Archive for November, 2012

Project Journal, November 16th, 2012: “Inside of the Amazing Underwater Lab Aquarius”

 
 

Hello friends,

As we gear up to finish our shoot of Aquarius, let me wet your appetite by showing you the INSIDE of the habitat! Remember, Aquarius is a cylinder, about 43 ft/13 m long with a diameter of around 20 ft/6 m. This illustration will give you a very good idea about the layout. On one end, there is the “front door”, or point of entrance/exit to and from the water, on the other end there are the sleeping quarters with 6 bunk beds for the Aquanauts, and in between, all the living and working area and equipment. During my visit, there were 3 of us inside, science officer Otto and Diving officer Roger besides myself, and it felt surprisingly roomy, although I’m sure it would feel somewhat more constrained if all 6 people were inside. I feel terrible Rudi could not come inside, as he got a severe bloackage on one of his sinuses just as he was about to enter the habitat, so he had to go back to the surface. The habitat has a permanent connection to the surface, called the umbilical cord, not only for air (of course!) and phone communications, but also for WiFi internet, so yes, you could update your Facebook page during a mission, if you had the time and energy for it. Aquanauts go on daily excursion missions outside the habitat that last up to 6 hours, even longer sometimes, and when they come back “home”, whatever energy they have left is for excitedly discussing all the things they saw, review the day’s work, get some food and sleep. As you can see in the photos, there are a couple of large view ports that allow the Aquarius residents to get some nice views of the locals, including the huge barracudas that patrol the areas, as well as several other that are even known by name, such as the turtle “Little Joe” and the Goliath grouper “Charlie”.

Missions to the habitat are what’s known as “saturation” missions, where the pressure inside Aquarius is the same as that of the surrounding water, that’s why on the entrance, the water never comes in and floods the place. I cannot describe to you how awesomely cool it is to look at that entrance pool, known as “Moon Pool”, and see the water there, perfectly contained, and fish swimming by all the time. The benefit of a saturation mission is that no decompression is ever need until the end of the mission, since Aquanauts are always at a constant pressure, it is like doing one long, endless dive to 50 ft/15 m for 10 days. Then, at the end of the mission, on the way to the surface, divers perform one long, slow decompression that lasts 18 hours, and takes place inside the habitat. This is the same principle used on oil exploration rigs where divers spend long periods of time living and working at much greater depths. This also means that, visits to the habitat are considered “dives” so while you might think the diving part is only going down to the habitat and coming back up from it, the time you spend inside counts as part of the total dive time, so visitors are allowed to spend 80 minutes inside, to stay within the no decompression limits. This is the reason Rudi did not go inside once he got his problem, because he knew that for the next 80 minutes, his sinuses would still remain under the same pressure as outside, so he feared he would not be able to clear the blockage and mess it up for me, so he went back up. Anyway, enjoy the photos and the diagrams, and soon we will post more info and a video.

Please visit Aquarius’ Facebook page and click on “Like” so that if we get enough Likes, we may show those in charge that Aquarius still fascinates the public and they should keep it open! http://www.facebook.com/AquariusReefBase

Project Journal, November 5th, 2012: “Hurricanes, bad weather and a generally troubled period”

 
 

Sorry to all the project followers, I have not posted updates recently as frequently as I used to. We have run into bad luck again due to the weather and have been basically stuck on land for almost two months now. Having finished all the necessary filming for the “Wrecks” episode back in late August, we were then ready to start working on the “Caves” episode, while at the same time, continue to work on our segment on the Aquarius habitat. Simple enough, right? But of course, things got a lot more complicated than that.

For the “Caves” episode, we have selected 3 locations that offer the best cave systems in the world. 2 of those are inland, fresh water systems, one located in Northern Florida and the other in the Yucatan peninsula, Mexico. The other location is in the Bahamas, but it is not a single island but rather several islands like Abaco, Andros, the Exumas and Eleuthera that boast impressive systems both inland and in the open sea. The end of summer is still a breezy and often wavy time in the Bahamas, so we decided to start filming in Mexico and Northern Florida first and leave the Bahamas for the fall, when the weather is more predictable there. A great plan. Except that that torrential rains we have experienced this year in the Caribbean destroyed that possibility. You see, fresh water caves are not impacted by strong winds like their open sea counterparts are, so there are no big waves to worry about, but they are very much susceptible to heavy rains. Rains disrupt the delicate balance of these still water bodies, and where there was visibility sometimes in excess of 90 meters/300 ft before the rain, a heavy downpour can kill all that, bring visibility down to 1-2 meters/3-7 ft, and leave an immense amount of silt and particles suspended in the water, making the caves an unacceptably dangerous environment and making filming worthless. Now, normal rains don’t affect caves, especially big systems, too much, but heavy rains that last many hours do, in particular in systems that are connected to rivers, as the rivers overflow and add to the turbulence inside the caves. Usually, the effects of a big rain subside in 3-4 days, but if another big rain comes down before then, well you can imagine the domino effect, the caves become “undivable” for weeks, and even months. And that is what has happened in Florida and Yucatan from June all the way to early October, the first time we’ve had such prolonged rains in this part of the world in the last 8 years. So, after much waiting and actually booking flights to Mexico, not once but twice, and having to cancel those flights, we had to let go our team of cave divers who had been on standby, accepting no other jobs, for 3 months now. Diving inside these caves is very, very, very dangerous, and to perform the kind of dives we have planned for the series, specially with me freediving for long lengths into the caves, we need to use safety divers that are not only very experienced in cave diving in general, but also, have extensive knowledge of the particular caves we want to dive in. Right now, those divers are gone and we they won’t be available to us again until early next year.
Finally, about 3 weeks ago, when it became clear that the fresh water caves would not really cooperate with our plans, we then shifted out focus to the Bahamas, but just as we did so, hurricane Sandy began to slowly from and take shape in the Caribbean and from one day to the next, the weather went from acceptable to horrible. For those who’ve never been in the tropics during hurricane season, especially Europeans like me who don’t have a clear concept of how these natural phenomena work, it is a very incomprehensible and downright weird thing to see how badly the weather gets affected in areas that are hundreds of miles away from the hurricane. Even when Sandy was slowly forming in the Eastern Caribbean, conditions up here worsened dramatically, and with every mile she slowly gained towards us, the seas grew rougher, the winds stronger and, from the time she hit Jamaica until she got up to New York, it never stopped raining one second. Not only were we not able to dive or travel to the Bahamas, but during all the turmoil, our boat was damaged by the winds and rain, and we had to end up replacing bilge pumps, fuel injection systems that flooded with water, a search light right at the bow that seems to have been hit by lighting.

And Aquarius? Well, while the drama of the fresh water caves and Sandy slowly unfolded, we tried to continue diving at the habitat. However, requirements at the site are very unique. We are one of the few film crews that have secured an unsupervised permit, which means, we are allowed to dive on the habitat without direct supervision from Aquarius personnel. But we are only allowed to do this whenever Aquarius crews themselves are not using the habitat, and recently, with their efforts to secure new sponsors to save the habitat program from disappearing, they have been having guests there on an almost daily basis, drastically limiting our chances to dive. And then, after Sandy’s arrival, conditions there got bad anyway, so all in all, we have been left without the possibility to dive on several locations across three different countries. Incredible I know, but that is exactly what has happened. Now, our boat seems to have been fixed, conditions are getting better, not great and not very quickly, but they are getting better, so we are anticipating that by next week, we should be able to start diving again. Let us really hope so, we’ll keep you all posted.

This is usually how the weather looks these days.

This is usually how the weather looks these days.