red Sea. However, the wreck soon came into view as we dropped down the shot line. The first thing that struck me and in my opinion just made the wreck extra special, was the life on it.

Instantly, crocodile fish and scorpion fish were spotted resting on the wreck, as we made our way to the anti-aircraft gun on the stern. I made a quick visit to take some photos before we turned back and penetrated the wreck for the first time. A surreal experience but the numerous glassfish and lionfish at the entry point kept me entertained before seeing the remnants of yesteryear. The different vehicles that still keep their place in the decks are the main highlight, but it was the boots that struck a chord with me: signs of the human lives that were present on the fateful day the bomb hit. I got a real buzz from my first time on the Thistlegorm, with a school of batfish greeting us on our safety stop finishing off the adventure. John and I ascended from a great dive with a high five, knowing I’d fulfilled a special memory.

A blue spotted stingray makes a quick turn on top of the SS Thistlegorm, on a memorable night dive.

I enjoyed three more dives on the Thistlegorm, giving me chance to explore a little more and see a little more life. Some cool nudibranch and a cuttlefish making their home inside the wreck added to the array of life I’d already seen. It was the night dive that truly hit the marine life spot. It really came to life at night and I soon lost count of the amount of scorpionfish I saw. The contrast of the dark and wreck against the blue spotted stingrays made their colours really pop as around six or seven were spotted. Eels, lionfish and crocodilefish making up the rest of the weird and wonderful sights on the wreck at night. Amazing memories from my first time exploring the Thistlegorm that will last forever.

After the two morning dives on the Thistlegorm, we headed off to the Barge wreck site for an afternoon and night dive. It’s not much of a wreck when you compare it to the others on the trip. It lies like a flat platform on the seabed with some sides rising out from the reef providing extra space for coral growth and marine life to enjoy. While it doesn’t provide a real wreck fix with penetration, it is a haven for marine life, littered with all types of hard and soft corals. Look closely and the Barge is a great spot for the weird and wonderful. The numerous nudibranch and grey moray eels provided my macro fix on the night dives, while the occasional buzz from huge hunting giant trevally provided the entertainment. A nice contrast of wrecks before moving on to Abu Nuhas.

The stern of the Giannis D remains largely intact and provides a dramatic underwater scene.

Abu Nuhas is a really unique place. Its submerged reef has been bad luck for five passing ships, with five cargo shipwrecks lining its northern slopes. While it was more than unfortunate for some, the wrecks have provided fortune for those looking for a wreck diving haven. Our day consisted of diving three of the wrecks  – The Carnatic, Giannis D and Marcus/Chrisoula K in that order.

Going into the trip, it was the Giannis D that I was most keen to dive. I’d always admired the wide angle stern shots I’d seen over the years, with it staying pretty much intact and creating a dramatic image as it lies on its side. It was a fantastic dive with some interesting and easy penetration; I also took some shots of the stern in all its glory. A huge grouper sitting inside the wreck provided the wildlife fix, as it floated with ease looking out into the blue from an opening on the wreck. I think it was the Carnatic that stole the show personally though. Her open windows out to the blue that are covered in soft coral were unique, and glassfish dancing in formation inside mesmerised into a truly memorable dive. The Marcus provided the adventure as penetration was a little more difficult to work my way through the wreck.

Bottlenose dolphins provided amazing entertainment as they came and played while we snorkelled at the surface.

The day at Abu Nuhas was the best of the trip for me and that wasn’t solely because of the wrecks….. YES!! Once again it was marine life that had me screaming with joy underwater and a buzz through my body like no other. FINALLY!!!!! After 9 years of taking photos underwater, I was able to share the water with dolphins (bottlenose in this instance) and shoot them in all their glory.

Our journey to and from the wrecks on each dive took us through the channel on the ribs, where dolphins were seen on every pass playing in the slight waves. After the second dive, the guides asked if we wanted to try to snorkel with them. It was a resounding yes and as the speedboat whipped up a wave storm, the dolphins headed to the surface to play. I dropped in with no elegance at all, as my excitement took over. I was wondering whether they would stay once we entered, but how they stayed and played was beyond anything I could imagine. Bringing seaweed to us and then, with a flick of their tails, speeding off after teasing with a slow approach. There were nine in total and they even came by to show off the baby of the group. It was definitely up there as one of my greatest moments in the water. 

One of three cuttlefish seen on an amazing night dive, on the house reef of Roots Red Sea.

We finished the liveaboard trip with three more amazing reef dives, with the highlight being a small cave full of glassfish and MANY lionfish. I entered to take photos of the glassfish before the lionfish started to sneak out of every crevice and reveal themselves from their camouflaged rest spots.

It got a little hairy but made for a truly interesting moment to finish the week on Big Blue. The fun wasn’t done though, as John eluded to the fact that I was on the same late flight as them on the Saturday and asked if I’d like to join his group for a night at Roots Red Sea. Sounds like a good plan!! Also, if we got there in time, a night dive on the house reef that’s a haven for the weird and wonderful would be on offer. What an amazing surprise end to the trip at an amazing dive resort: secluded, with a beautiful desert backdrop, sitting just metres from the sea. Thankfully, we made it for a night dive and it was as incredible as John said it would be. Reef squid, numerous cuttlefish, a bouncing stonefish jumping over sea moths AND a dwarf lionfish made this one of the best night dives ever, and a perfect end dive to a perfect trip. A final day of relaxation at Roots pool and enjoying the beautiful food finished it in style. 

For more information about diving on Big Blue:

www.thescubaplace.co.uk

john@thescubaplace.co.uk

Roots Red Sea lies in a secluded area of El Quseir, with a stunning desert backdrop and the Red Sea on their doorstop. It’s a perfect location for a relaxed dive trip.

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