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Tripping the Deep Fantastic

Published: August 22, 2002

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 distant.


“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 biosphere.


“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 Today.


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 growth.


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 plant growth.  


“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 reefs.


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.”