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#375651 05/05/10 07:17 AM
Joined: Oct 1999
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Marty Offline OP
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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."

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Retired UConn Maritime Professor Dreams Of Undersea Research Facility

By PETER MARTEKA, [email protected]

9:40 PM EDT, May 30, 2010


Retired maritime studies professor Dr. Richard A. Cooper sits in his office in a century-old mansion overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Surrounded by diving manuals, books on the ocean and pictures of his grandchildren, he talks about saving "the life support system of our planet" - the world's oceans.

For Cooper, a professor at the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus, and a team of educators and ocean experts, that possible salvation lies thousands of miles to the south, in Belize's barrier reef off Ambergris Caye. The canyon of 25-foot-high coral reefs is home to more than a quarter of all the species in the ocean, and Cooper considers the reefs to be the equivalent of a canary in a coal mine: If they don't survive, neither will the oceans.

And this is where SeaBase 1 holds hope for the ocean's future. Cradling a miniature replica of the underwater research facility like a small child, the 77-year-old Cooper talks about the dream the nonprofit SeaBase 1 Corp. has for undersea research, education and eco-tourism facilities, or REEFs - the first of its kind in the world.

In hopes of "igniting worldwide fascination and stewardship for our ocean," the group is hoping to build a $30 million underwater facility nestled in the coral reef under 60 feet of clear tropical waters. More than 700 scuba divers and researchers - 20 at a time - could use the facility over the course of a year to study a variety of things, from creatures and organisms that thrive in the reef to global warming's impact on reefs to monitoring the physical and chemical changes in the reef.

"This is the largest unimpacted reef, second only to the Great Barrier Reef" in Australia, Cooper said. "How we understand man's impact and ability to protect them may have broad implications for mankind. Out of all ocean ecosystems, the coral reef is the most sensitive and ecologically diverse."

The base would be built at a shipyard in the Gulf states and transported by barge to the reef. The base - in the shape of a Mayan pyramid - would be lowered and attached to a plate screwed into the limestone ledge, quickly becoming an artificial reef. One floor would contain sleeping quarters with a bathroom and showers. Another floor would house the communications hub, dry labs, a medical facility and dining area. A third level would include wet labs and allow divers to enter and exit the station for dives in the reef. Viewing ports, six to eight feet in diameter, would allow aquanauts to observe the reef at all times.

According to Cooper, the key to this facility is that the aquanauts will not be saturated in nitrogen and required to undergo three days of decompression when they return to the surface. Divers would be at a depth where they wouldn't be in danger of nitrogen sickness. There are approximately 30 million scuba divers worldwide, including 5 million in the United States.

Currently only one undersea research laboratory - Aquarius - exists off Key Largo, an area where the world's third largest coral reef ecosystem is located. Aquarius is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and operated by the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and is available only to scientists. The lab is located 3.5 miles offshore at a depth of 60 feet in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Scientists live in Aquarius during 10-day missions, using saturation diving to study and explore the coral reefs. Craig Cooper, retired director of operations at Aquarius, is part of Richard Cooper's team.

"Fundamentally this is all about education," said Andrew N. Davis, another of the group's directors. "We would be providing real time information and real time education to colleges and universities and schools across the country and world. Many people don't get to see the great coral reefs, let alone live down there. It's education through immersion."

If they can raise the funding, the team is hoping to launch SeaBase 1 by 2013. Right now, the team is looking at charging approximately $2,500 to $3,500 a week to stay at Seabase. They are looking for not only government and state funding to build it, but also to individuals and private corporations. Richard Cooper said the team's long-term goal is to design and build similar submersible research centers across the globe.

"We will learn from what we do right and hopefully what little we do wrong," Cooper said. "If people believe in the significance of what we are trying to do, this should be easy to fund. Being a scuba diver for 55 years, I know the mind set very well. And when people find out about this, they are going to wonder why hasn't anyone ever done this before. This would be a unique experience, unequaled anywhere else in the diving world."

Ivar G. Babb, a member of the team and director of UConn's National Undersea Research Center, said the facility would become an "underwater classroom" and rekindle the romance of life under the sea.

"We've gotten away from the ocean," said Babb. "This would provide the capacity to bring the human element back in and humans becoming ambassadors again and becoming excited about the ocean again."

The Hartford Courant

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