Undersea Reporting: Reporting Live From Inside Aquarius

February 15, 2008


When I heard the anchor in my earpiece introducing me reporting live from an undersea research lab, I could hardly believe all the technical aspects were working.

But they were. So I figured I'd better stop being amazed and actually start talking. On Sept. 20, I was the first reporter ever to broadcast live from Aquarius, the world's only undersea lab, nine miles off Key Largo, Fla. next to a coral reef about 60 feet deep. Don't screw it up, I told myself.

"This may be the most amazing broadcast I've ever been a part of," said news anchor Kelly Craig back in the studio for South Florida's NBC station, WTVJ.

The gee-whiz factor here is critical because that's what gave us the reason to do the story. But, as a result, viewers got to learn about ocean acidification, reef degradation and climate change, the mysterious role of sponges in cleaning anthropogenic impacts on reef ecosystems, and more.

"So many of us in the newsroom are in awe with what the aquanauts are exploring and experiencing," said WTVJ News Director Yvette Miley, who gave the go-ahead for the significant investment in staff time. "We all thought 'what a cool project' and to be able to bring it to viewers was absolutely awesome."

Plus viewers got to see great role models in action. Scientists – young and old, male and female – were inside the lab giving our live cameras a tour of the 43-foot-by-9-foot habitat. Others were outside working wearing deep sea helmets that look like a high tech version of Jules Verne. Some divers happened to be in the window waving at the camera, adding a surreal juxtaposition to our broadcast.

Aquanauts live in Aquarius for 10 days at a time in pure saturation. Saturation, when the natural exhalation of the human body becomes acclimated to the heavy pressure at that depth, allows scientists to be in the water for nine hours at a time. They can accomplish in one mission what would take a year to do without saturation.

But it also means, in a life-or-death emergency, going to the surface is not an option. Ever. If they bolt up, they die. It takes a 16-hour process to decompress. So the emergency plans are impressive here. Of course, photographer Mike Zimmer and I did not saturate. So we shot our story days earlier, then returned to Aquarius for a one-hour visit before safety measures required us to return to the surface.

Just 20 seconds after my live broadcast ended with my Miamibased TV station, I heard a new voice in my earpiece. MSNBC was ready to put us on the air in about 30 seconds. "Ready?" the producer asked from their New York studio. Before I could answer, even she said, "This is really cool." Then we got a chance to tell a national audience about the crisis in the oceans; something so few Americans know about.

To make this all happen was beyond difficult. WTVJ News Operations Manager Rob Gibson says it required three separate video and audio links from the three cameras at the undersea lab nine miles off the Key Largo coast. A digital encoder called a V-Brick converted the analog audio and video into a digital signal that was transmitted up a fiber optic line to a buoy floating 55 feet above the lab. The buoy transmitted that signal using a 7 ghz microwave link back to a microwave receiver on shore. The signal then went back through a V-Brick encoder to convert back to analog. That signal was routed into a satellite truck parked nearby and beamed up to a satellite, which was downlinked at the TV studios near Miami, then sent to NBC headquarters in New York and broadcast live nationwide.

The live coverage "brought the excitement of the lab to the public," said Aquarius Senior Scientist Ellen Prager. "It's truly a national asset that really hasn't gotten the recognition it deserves."

Aquarius is owned by NOAA on behalf of the American people and operated by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Funding, like many scientific endeavors, comes and goes. The Bush Administration recently cut the budget even further. The $1.3 million it receives annually is not enough to cover costs. So Aquarius brings in extra money by doing work for NASA and the military. Aquarius leaders got wise and reached out to the media to help tell the taxpayers. Aquarius began long before the impacts of climate change on the oceans were fully understood. So now its work takes on greater importance.

Jeff Burnside is a special projects reporter at WTVJ, NBC 6 in Miami.  Reach him at jeff.burnside@nbc.com


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