Journey to Aquarius over Skype

Just as people are fascinated by life on the International Space Station, it’s equally as mysterious to think about living 60 feet underwater in a permanent aquatic lab. Since few people actually have the chance to experience life as an aquanaut, Skype is once again teaming up with the Aquarius Reef Base to take students on some amazing virtual field trips as they learn about our oceans.

We caught up with Aileen Soto and Cathy Guinovart from the Aquarius education team as they’re preparing for the next mission. Teachers can sign up now for Skype field trips during the Sept 7-13th mission. Field trips are ongoing but the opportunity to talk directly to an aquanaut at the underwater habitat is one not to be missed!

What is unique about Aquarius and what is being studied there?

Aquarius Reef Base is the world’s only undersea saturation diving facility, 60 feet under the Florida Keys, where scientists, students, and even NASA astronauts have the ability to live and work on the ocean floor. At Aquarius, scientists are at the cutting edge of research on coral reefs, ocean acidification, climate change, fisheries, and the overall health of our oceans.

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Photo credit: DJ Roller, Liquid Pictures

How long have you been using Skype to connect with students around the world about Aquarius? 

Since Florida International University assumed ownership of Aquarius in 2013 we have been using Skype as our primary platform for virtual field trips. Throughout Aquarius’s history we have connected to approximately 30,000 classrooms.

What does a typical Skype virtual field trip cover?

It varies a bit depending on whether we have a mission going on. In every lesson we explain the Aquarius program, teach about the importance of our oceans and the role we all play in preserving our marine environment. If there’s a mission going we will connect with the Aquanauts via Skype for a special tour of the habitat, showing students the view out the window of the reef and identifying any passing marine life that comes into view. If there’s no mission, we share videos to show them inside the habitat as we talk through what they’re seeing and how the habitat enables people to live there at depth. We also explain our partnership with NASA, who uses Aquarius as a space analog for training. Q&A time is especially important since students have a lot of questions and this is their time to be heard!

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What are some of your most memorable Skype moments?

We have so many! Connecting with children in the Peruvian Amazon who had never seen the ocean before was truly amazing. Doing our first virtual field trip in Spanish with students in Honduras. Having classrooms discuss their ideas for the next generation of Aquarius. I think really just seeing their jaws drop when we tell them they could live underwater too someday.

Yesterday I had a Skype call with Pakistan. Oh my gosh those kids changed my outlook on life! They told me that before we spoke on Skype they were afraid of the ocean and the creatures that lived there and now they all want to be divers at Aquarius! I LOVE Skype in the Classroom. Those kids brought tears to my eyes. It was amazing.

What are kids’ reactions to seeing the habitat?

Their jaws drop! Usually they say something along the lines of “Whoa! Really? People can live in the ocean?!” I had one six-year old girl tell me, “When I get home I’m gonna ask my mom if I can become an aquanaut!” I responded by saying “You definitely can!”

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You said Q&A time was especially important. What types of questions do kids typically ask?

They always want to know if we get to see sharks. They get so excited when we tell them that we do! They want to know if we’re going to make a bigger version of Aquarius. What’s the longest anyone has lived underwater? What do you eat down there? Where do you go to the bathroom? But they always surprise us too! Kids are incredibly curious.

Tell us about the upcoming mission and how you’ll be involving classrooms in the adventure.

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, thanks 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 structuring reef ecosystems. So for this particular mission, FIU scientists will board Aquarius for eight days beginning on September 7 to assess the impact of sharks on the feeding behavior of herbivorous coral reef fishes in the Florida Keys.

And we want to bring classes along for the adventure with our scientists! We have Skype virtual field trips available to teachers and their classes all year long, but we strongly encourage them to try to schedule a session during this upcoming mission since we have access to additional scientist guest speakers down in the underwater habitat.

It still gives us goosebumps and brings tears to our eyes when the importance of what we do clicks in their heads and inspires them to want to be stewards of our ocean planet.

Scroll down our Sway for more details.

Teachers can register for free to visit Aquarius live over Skype through the Microsoft Educator Community, or explore other oceans related Skype experiences.

More about Aquarius Reef Base: