The Scoop on SCUBAnauts
Commander Gorie floats next to a flag aboard the space shuttle

Mission Commander Dominic Gorie unfurls the SCUBAnauts International flag aboard the space shuttle Endeavour. Image Credit: NASA

When space shuttle Endeavour launched in March of 2008, a group of 35 middle and high school students followed the mission closely. The event they were waiting for came a few days after takeoff. That's when shuttle Commander Dominic Gorie unfurled a blue banner. On it was an emblem with the words, "Operation Deep Climb."

The students, from the Tampa Bay, Fla., area, had been looking forward to this moment ever since their exciting trip to Hawaii. That's where, five months earlier, they had probed the depths of the Pacific Ocean, and hiked to the top of the mountain Mauna Kea. At the mountain's peak, they were joined by Gorie on an up-close tour of a famous observatory.

The activities were part of Operation Deep Climb, one of various missions organized by SCUBAnauts International.

Who are SCUBAnauts? They are young marine science explorers, ages 12 to 18, who take part in underwater exploration activities throughout the year. They explore marine environments and train with marine research scientists. They also help the scientists conduct meaningful research.

Two girls in scuba gear write on a notepad underwater

Two SCUBAnauts perform a fish count in Key Largo in June 2007. Image Credit: SCUBAnauts International

Oceans cover 70 percent of Earth's surface. They make up the largest habitat for living things. Below the ocean surface, coral reefs support a diverse array of marine plants and animals. But pollution, climate change and over-fishing are damaging reefs worldwide.

SCUBAnauts "are here to be good stewards of their environment and learn more about the environment," said Christopher Moses, chief scientist for SCUBAnauts.

Being a SCUBAnaut requires dedication and a sense of adventure. The first step for new members is getting certified as open-water scuba divers. They learn diving skills such as moving forward, going backwards and turning by using just their feet. These skills are important because on research dives their hands are busy carrying cameras, clipboards and other equipment.

A group of students stand under the belly of the Endeavour orbiter

A group of SCUBAnauts stand under the space shuttle Endeavour in February 2008 while it is being prepared for a March launch. Image Credit: SCUBAnauts International

"As a scientific diver (you are) constantly working with something so your hands are always full," Moses said. "Plus you don't want (animals) to run and hide when you wave your hands."

During the school year, SCUBAnauts attend one meeting a month, sometimes meeting notable marine researchers. The students also receive regular dive training, and they train with the U.S. Coast Guard in CPR, first-aid and dealing with emergencies.

One or two weekends a month are set aside for the exciting science dives. On these dives, SCUBAnauts monitor manmade reefs in the Tampa Bay and Gulf of Mexico. They check the health of coral reefs by watching for disease, overgrowth of algae, and bleaching (when the coral loses its color). The SCUBAnauts conduct fish counts and species surveys. They also collect and record water data including temperature, turbidity (how cloudy the water is) and salinity (how salty the water is).

Summer brings more thrilling adventures at exotic sites. In the past, SCUBAnauts have visited coral reefs in the Bahamas and Jamaica. They have performed fish counts in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which has over 200 species of coral and fish. And they have visited the Aquarius underwater ocean laboratory, located off the shore of Key Largo at a depth of 60 feet.

A group of scuba divers swim near a large underwater laboratory

A group of SCUBAnauts work outside Aquarius, the world's only underwater research habitat, to perform fish counts and coral surveys. Image Credit: SCUBAnauts International

Operation Deep Climb was one of the more memorable research trips for the SCUBAnauts. In October 2007, the students went to Hawaii for two weeks. They descended as far as 2,000 feet below the ocean's surface in deep-sea submersibles. What was down there? They saw a Japanese midget submarine sunk at Pearl Harbor during the surprise attack in December 1941.

After the Pearl Harbor dive, the SCUBAnauts climbed 13,700 feet to the peak of Mauna Kea. During the hike the students examined rare plants and animals, and explored the environments in which they live. Captain Gorie then joined them on a tour of the Keck Observatory. The observatory features twin telescopes -- each standing eight stories tall -- that sit atop the mountain.

Future missions will take the SCUBAnauts to observe undersea volcanic eruptions and hydrothermal vents. They also plan to explore the underwater geology of Mauna Kea, which extends 20,000 feet beneath the ocean surface.

The program currently exists only in the Tampa Bay area. With support from NASA, new chapters are planned in places such as the Florida Keys and Annapolis, Md.

Related Resources
SCUBAnauts Web Site   →
Ocean World   →
Ocean Motion   →
Rising Tides   →
Scuba Divers and Satellites

By Prachi Patel-Predd, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies
Adapted for grades 5-8 audience by Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies