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VOL. 8 | NO. 16 | Saturday, April 11, 2015

Sea You in Three Months

Roane State Faculty Members Set Record for Undersea Living

AMANDA B. WOMAC | The Ledger

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If someone approached you and suggested you try living in an underwater habitat the size of a college dorm for three months, would you do it?

Jessica Fain enters the lodge at Key Largo Underwater Park.

(Submitted Photograph Courtesy Of Roane State)

Aquanauts Bruce Cantrell and Jessica Fain jumped at the chance and even ended up breaking a world record while they were at it.

“I developed my passion for marine science while in the Navy and have continued to study it throughout my career,” explains Cantrell, associate professor of biology at Roane State Community College.

“I was honored to have the opportunity to raise awareness about issues affecting our oceans, promote the value of underwater habitats and to offer an amazing learning experience for my students.”

Cantrell began teaching at Roane State in 1992. He has numerous diving certifications and logged more than 200 hours in the underwater habitat before he eventually called it home.

Since 2005, Cantrell has taken his students to the Marine Resources Development Foundation in Key Largo, Fla., to participate in educational programs hosted at the MarineLab Undersea Laboratory, the world’s longest continually operated underwater research facility.

In the fall of 2013, the foundation’s founder and president, Ian Koblick, approached Cantrell about conducting educational programs, which would soon be known as Classroom Under the Sea.

“Each year, I have been deeply impressed by Bruce and the Roane State students who visit MarineLab,” says Koblick. “When we came up with the idea of Classroom Under the Sea, I knew I wanted to involve Bruce and Roane State.”

Jessica Fain and Bruce Cantrell say they were too busy to get on each other’s nerves.

(Submitted Photograph Courtesy Of Roane State)

Cantrell accepted the offer and invited colleague Jessica Fain, adjunct professor of biology at Roane State, to join him.

She graduated from East Tennessee State University in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and started teaching as an adjunct instructor at Roane State. Since her time at the College, she has also received numerous diving certifications and logged more than 100 hours in underwater habitats and labs.

“I have a particular interest in introducing students to coral reef ecology and to helping them understand the need to protect the ecological balance of both freshwater and marine ecosystems,” says Fain. “The Classroom Under the Sea was a once-in-a-lifetime teaching opportunity.”

Video conferencing, online classes

Koblick pioneered underwater living in the 1970s.

An expert in underwater habitats, he designed the underwater lab, originally named La Chalupa. He and partner Dr. Neil Monney later converted it to Jules’ Undersea Lodge, which is where Cantrell and Fain lived for three months. The underwater lodge is the only one of its kind in the world and is located in the lagoon at Key Largo Underwater Park.

“This is one of only three working underwater habitats in the world today,” Cantrell says. “Back in the day when Jacques Cousteau was around, there were lots.”

In addition to interviewing a variety of leading scientists and explorers for the weekly program via video conferencing, Cantrell was able to teach his dream class online – Biology 200: Living and Working Under the Sea.

Roane State students enrolled in the class were able to interact with Cantrell and Fain during their underwater adventure.

“Roane State professors have taught in a variety of locations as part of our mission to bring higher education to the communities we serve,” says Roane State President Dr. Chris Whaley.

“What Bruce and Jessica accomplished is new territory. While their project is unique, their expertise, spirit of adventure and passion for teaching are representative of what makes community colleges so special.”

Record-setting adventure

While education was the primary reason for developing the Under the Sea program, Cantrell and Fain say they were also excited about the chance to break the world record for underwater living, which was held by Richard Presley, who spent 69 days and 19 minutes underwater from May 6 to July 14, 1992.

Fain ended up setting an additional world record for a female living underwater, reaching the milestone at 15 days in. Originally held by Dr. Sylvia Earle who set the record in 1970 with 14 days underwater, Fain broke the record Oct. 18, 2014.

“I am honored to be among a select group of aquanauts that includes people such as Sylvia Earle,” Fain says. “It is a surreal feeling to know that I am one of the very few women who have lived in an underwater habitat for an extended period of time.

“To know that I am now the only female to live in an underwater habitat for this long is an incredible personal achievement I hope inspires future generations of women.”

Inspiring girls to pursue science as a career was one of Fain’s primary goals for taking on the living under the sea project.

According to the National Science Board’s 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators report, women account for only 28 percent of the workforce in science and engineering jobs.

Bruce Cantrell explores conducts research outside the undersea residence.

(Submitted Photograph Courtesy Of Roane State)

While many high schools and colleges across the country are trying to change the statistic by implementing STEM programs – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – Fain says it’s also a social stigma girls need to move past.

“Girls interested in science don’t want to be labeled as the nerd,” Fain adds. “We still have this stigma of wanting to be the popular girl and not wanting to be the science geek. I want them to see that it is okay to be the smart, nerdy girl.”

‘Coolness factor’

The hands-on science experience provided by Classroom Under the Sea fascinated the students. Fain adds it was this kind of lab experiment that inspired her to pursue science.

“Hands-on experiences are the best way to get young people interested in science,” Fain explains. “Why not do the exciting experiences when they are impressionable? That excitement will carry over into other, harder concepts.

“For example, I could read about air pressure all day long, but when I am in a lab and can physically see the way air pressure affects things, I am getting the concept.”

During the project, Fain and Cantrell helped show students in several states what is happening in our oceans and our ecosystems.

“The coolness factor is definitely there,” Fain notes. “I think there is a great need for education for our middle schoolers, especially in science and marine biology. To be able to reach people in this manner is something that hasn’t been done.

“If maybe a fourth of the students who watched us, or not even students, just people, if a fourth of them get interested in science and conserving our marine ecosystems, then to me it’s been a success.”

After 73 days of living in an underwater habitat, Cantrell and Fain did just that by expanding the scope of what’s possible in education and research.

“My hope for people who watched us was that they’d see if you are passionate about something, and you go out and do it, most likely you are going to open doors for yourself,” Cantrell says.

Eating, sleeping and other issues

Jules’ Undersea Lodge is located 25 feet under the surface of the sea at MarineLab in Key Largo.

Approximately the size of a college dormitory room, the 8 foot by 20 foot tube contains two bedrooms, a common living area, a kitchen and small bathroom. The 300-square-foot wet room in the center of the lodge provides the only entrance and exit.

“We were lucky,” Fain says. “Our habitat was the only one with a bathroom.”

Famed explore Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s grandson, Fabien Cousteau, stayed in Aquarius, another underground vessel, for 31 days without a bathroom. On November 4, Cantrell and Fain surpassed his record, as well.

The aquanauts were not alone in the underwater dormitory. A topside support team monitored the vessel at all times and provided food, clean clothes and other items Cantrell and Fain needed during their 73-day stay.

“Everything they brought us had to be packaged and put into a dry box,” explains Cantrell. “Because the dry boxes are buoyant, they had to add 50 pound weights to get them to us.”

Bruce Cantrell in the wet room of the underwater lodge. Behind him a sliding door covers the hatch entrance to one of the facility’s two bedrooms.

(Submitted Photograph Courtesy Of Roane State)

Another obstacle Cantrell and Fain had to overcome was cooking 25 feet underwater. “We had a lot of charcoal blocks coming out of the microwave,” Fain says.

The issue, they soon discovered, was the difference in the pressure above the water compared to below the water. When their support team packaged food items, such as a bag of chips, the change in pressure from above the surface to 25 feet underwater would eventually crush the chips.

Getting around the habitat was no easy feat either, according to the scientists. Each room was connected by a hatchway, which Cantrell and Fain would crawl through to get from room to room.

When asked how they got along underwater for 73 days, Cantrell smiles and says, “We planned on personalities clashing, but we were too busy and too tired to be mad at each other.”

Perhaps one reason for this is because they were not totally alone for the duration of their stay. “The first night we were in the habitat, our families came down. We had a Halloween party and our families visited again for Thanksgiving,” Cantrell adds. “We weren’t isolated.”

Guest stars include Buzz Aldrin

Cantrell and Fain hosted middle and high school students for “Lunch with the Aquanauts,” and received several letters from students across the country who tuned in for the broadcasts.

“When you start hearing back from the students and they’re telling you ‘this is so cool’ and ‘what’s it like living underwater,’ you really feel like you are reaching your goals,” explains Fain.

“You feel like you are making a bit of different in their lives. We brought a whole new world to some of these kids.”

The weekly broadcast series, Classroom Under the Sea, brought leading scientists and explorers to the habitat to speak on topics ranging from the history of underwater habitats and marine archeology to how art is used to show the fragility of the ocean.

Buzz Aldrin, the second person to walk on the moon, was one of the many guests Cantrell and Fain hosted. Did you know astronauts do a lot practicing under the sea? During their session, Aldrin shared with the aquanauts how the undersea environment helps astronauts train for missions beyond the atmosphere.

Another episode focused on the invasive lionfish and its devastating effects it has on the native fish population.

“The lionfish has a huge impact on the sea and the fish we’ll have available at restaurants,” Cantrell notes. “It lays 30,000 eggs every 4 days!”

In Florida, one way they deal with the lionfish invasion is by hosting a lionfish derby, which is a contest within the community to go out and catch as many lionfish as they can.

According to the Lionfish Derby and Rodeo website, the objective is to “raise awareness and help control local lionfish populations by holding competitions to capture lionfish and put them on the menu. They are delicious to eat. We must become their predator!”

Here comes the sun

Another pressing issue in our oceans is coral reef health, which is something near and dear to Fain’s heart. One episode featured two leading experts in corals who have discovered a way to grow coral by pruning and then planting the new coral.

“We’ve absolutely decimated our coral reefs,” Fain explains. “The rebuilding of coral is happening so fast now that the biggest problem the experts have is getting through the policies and procedures, such as an EIS, which is required to plant the coral.”

The Classroom Under the Sea series helped raise awareness about the health of our oceans to viewers across the world. Over 65,000 minutes of the series has been viewed in 124 countries.

“I really hope that people take away from this that the oceans are something we need to protect,” says Fain. “We need to learn more about the oceans and how they work.”

The researchers emerged December 15, 2014, after living in the underwater habitat for 73 days, two hours and 34 minutes, breaking the world record for longest time spent living underwater.

“There is a sun!” Cantrell was heard to say as he and Fain broke the surface.

Both Cantrell and Fain say they see the project as a success.

“Going in, we had goals that we wanted to accomplish,” Cantrell says. “At the end of the 73 days, I think we’ve exceeded those goals. We’ve reached a lot of people. Now the challenge is for us to carry that forward.”

Cantrell and Fain don’t have any plans yet for another long-term stay at Jules’ Undersea Lodge.

It is open for any recreational diver to access, which brings us back to the original question – if someone asked you to stay in an underwater lodge the size of a college dormitory, do you think would give it a try – now?

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