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The Aquarius Project
Incredible Underwater Adventure
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Girl Scouts of the USA partner to give girls a thrilling, firsthand look at Aquarius Habitat, the world's only undersea marine science laboratory.
It's a humid August morning in Key Largo, Florida, near the country's southernmost point. Beneath the bright turquoise waters lies North America's largest living coral reef. And on shore today, six Girl Scouts in bathing suits and sneakers are hauling gear from their borrowed condo into waiting passenger vans. The temperature is already approaching three digits.
Exploring the Depths
It's the first day of the debut year of Aquarius Project 2002, a five-day underwater adventure sponsored by GSUSA and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Office of Ocean Exploration.
Before the day is over, the girls will snorkel to conch shells the size of basketballs, don dive suits, tanks and gauges, record on waterproof writing slates and videocams, and go through their sunscreen and brown-bag lunches.
In the coming days these six Girl Scouts, plus three adult chaperones with diving expertise, will explore and monitor the amazing reef, with its surrounding meadows of flowering sea grass and exotic mangrove forests nursing millions of fish. The girls will be part of marine science and career seminars. And on a culminating 60-foot dive, the girls will visit a technological marvel: Aquarius Habitat, the world's only permanent research station located on the ocean floor.
Building a Foundation
"I wanted to be a marine biologist since I was in second grade," says Michelle, 16, a participant from the Girl Scouts of San Jacinto Council. "But I've never been able to go on dives because it's so much money. It was my avenue to explore what I'd like to be doing for the rest of my life."
The girls, selected in a national selection process, had flown in the day before from Texas, West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia and California, in time for dinner, capped off by key lime pie and a spectacular sunset.
Now, van loaded, they're joined by their three scientist guides from NOAA, who designed the program and quickly turned into role models. Michelle was excited to learn about researcher Catalina Martinez's work on turtle communities in Hawaii and Puerto Rico. "She's my complete idol!" says Michelle, who hopes to study marine biology at Texas A&M.
Chatting together in the van, the group heads off into the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to meet their pontoon dive boat. Today, they'll begin building a foundation of skills so they can take different measures of the reef's exotic animal and plant species.
The seas here can be alarmingly choppy, but today they were calm. First, the girls review their scuba skills, adjust their equipment and choose dive buddies. Suddenly, the first open-water predators of the trip come to greet them: nurse sharks, swimming by the boat in formation.
Plunging underwater, they meet other creatures: long-spined sea urchin, lobster, parrot fish, groupers and yellowtail snappers. Later, they'll see barracuda and stingrays.
"We worried that the daily schedule would be too fast-paced, but it turned out we weren't fast enough for the girls," notes Commander Joanna Flanders, one of the three NOAA guides and executive assistant to the director of NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration in Silver Spring, Maryland. "We arrived to start the morning at 8:30 and they've been sitting there since 8:10 waiting. They had an appetite for knowledge bigger than we had imagined."
Yet challenges abounded. From day one, along with science and adventure, meals had to be prepared, laundry washed, valuable equipment maintained, mission homework done each night. Evening programs might stretch until 10:00 p.m. There was homesickness, and seasickness. And, of course, the late-summer Caribbean heat.
"It was certainly a tropical week," says MariClare Krzyzewski, who is GSUSA Manager of the Elliott Wildlife Values Project's Linking Girls to the Land initiative, which oversees other adventures with federal agencies including the National Parks Service; she is also a chaperone who arranged the partnership.
Though SCUBA certification was a prerequisite, half of the girls were novice divers, certified only after they'd been chosen for the program. "They'd had limited direct ocean contact and some weren't really comfortable with diving. Regardless, whether on or offshore, challenges were met with success and each experience brought something excitingly new," MariClare recalled.
Onward to the Aquarius Habitat
Morning again and it's time for the long-awaited Aquarius visit. The team takes a 45-minute boat ride five miles out to sea, eats lunch on the water and prepares for a dive of about 60 feet—twice as deep as most of the girls have ever gone. So far down, in fact, that you can't see the surface or the sky. Upping the ante, the water is clear, but a bit rough. And suiting up in the heat, on a small boat, is not easy.
"Fieldwork isn't always glamorous," Commander Flanders reminds the group as they motor up to the 30-foot-tall mooring platform above the station.
Then it's down, down, down, one foot per second. Reaching the Aquarius, the girls circle the amazing 82-ton module, bright yellow and about the size of a school bus. They wave to the scientists inside, busy this week with a study of fish migration and reproduction. Then they gingerly climb up into the "wet porch" where dive equipment is stored. "When we hung our scuba gear, fish hid in them," says Halle, 14, the youngest participant but the group's most experienced diver.
The next step: in through the sealed and pressurized "entry lock" where walls of computers, power generators, life support systems and bathrooms are located. Finally, hearts pounding, the girls cross the final threshold into the "main lock" compartment with its sleeping berths, computer workstations, windows, kitchen and dining area and six scientists (one of them female).
"When we first poked our heads up into the station, we were so ecstatic to be down there," Halle says. "Everyone was really nice and they enjoyed the Girl Scout cookies we brought. Their freeze-dried meatloaf was really nasty! It was the shortest 15 minutes there's ever been. I would do anything to do it again—anything at all."
It's a Wrap
All too soon it's the girls' final day. Experienced now, the girls easily dive down and discover eel colonies living in a shipwrecked World War II freighter.
Working smoothly together, they practice scientific collaboration and species identification. Then dinner, an awards ceremony, gift exchanges and farewells.
The experience, Commander Flanders says, left her wishing there had been similar opportunities for girls when she was growing up. "Women are underrepresented in the ocean sciences," she says. What's so rewarding about the Aquarius Project, now an annual event, "is seeing how it could spark some of the girls to continue this kind of work."
Indeed. Eighth-grader Halle's back-home project, on the effects of chemicals on bioluminescent plankton (done with help from new NOAA contacts), has taken top prizes at her school's and district's science fairs. Participant Alexis has spoken before various groups and published articles on ocean conservation and her Florida experiences. In fact, this April, Alexis had her own temporary exhibit on her Aquarius visit at the Goddard Space Center in Washington, DC. Kate, 16, from the Girl Scouts of Black Diamond Council, has also given talks throughout her area.
It's all exactly what NOAA's Michael Kelly, the program coordinator, had in mind. "I watched six teenage girls at the beginning of the week turn into informed, committed constituents. They were really able to develop big, visionary plans for themselves."
In Her Own Words
Excerpts from the Girls' Ship Diaries
After lunch, we gathered plankton samples and observed them. We tested the ocean's salinity, measured water visibility, and surveyed cloud formations and wind speed. We ended the day with a beautiful coral reef dive at shallow waters!"
"On the last day of our special adventure into the saltwater world, we heard a presentation on how reefs are damaged and how divers can help track fish species. Then we practiced our fish-identification skills.
Tomorrow, we will become honorary ambassadors of ocean conservation. But tonight, I have my dreams: Six stoplight butterfly fish? Check. Two yellowtail damselfish? Check. Three stoplight parrot fish? Check…"
"Before the Aquarius Project, I needed to learn how to scuba dive. I learned lots of new terminology, like nitrox and buoyancy compensators.
Before I knew it, I could do it! I could gently float under the water, check out the landscape, and redirect the blue gill fish nibbling on my ear. When you scuba dive, you can really see the relationship between life, living and science."
"Today was absolutely amazing! The water was so warm it was like taking a bath. There were so many schools of fish, just gathered all over the place, all I could do was stare. We came up under the floor of the Aquarius, removed our tanks, and after a few minutes of breathing, I sounded like Alvin and the Chipmunks!
Wow: What a place to work! All the scientists were really cool! This has to be one of the most amazing things I've ever done."
Adapted from LEADER, Spring 2003. © Girl Scouts of the United States of America.