The Aquanauts had killed the power and strapped on their emergency air masks. Someone smelled burning. In a rich-oxygen environment like Aquarius, fires can spread with ferocity; any hint of combustion is taken with utter seriousness. The air wasn't circulating as it was supposed to, and, up above, the life support buoy sounded like it was going to explode. Instead of a steady, even hum, the generator sounded like something between a between a bark and like it was gagging.
The last time the buoy sounded like this, some contractor had dropped latex gloves in the diesel tanks, and operations director Mark Hulsbeck had to fish them out of the fuel filter. There was nobody in Aquarius then, but this time there were Aquanauts below, depending on the buoy for breath and heat.
With the multiple redundant air and power systems, as well as the a backup supply of both, the aquanauts were safe for the moment. But Mark Hulsbec—AKA Otter—had to fix the generator, and the generator was in the basement of the Life Support Buoy, the top of which is known as the vomitron; even mild swells, only the most salty seamen can resist turning it into a fountain of bile-based fish food. The waves were up now, making it hard to work; good thing Otter is an old hand at this.
When Otter goes in, I ask if I can visit. I'm surprised—and slightly dismayed when he says yes.
"Don't get caught between the boat and the buoy," he says.
I time my jump, narrowly avoiding being pinched between the bow of the R/V Sabine and the buoy. Otter opens the yellow hatch and we climb down a tall ladder and descend into a pristine white room. It is hot as a hair dryer, filled with diesel fumes. It rocks back and forth like the worst airplane turbulence of my life, minus the windows. The room is about the size of a small living room and the two gigantic generators make it so loud we have to wear special headsets with a combination of earmuffs and magic microphones that somehow can transmit our voices to each other and the boat. After a large set of waves rolls through I gag and I'm outside within a minute, trying to hold down the peanut butter and jelly sandwich I had for breakfast. I go back to the boat to recover. Otter stays behind and fixes things, like he always does.
The Aquanauts locate the burning smell as one of the blowers in the AC unit, which is not life threatening. And so, life in the habitat, life resumes as normal as it can be.
I dive down to the base.
Piercing the moon pool and entering the wet porch, I return to find that the aquanauts are all moved in, are living comfortably. Earle is just waking from a nap, but the rest of the crew is setting up cameras and gear.
Now that everyone is settled down, I want to know how life in the habitat is the same—and different—from how we live above.
I ask everyone how they slept last night. Earle says, "I usually say that I never sleep better than when I'm on a ship, with all its lovely rocking. But I think the only time that is better than the ship is being under the ship; Being here, submerged."
I ask about the shower. Earle says, "It's very traditional in a sense. There's a showerhead and a curtain. In a mixed crew like the one we have here, we keep our bathing suits on. And your bathing suit gets a rinse. There's peppermint soap and shampoo that makes the base smell wonderful." Ryan warns me that if you turn the knob left past 11 o'clock, you'll get scalded.
I ask about cooking. The aquanauts have a microwave and a hot water faucet, but that's it. Open flame isn't allowed because the air contains 40% oxygen—roughly twice that of the atmosphere above—to make up for the pressure. So meals are a little bit like camping food: snacks like string cheese, apples, M&Ms, Oreos (everywhere I look, Oreos). Dried food like mac and cheese or brown rice counts as a meal. They say bagged salads last long enough to take down but for some reason Aquanauts don't generally eat stuff like this and it goes to waste. Mark says that taste is affected by the habitat, that everyone uses a lot of hot sauce.
Sylvia drinks a lot of instant lemonade. Nobody drinks alcohol. I've heard that it is possible to get nitrogen narcosis in the base, although opinions vary. Some say the effects of being "narked" don't occur on the base because it isn't of sufficient pressure or depth to create the effect, which has claimed the lives of deep divers who lose their sense of rationality to such a degree that they start taking their regulators out of their mouths and drown. But some say the air in the base, with nitrogen at pressure, give the effect of "one to two martinis" at any given time. Certainly DJ's jokes are funnier down here and everyone seems to be having more fun. I keep forgetting to do my work properly. [Editor: seriously; half of this was in a made-up language.] But we could just be having more fun because this is an undersea base.
There's no possible way to complain that your bathroom is too far down the hall when you think about what the Aquanauts have to do to take care of business. There is a little toilet between the first and second airlock but it is stacked with boxes on top and it turns out that it is only used during final decompression on the last day of the mission. I assume that people just pee into the moon pool. But for more serious relief, there's the gazebo. The little polygonic hut outside of the base's entrance, is its outhouse. The gazebo has an air bubble inside that serves as a tiny habitat, and people go to the bathroom there, facing up current so there's always a constant flush. The fish, smart as they are, started to realize that when a human goes into the gazebo, its feeding time. Which was ok, until someone got bit on the ass.
To fix the problem, Aquarius engineers rigged up a bubble curtain to scare the fish away. But the fish soon learned that the bubble curtain meant feeding time, too. One anonymous aquanaut told me that he only poops far out on the reef, completely naked, where the fish don't expect it, laughing every time he does this at the absurdity of the situation. He swore off the gazebo entirely when a 4-foot barracuda swam up next to him in anticipation of some "food," its sharp teeth only inches away from his balls.
Mid interview, the entire habitat lets out what can only be described as a burp that makes the entire shell resonate. Patterson says it's the excess air being squeezed out of the entrance of the base. You see, even though wave turbulence is not as strong below the surface, its effects are still felt in Aquarius. The swell pushes and compresses the air into the base as the wave power pushes in, and pulling air out when the wave passes. This causes ears to pressurize, needing to be equalized a little bit as the days go on. But on big days when the waves are 8-10 feet high, the pressure differential can be as drastic as the climb in an airplane with every wave pass.
I ask the Aquanauts if they've ever been in a storm inside the habitat. Mark says once, before the base was properly secured, it was in such a terrible storm that the base was turned perpendicular to its original position. Sylvia says once, in a different habitat that only fit 3 people, there were instructed to stay inside in the event that the habitat tore from its sea floor mount and rolled around.
Instead of television, they have the great viewports comprised of inches-thick plexiglass. The greatest advantage of being in Aquarius is the ability to observe reef wildlife for so many hours a day. "There are day fish and night fish, like there are day birds and night birds," says Earle. "And here, some of the equivalent are like the squirrel fish, who have big eyes, like owls. And they come out at dusk. There's a changeover. People think fish don't sleep but they do. There's also what's known as hot bunking. The same crevice might be occupied by different a sleeping fish depending on the time of day. You see barracuda day or night but not many grazers, who tuck in at night. And at night, many carnivores."
DJ Roller, Dale Stokes and Mark Patterson stay up late at night looking for the biggest predator on the reef—the Goliath grouper. Patterson has studied the grouper and explains that, like many fish, they create a vacuum in their mouth to suck in prey. DJ saw one at 2am through the galley view port and again on a night dive. The fish was nearly 5 feet long and 150 pounds and had camouflage that was both like and unlike leopard. They caught it feeding. To map the vortex it creates to catch prey, the scientists hope to bait a fish to feed and use a split laser to illuminate the hydrodynamics of the process to be captured on video. And from Roller's recordings, and with a good enough audio recording, physicist Dale Stokes from Scripps should be able to map out the size and number of cavitation bubbles inside of the grouper's mouth. Finding a grouper to feed in this manner is not something you can do with a robot or on a casual dive. It's not something you can do without a place like Aquarius.
I ask the Aquanauts if they play pranks on each other. Everyone becomes uncharacteristically shy and declines to answer. I will keep investigating.
Later, Patterson is diving the reef, planting nets to catch plankton as it rises out of the reef at night. Because his helmet is wired with a camera that faces out and a microphone and earpiece, I get patched into his helmet comms to ask him how his day goes. While I watch his hands work on the nets, he says that earlier he took two hours to plant a device into the coral bed that measures Ph and O2 levels, with delicate electrodes as thick as a hair. This would be impossible with scuba because the bottom time was longer than allowed. This would also be too delicate of a job for robots.
Mark then tells me a story of how the night before, he thought he saw flashes from DJ's camera lighting up the reef. When he noticed Roller was in the bunk besides him, he went to the viewport to investigate, and a thunder clap and flash rattled the base. It was a lightning storm, right above the base, strong enough to be felt and seen 60 feet down, lighting up the entire reef as far as he could see in the midnight hour. Without aquarius he would have never witnessed such a thing.
Earle says, "If a picture is worth a thousand words, an experience is worth a thousand pictures."
Mission Aquarius is our week-long trip to the world's last remaining undersea habitat: Aquarius Reef Base.
Brian Lam is an ocean exploration journalist and the editor of The Scuttlefish and The Wirecutter. He is a Gizmodo alum and a Wired Magazine contributor. Videos provided by One World One Ocean, a campaign dedicated to telling the story of the ocean through multimedia.
Photos by Kip Evans, Director of Photography and Expeditions for the Sylvia Earle Alliance.