Undersea lab in Key Largo set to close

Budget cuts threaten Aquarius

KEY LARGO, Fla. - A one of a kind underwater research facility off the coast of Key Largo is about to go to a watery grave because of budget cuts.

Aquarius, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration owned habitat, has hosted hundreds of scientists and provided invaluable data on South Florida's prized coral reefs.

VIDEO: Underwater footage

Over a decade ago, Local 10's Todd Tongen introduced viewers to Aquarius, so he decided to go back.

VIDEO: Todd's first story on Aquarius

The undersea lab in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has been submerged for nearly 20 years, yet many scientists believe they have yet to see the depth of knowledge it can provide.

NOAA plans on using robots and remote technology in the future for underwater research, but supporters, like U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., think that would take the humanity out of the science.

Otto Rutten, Aquarius' science manager, has worked on the project for 18 years. Rutten said scientists can extend their bottom time and compress a huge amount of research into a single mission thanks to this engineering marvel that lets them live three atmospheres below the sea's surface.

NASA has mounted 16 separate missions at Aquarius because inner space so closely resembles outer space and the undersea lab is perfect training for astronauts set to live aboard the International Space Station.

Federal budget cuts threaten to close the lab unless it can secure private funding. Aquarius needs about $3 million a year to operate.

"When you compare it to the amount of dollars that go into marine research in our country, it's just a drop in the bucket," said Rutten.

There is hope an institution will save Aquarius from drowning.

"It would be an awesome draw for any university to say we have the worlds only underwater laboratory. You should come to our research university," said Rutten.

Social media and outreach for the independent Aquarius Foundation — established to raise the money to run the lab — was as much a focus of mission last month as recording more data from the reef. Filmmaker Greg MacGillivray's One World One Ocean campaign documented the mission and posted live updates online.

Copyright 2012 by Post Newsweek. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.