Aquarius Reef Base


Join a team of renowned marine scientists and conduct critical research in an undersea lab on the ocean floor - 62 feet below the surface.


LOCATION Islamorada, Florida, USA; Aquarius Reef Base, Atlantic Ocean
DURATION 8-10 Days in Saturation, 5 Days of Training
AVAILABILITY Booking now for 5 missions between May - November, 2022


For the first time in Aquarius’ history, non-industry professionals will have the limited opportunity to join a team of scientists aboard the Aquarius Reef Base undersea lab for a saturation mission. Selected participants will become aquanauts and serve a mission-critical role as scientist and conservation advocate as they dive side-by-side with renowned marine scientists.

As part of this initiative, five missions have been added to the 2022 operations schedule that address complex global environmental issues. Two  citizen scientists will work with the science team aboard Aquarius for each mission. Life and research onboard Aquarius will be streamed live to schools and homes. Through a collaboration with FIU’s Education Outreach Program, the next generation of researchers and explorers will have access to innovative education and outreach programs based upon the science conducted during the missions.

Sample schedule for a 10-day mission:

Day 0
(Sunday): Arrive in Islamorada
Day 1-5 (Monday-Friday): Training from 8:00AM - 6:00PM
Day 6-7 (Saturday-Sunday): Final mission preparations; pre-mission medical review
Day 8 (Monday): Splash-down; mission day 1
Day 9-14 (Tuesday-Sunday): Mission days 2-7
Day 15 (Monday): Mission day 8
Day 16 (Tuesday): Mission day 9; decompression begins at 3:00PM
Day 17 (Wednesday): Mission day 10; aquanauts recovered at ~9:00PM and returned to shore
Day 18 (Thursday): Aquanauts free to depart Islamorada if driving
Day 19 (Friday): Aquanauts free to fly 48-hours post surfacing


Research: See mission details below.

Sponsorship: Sponsor an individual or group experience.


- Participants must be at least 18 years of age
- Dive certification by nationally recognized agency or military required
- Participant must undergo diver physical examination
- Personal medical insurance is required
- Participant must complete and sign FIU liability waiver and participation form
- Participant must pass all relevant training
- Housing is provided on Islamorada, meals are provided onboard Aquarius, travel expenses are not included
- Alternative dates will be used in the event of bad weather
- All dive gear except mask, fins, and wetsuit will be provided


Mission 1 Detection and movement of marine debris and common plastic items using sonar
Lead scientist(s): FIU - Piero Gardinali

Details: Marine debris is a persistent pollution problem that reaches throughout the entire ocean and Great Lakes. Gardinali’s team will create a manmade debris field of common items and groups of items that will be deployed near Aquarius Reef Base. Scientists aboard Aquarius will use sonar to track the movement of the debris to better understand the role of oceanographic phenomena (e.g., currents, tides and waves) on marine pollution dispersal.

Mission 2 Fish vocalization under different behavioral situations.
Lead scientist(s): FIU - Alastair Harborne and Kevin Boswell

Details: Aquarius Reef Base supports a high biomass of fishes that vocalize in various situation. In this multi-part project, the scientists will use hydrophones to capture the noises fish make over 24-hour cycles to gain an understanding of how groups of fishes vocalize during their nightly migration in search of food and how they communicate predatory threats. The team will also deploy 3-D printed “corals” to determine if added reef complexity affects fish grazing - essential to keeping seaweed under control and facilitating coral settlement and growth - by comparing behaviour and vocalization of fishes on experimental and natural reef structures.

Mission 3 Predator Identity: Impacts of sharks on coral reef ecosystems.
Lead scientist(s): FIU - Mike Heithaus and Yannis Papastamatiou

Details: In most marine systems, including coral reefs, sharks are the top predator. On near-pristine reefs, sharks and other apex-predators may have once made up as much as 85 percent of the fish biomass, but now, due to overfishing, they are virtually absent. As coral reefs face potential collapse in the coming century the rapid loss of top predators necessitates an urgent need to understand their role in structuring reef ecosystems.

Working aboard Aquarius Reef Base, scientists will continue experiments conducted in 2015 and 2016 to assess the impact of sharks on the feeding behavior of coral reef fishes. The team will deploy a highpowered transducer to pulse low frequency sound to attract sharks to Conch Reef and an imaging sonar and echosounder to track and measure the size, position, movement and species of fishes in the area. Concurrently, experimental feeding stations will be established and monitored with digital cameras to capture grazing behavior of prey fishes.

Mission 4 Ocean acidification
Lead scientist(s): FIU - Jim Fourqurean and Justin Campbell

Carbon dioxide is a critical component of the Earth’s atmosphere. Yet, since the start of the Industrial Revolution, emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere have risen dramatically. Not all the excess carbon dioxide, however, stays in the atmosphere and scientists estimate that one-third of the excess gas has been absorbed by the ocean. This process is fundamentally changing the chemistry of the ocean, a phenomenon known as ocean acidification.

Aquanauts will seek to understand how Florida Keys' coral reef ecosystems respond to and influence ocean acidification. Divers will set up real-time sensors to measure current speed and direction, pH, temperature and partial pressure of carbon dioxide (pCO2) around Aquarius. They will collect water samples analyzed inside Aquarius using an automated titrator and an infrared gas analyzer to determine the chemical signals of ocean acidification and the effects they have on marine organisms. The team will also construct underwater flumes that enclose sections of the reef to understand the relationship between coral reefs and the acidity of ocean water by assessing changes in pH, alkalinity and pCO2.

Mission 5 A City of Shrimps: investigating the only social invertebrate marine species
Lead scientist(s): FIU - Heather Bracken-Grissom, Lauren Ballou and Pedro A. Peres

While many studies have examined how terrestrial animals form complex social colonies within their natural environment, such as those of bees and ants, very few have observed this phenomenon in the ocean. Species within the shrimp genus Synalpheus, only recently discovered in 1996, are the only known marine organisms to exhibit social structure varying from monogamous pairs to eusocial colonies. These species are found within Caribbean reef sponges and can range from a few individuals to complex assemblies with designated “workers” and “queens”. While the genus has been observed within the Florida Keys, eusocial species have so far not been reported. A research expedition aboard Aquarius will provide an excellent opportunity to thoroughly assess what species are present along the reef tract, potentially identify an extended range for eusocial shrimps, and observe the natural behavior of these colonies over an extended time period.

The aquanaut team will photograph and collect sponge and shrimp specimens for morphological and molecular identification to obtain critically needed natural history data. Genetic analyses of the organisms will be used to determine species-specific relationships between shrimps and sponges and to verify the correlation between shrimp social structure and the sponges upon which they live. The aquanaut will also use underwater cameras and the extensive dive time afforded by working in saturation to personally observe and identify behaviors never before extensively documented in these understudied animals.