FAU's famed deep-sea exploration vehicles may be retired; researchers fight to keep them
They found an American heartache and retrieved pieces of American history. But the two Johnson Sea Link underwater vehicles - locators of space shuttle Challenger's fateful rocket booster and redeemers of USS Monitor artifacts - are nearly middle aged.
Reluctantly, the workhorses of deep-sea exploration are being considered for retirement by Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. The Fort Pierce facility is reviewing all of its programs and budget, which must shrink by nearly $1 million for the 2009-2010 fiscal year.
The 4-person submersibles were born at Harbor Branch in the early 1970's.
More than 8,000 missions later, their Achilles heel is their attachment to the research vessel the Seward Johnson, which transports and deploys the 29,000-pound vehicles.
Today, unmanned submersible vehicles can be transported by any ship, and Harbor Branch officials are mulling the benefits of that kind of freedom.
"These Johnson Sea Links are tied to one ship and are costly to operate," said Harbor Branch associate executive director Pete Tatro, who estimates $600,000 is needed annually for upkeep and maintenance. "Could we do something with a remotely activated submersible that would be a less expensive answer for the same game?"
Many researchers don't think so and have started an online petition to keep the two ships, which are notable for their bulbous clear acrylic cockpits and ability to dive to 3,000 feet.
They argue the importance of having manned vehicles - real eyeballs in the deep - rather than cameras transmitting images.
"People say we don't need human occupied vehicles because we have these robots," said Edith Widder, president and senior scientist for the Fort Pierce-based Ocean Research and Conservation Association. "But many things are discovered by someone just catching something out of the corner of their eye. Cameras don't have that capability."
Widder estimates she's made 200 dives in a Johnson Sea Link. She touts them for their ability to hover motionless at specific depths - something near impossible in a vehicle tethered to a ship.
From within the 5-inch thick acrylic bubble she's witnessed vast underwater gardens, firework-like displays of bio-luminescence, giant ocean-floor amoebas and rare deep-sea six-gilled sharks.
"There is not a more wonderful experience on the planet," Widder said of her travels in the submersibles.
The Johnson Sea Links have been involved in finding previously undiscovered oculina coral reefs, which skirt the east coast of Florida and are found no where else in the world.
And after a 100-year mystery, a Johnson Sea Link ferried the first manned recovery team 240-feet underwater to the resting place of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor.
"We were the first bodies to actually see it and we did bring up the anchor," said Don Liberatore, chief submersible pilot at Harbor Branch, who joined the Johnson Sea Link team shortly after the Monitor's 1974 discovery.
Liberatore also piloted missions to locate the wreckage of the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded shortly after takeoff on Jan. 28 1986.
In February of that year, a team in one of the Johnson Sea Link's discovered the booster rocket with the faulty O-ring in more than 1,000-feet of water.
It was the piece of the puzzle NASA scientists were looking for.
"It was a somber feeling, the whole nation was upset," Liberatore said about the mission. "But technically we knew we were capable of doing it and we were proud they called us."
FAU expects to decide the fate of the submersibles by the end of the summer.
Tatro said that Harbor Branch will continue its mission of ocean discovery, whether another technology is introduced or the Johnson Sea Links remain.
More than 1,600 people who signed the petition are hoping for the latter.
© 2009 - The Palm Beach Post