Scientific research leads to a lot of trips into the field. A lot of those
are ordinary events. A few are something special. Once in a career or once in
a lifetime, there’s one so special it can only be called fantastic, even for
someone used to making research trips.
Dr. Kevin Beach, assistant professor of biology, now can guess the difference
between a weekend pilot and Charles Lindberg, or maybe the difference between
Lucky Lindy and Neil Armstrong.
The only hitch in the comparison is a matter of direction.
Beach left the UT campus on July 30, 2001 for a trip to the deep
fantastic. Along with a professor from the University of Central Florida, two
UCF graduate students (one a UT graduate), and two technicians, Beach entered
the biosphere Aquarius and lived there, 60 feet below the surface of the
Atlantic Ocean, from August 13 through August 22.
“This is one of the rare opportunities left on the planet to really be an
explorer and an adventurer, as well as a scientist at the same time,” Beach said
before his departure. “It’s an opportunity I’ve been looking forward to for a
couple of years.”
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As opportunity turned to reality, word of the mission worked its way from
features on Tampa Bay area media to national coverage on Fox and National
Geographic Today. The team emerged from isolation to find itself a topic of
national discussion. It also emerged to a world that 10 days had made
“The sunset the day we came back was amazing,” Beach said. “We just hadn’t
seen those colors for a while.” When he returned to the surface, Beach
remembers, the sweetness of the air struck him immediately, and even the
moisture of Florida’s humid summer air was welcome. “It was great just to
breathe above the surface and smell the air again.”
Any aversion to the noise of surface life dissipated quickly, and a
celebratory mood found the whole crew out dancing that night.
But that’s not to say that everything was serious and silent in the
“It was almost like we were a little bit ‘narced’ the whole time,” Beach
said, a reference to the euphoria divers may experience from nitrogen narcosis,
a condition associated with extended dives at depths below 60 feet. “Or maybe
it was just the excitement of actually being down there, but the stupidest
little things would crack us all up, which made for a very relaxed atmosphere,
really nice and a lot of fun.”
It wasn’t all fun, Beach said. The crew members were roughing it, after
all. For them, that meant skin rashes for all, a result of spending so much
time in water and wet gear. It also meant a lot of chills, which technicians
aboard Aquarius would help the divers combat by greeting them with hot chocolate
after a dive.
“In the middle of summer in Florida, we’re guzzling hot chocolate,” Beach
mused afterward. Beach said he also lost 10 pounds on the expedition.
Hardships aside, Beach said, the crew loved the experience. “We were ready
to stay down another week,” he said.
Beach, whose specialty is marine biology, investigates seaweed ecology on
coral reefs, especially related to their ecology and reproduction. The work is
important because seaweed has increased in abundance at many sites in the
Florida Keys and has begun to overgrow and kill corals. Why more seaweed is
seen on coral reefs in the past 15 years is one of the most significant
questions facing coral reef scientists and managers, and is the central
phenomenon Beach and his colleagues studied aboard Aquarius.
When they first arrived in the Keys, the research team members trained on
land and in water near the research site for two weeks before entering the
biosphere, and for good reason. Their environmentally important research would
require “saturation diving” for 10 days—SCUBA diving outside the biosphere at
least eight hours each day—meaning their blood became saturated with nitrogen
because of the increased atmospheric pressure.
Accordingly, they had to remain at or below 60 feet for the 10-day mission
duration or suffer decompression sickness, also known as the “bends.” The last
22 hours of the mission were spent decompressing inside the biosphere, which
itself becomes a hyperbaric decompression chamber.
A second research team lived on the surface and journeyed by boat to the site
each day, Beach said. That team, lead by UT biology instructor Heidi Borgeas
and comprised largely of UT undergraduates majoring in marine biology, SCUBA
dived from the boat to meet the Aquarius crew at the research site.
Aquarius, the world’s only underwater laboratory, is located at Conch Reef,
four miles offshore in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The
underwater laboratory rests in a sand plain adjacent to deep coral
reefs. Beach’s $150,000 mission was financed by the National Undersea Research
Center at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, with the participation of
the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
The reason for it all is an enemy with a Latin name.
Dictyota menstrualis, a seaweed that has grown particularly abundant on the
reefs off Florida, the Bahamas and the Caribbean, in some areas covers from up
to 70 percent of the reefs and sea floor. Growing into a thick, spongy carpet
that hides and smothers the colorful sponges and corals, it transforms the once
stunning underwater landscape into something far less impressive, which has not
only scientists but even the tourism industry concerned.
“It makes the reef look brown and skuzzy,” Beach told National Geographic
The seaweed is indigenous to the Florida keys, but scientists don't know why
it began spreading so rapidly about 15 years ago. One popular if fairly obvious
guess is that an absence of Diadema antillarum was a major factor. A blight
destroyed 95 percent of the D. antillarum population in 1983.
Also known as the black long-spined sea urchin, D. antillarum has a voracious
appetite for seaweed. It is widely assumed that the elimination of most of the
grazing urchins from the reef allowed for the suddenly explosive seaweed
But Beach thinks that the near elimination of grazing urchins is insufficient
to explain the speed at which the growths are spreading. He suspects that
nutrients from the neighborhoods and resorts on shore are over-stimulating the
“In a pristine reef, you are not supposed to see much seaweed,” Beach told
National Geographic Today. “Seaweed needs a lot of fertilizer, and normally,
reefs don't have a lot of nutrients.”
To test the theory, Beach installed nutrient dispensers near a patch of
Dictyota menstrualis and measured the rate of photosynthesis that occurred over
the duration of the mission. Analysis of the data will later tell him whether
higher nutrient levels can be tied to accelerated seaweed growth.
While Beach studies D. menstrualis, other scientists already are working to
aid recovery of the corals by restocking the reefs with sea urchins. But if
Beach finds that high nutrient levels are even partly responsible for the
seaweed overgrowth, broader measures likely will be needed to save the coral
With such major implications looming, Beach knows that a lot of people will
be eagerly awaiting results that will come only after a lot more work. The
topside work ahead is daunting, but he is ready to move ahead.
“The next year is analyzing data and writing,” he said. “All next summer,
I’m dedicated to writing.”
So, with the scientific conclusions a way off, Beach is left to his immediate
impressions of the Aquarius mission.
“We did a lot of work,” he said, “and had a lot of fun.”