Submersing himself in his work
If all goes according to plan, a Kingston man will be involved in a first-of-a-kind underwater habitat that will study coral reefs in the Caribbean Sea.
Kenn Feigelman, who owns Deep/Quest 2 Expeditions based in Kingston, was the first and so far only Canadian chosen as a team member on SeaBase 1 -- a permanent, underwater habitat that will foster research, education and eco-tourism opportunities on the Belize Barrier Reef off the island of Abergris Caye.
Feigelman was "shocked" when he was asked to join the team, which is being led by Dr. Richard Cooper, retired marine biology professor at the University of Connecticut and veteran underwater researcher and explorer.
Cooper developed the idea for the base five years ago and runs the the non-profit corporation SeaBase 1.
The base would be unique as the first permanent ocean floor research and education facility incorporating eco-tourism.
Feigelman's company has made several educational and television shows on underwater exploration, most notably on ship wrecks in the Great Lakes for PBS. He was brought onto the team because of his experience as an underwater explorer and filmmaker.
As a "scientific consulting partner" he will be responsible for promoting the project as well as working as an aquanaut on the base.
His company will also film the construction of the underwater facility and its initial experiment.
At age 74 Cooper has more than 55 years experience in deep sea diving and underwater research.
He said it was "imperative" to build a permanent habitat near pristine coral in order to "blend into the ecosystem" and observe underwater species behaving in a natural habitat.
"It sounds odd, but we wouldn't have the same level of acceptance from underwater species if we just went bounce diving for a few hours," he said.
The drawback of "bounce diving," which involves driving in a boat to a spot in the ocean to dive for a few hours, is that it is riskier, expensive and time-consuming compared to having a permanent base.
Having an underwater habitat like SeaBase 1 located only seven metres below the surface will also allow divers to enter and exit the base to go exploring without always having to de-pressurize, Cooper said.
Coral research is becoming an increasingly important field of underwater research because despite only occupying 0.2% of the ocean floor, it is home to a quarter of all oceans species. For that reason Cooper said coral reefs are considered the ocean equivalent of a canary in the coal mine.
"Once they start to die," he said, "the ocean will die with it."
Recent research has indicated that three-quarters of the world's coral reefs are gone or under long-term threat, which could have a significant impact on the health of the world's oceans.
The Belize Barrier Reef was chosen as a potential site because it does not experience a harsh hurricane season like other areas in the Caribbean. It also contains a massive shelf that will shelter the base from storm waves.
Cooper said Abergris Caye also contains an established scuba tourism industry and the necessary infrastructure a project like SeaBase 1 would require.
The base itself will comprise three floors constructed in the shape of a Mayan pyramid in homage to the civilization that once flourished in Belize.
One floor will contain the sleeping quarters with a bathroom and shower for the aquanauts. The second floor will house the communications area, medical facility and mess area where the aquanauts will eat in shifts. The third floor will be where the aquanauts change into their scuba equipment and where they will enter and exit the habitat.
The third floor is also where the transfer tube -- a long cylindrical shaft with an above water platform used to transport supplies and people in and out of the base -- is connected to the facility.
The habitat, which will be made of cement, will be pre-assembled in the Gulf of Mexico and then shipped via barge to Abergris Caye where it will be secured to limestone rock on the sea floor and covered in sand.
Construction of the project is expected to begin in less than two years and should be fully operational in 2013.
Cooper said 25 aquanauts will be able to stay in the habitat for a minimum five-day stay. Once operational the base will cycle 600 to 700 aquanauts a year at a cost of approximately $2,500 per person.
SeaBase 1 will have a lifespan of about 35 to 40 "productive" years and Cooper hopes it will lead to similar underwater habitats in other bodies of water.
The project is expected to cost $28 million and will draw on financial support from universities, government and members of the diving community.
Cooper said while there are other underwater habitat projects around the world currently in the planning phase, none of them have the same collection of underwater experts as the SeaBase 1 team, nor do they plan to incorporate research and education with eco-tourism.
"You may have a billionaire from Dubai looking into financing an underwater restaurant in the Arabian Gulf where you can go underwater and look at a few fish passing by in murky waters," he said.
"That is not what SeaBase 1 is about. We want to facilitate research and education along with eco-tourism."