aquarius underwater with a diver

Finding "NEEMO" at the Aquarius Reef Base

On Monday, a NASA mission splashed down off Key Largo, Fla. Unlike some NASA ventures, however, "splashdown" wasn’t the end of the mission — it was just the beginning. Called "NEEMO" (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations project), the expedition involves crew of astronauts and scientists spending nearly two weeks in the Aquarius Reef Base, 60 feet below the surface of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

What are astronauts doing under the sea? Well, to prepare its teams for life in the harsh, zero-gravity environment of space, NASA needs somewhere they can train that simulates those same airless, weightless conditions. Much like space, the undersea world is a hostile, alien place for humans to live. And Aquarius, the world’s only underwater habitat, enables astronauts to spend days on end training in just such an environment.

Steve Gittings

Notes from the Field: Dr. Steve Gittings

With the NEEMO mission underway, NOAA scientist Dr. Steve Gittings is along to provide support for geological, chemical and biological research at nearby Conch Reef. Gittings, national research coordinator for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, will be sharing his thoughts on the mission as he dives, collects samples and interacts with the NASA team during the course of the week. Check this page often for updates!

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June 15, 2012

"A Surprising Find"

This clip, filmed with the video camera mounted on a Deepworker submersible (see the June 12 blog entry), shows several bicolor damselfish using a tilefish mound for shelter. Tilefish move small pieces of reef rock to form mounds on flat bottom seafloor, which they then burrow underneath for shelter. There are extensive areas like this near Conch Reef, with high cover of algae, soft corals, and sponges, and shelters like tilefish mounds and cobble, all of which provide habitat for small fish.

What’s interesting about this video is that this particular tilefish mound is quite deep (around 110 feet below the surface), and those damselfish you see darting around appear to be juveniles — suggesting that habitat like this could be acting as a nursery for young reef fish. This matters because we need to understand where nurseries are, as they are critical to reef fish populations. For years, we’ve known that seagrass beds and mangroves are important fish nursery locations. Now it looks like some deep habitats may be, as well.

June 14, 2012

"Back in Action"

recovery compress

Exceptional dive! I never figured that a place I knew so well would turn out to be so fascinating. I guess spending hours on end in the sub without having to think about surfacing gives your mind the freedom to explore. It may not change the world, but it did change the way I think about the boring terrain that surrounds coral reefs.

Years ago, I did video surveys in the Gulf of Mexico over large sand plains and was struck by the abundance of reef fish out there in the middle of the night. It helped me understand that reefs are great for shelter, but not necessarily the places where a lot of dinner is served. Much of that happens on sand plains that are barren during the day, but spring to life at night. We call it "off-reef foraging." So reefs are more refuge than they are restaurant.

Today, we spent about two hours crossing a large sand plan seaward of Conch Reef, and I was amazed by the abundance of tiny critters that take advantage of even the slightest structure. It was an area with a lot of soft corals, small sponges and algae mats, all of which provided shelter to countless juveniles of some fish species that you commonly see up on the reefs. It seemed to be a clear sign of the value of these habitats as nurseries, not just feeding areas for reef fish. And that’s why trying to protect one part of an ecosystem — a shallow coral reef, for example — without considering the other parts that are linked to it, can be a costly mistake.

June 13, 2012

"Dive at Last!"

Steve Gittings is doing a pre-dive check with Jeff Heaton on Nuytco to make sure all the systems are operating and to review launch, retrieval and emergency procedures.
Steve Gittings is doing a pre-dive check with Jeff Heaton on Nuytco to make sure all the systems are operating and to review launch, retrieval and emergency procedures.

Patience pays off. I just completed my first dive in a Deepworker sub in quite a few years. After being reminded where all the buttons were and what the procedures were for life support checks, deployment and retrieval, and emergencies, I was back in the saddle! I did a four-hour dive between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m. on the deep part of Conch Reef. Everything changes around reefs at night. Most of the action is over the sand, rather than over the reef. Animals go off the reef at night to feed on the incredible abundance of little animals that come out of the sand at night. All you have to do is stop for a minute or so with the video lights turned on and they are swarmed with them. A second sub was piloted by Stan Love, a NASA astronaut. He was tethered by a fiber optic cable and his video feed could be seen on the ship and on shore. Mine was recorded on the sub and is being transferred right now. Another dive this afternoon!

June 12, 2012

"Sometimes You’re the Windshield…"

The business end of a Deepworker submersible.
The business end of a Deepworker submersible. On this sub, there is a video camera on the right with paired lasers to measure things, high-intensity lights, a sample basket, a water quality sampler (the small orange container), a clamshell-shaped sediment sampler, and three sediment collection jars with funnels attached to allow the samples to be transferred.

Sometimes you’re the bug! Today, we were the bug. An abbreviated tour of the day will give you an idea of what the first day of any field operation can be like:

5:45 a.m. — Wake up and meet at the NASA science van to do a final daily plan.

6:15 a.m. — Change of plans. On standby until about 10 a.m. so they can finish getting the subs ready.

10 a.m. — Board boat for trip out to the Lana Rose, the ship carrying the Deepworker subs.

11 a.m. to 6 p.m. — Attaching sampling instruments to subs, figuring out why the dome of Sub 7 won’t seal, adjusting hinges, changing O-rings, finally cleaning out the offending valve, changing the dive plan several times as it becomes obvious that the operating window was shrinking, fixing headset on Sub 6, doing checkouts on all the operating systems of each sub, doing test lifts and test deployments.

6 p.m. — Realizing that the deck layout just won’t work for deploying two subs, moving a large van over to one side of the back deck to make more room, and ultimately deciding that safe operations were more important than diving. So let the deck operations get worked out, and we can try again tomorrow.

8 p.m. — Back on shore, shower, gobs of aloe.

8:30 p.m. — Debrief to come up with Plan B. Still, this is the life!

June 11, 2012

"First Impressions"

room full of technicians

My impressions of the first full day of this NASA-run mission – lots of people, most of them young, and every one of them really intelligent and capable.

This photo shows maybe a third of the people involved in this mission. There are technicians that build equipment for the divers to simulate outer space conditions, electronics experts, data handlers, planners, operations coordinators, astronauts, divers, sub pilots and probably more – I’m still clamboring up the learning curve! They run the diving and sub missions as if they were happening in space. They’ll be using a 50-second communications delay with us as we operate the subs, just to test ways to do work safely and productively in space. So you hear commands 50 seconds after they’re given. Best to listen closely. If you have to say, “What was that?” you’ve got another 100 seconds to fill.

June 8, 2012

"Man On A Mission"

Steve Gittings and Lauri Maclaughlin going over the plan for a dive on Conch Reef.
Steve Gittings and Lauri Maclaughlin going over the plan for a dive on Conch Reef.

This is Day 1 for me, as I'm preparing to be a part of a mission that involves divers, submarines, and NOAA's Aquarius undersea laboratory. NASA and NOAA are teaming up, with NASA conducting both environmental science and astronaut training. I'm representing NOAA in the field and am being supported by a number of others to get the word out on the mission's progress. I'll be collecting data from reefs that I've been visiting for 18 years now, documenting how they've changed. NASA will be training astronauts in the habitat, where they'll live for 10 days, testing ways to work in space, where there's no gravity. On Earth, there's no better place than Aquarius to work in a gravity-free, harsh, isolated, and challenging environment. Except for the fish, it's about as close as you can get to outer space without a rocket - and at a fraction of the price!

My day was spent diving at a study site where we planted steel posts back in 1994. Most of them are heavily overgrown, so finding them is quite a challenge. Still, with three dives down to 100 feet, we found enough to mark the study sites.

Mission plan and a dive slate with headings and ranges between sampling stations on Conch Reef.
Mission plan and a dive slate with headings and ranges between sampling stations on Conch Reef.

I'll be piloting a one-man sub called Deepworker next week, and using the high-def video camera on the sub to collect images of the bottom. We'll process the images in a way that allows us to calculate the cover of all the major groups of animals and plants that live on the reef. In the past four years, we've seem dramatic increases in soft coral cover on Florida's reefs, and among other things, we want to know if that trend is continuing. Hard corals, the real framework builders on coral reefs, have not been following that trend. But they grow much more slowly, and we're still hopeful that we'll start seeing some recovery following a couple decades of decline on many Atlantic reefs. So stay tuned for updates as the reports start coming in this week.


During NEEMO missions, aquanauts employ a technique known as saturation diving to live and work in the Aquarius underwater habitat for weeks at a time.
During NEEMO missions, aquanauts employ a technique known as saturation diving to live and work in the Aquarius underwater habitat for weeks at a time. Click here for more information


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