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Classroom Under the Sea: An Interview with a Record-Breaking Aquanaut

Two Tennessee Teachers Spend 73 Days Underwater in The Jules’ Undersea Lodge

In a world-record breaking event that began on October 3, 2014, Roane State Community College instructors Bruce Cantrell and Jessica Fain spent 73 days living and working in The Jules’ Undersea Lodge, 25 feet below the surface of the water in Key Largo, Florida. While others had previously spent days or even weeks underwater, this project was unique in many ways.

Aside from breaking the world record for underwater habitation, professor Cantrell and adjunct professor Fain conducted a live class for Roane State and held a live, regularly scheduled weekly broadcast called Classroom Under the Sea.

Because their primary goal was to educate and entice young minds to explore the world of science, the professors regularly Skyped with schools around the country. They also held a weekly “Lunch with the Aquanaut” program, wherein young divers visited the habitat, had pizza delivered underwater and spent a couple of hours there talking about how habitats work and some of the physics behind them. Students even worked with Cantrell and Fain to design their own underwater habitats.

Scuba Diver Life recently had the opportunity to ask Professor Cantrell a few questions about his experience underwater, which concluded on December 14th, 2014.

SDL: What was the main purpose of your underwater classroom?

Professor Cantrell:  Several years ago I spoke length with Dr. Robert Ballard, who outlined an experiment that anyone can do. Ask any child from grades one to six what his or her favorite subject is, and nine out of 10 will say either science or math. Then they go to middle school. Once they’re in high school, very few will ever claim that science and math are their favorite subjects. What happens in middle school? Why do the students lose interest?

Using this as our starting point, the primary focus of our 73-day mission was a weekly live broadcast focused primarily on middle and high school students. We wanted to get more young people involved in science by having experts talk to them about current events regarding our oceans. What better place to do that than from an undersea habitat? We also wanted this broadcast to be available for free to any individual, school or organization that wanted to tune in. As far as I can determine, having a live, regularly scheduled, long-running weekly broadcast originating from an underwater habitat has never been done before in the history of marine science and education.

The second goal of our mission was to conduct a live, college credit, hybrid class for Roane State that originated in the habitat. Through Adobe Connect, I was able to hold my class online in real time. We were even able to carry our laptop computer around the habitat during class so the students could actually see where we were living in real-time.

On the weekends we also conducted what came to be known as the “Lunch with the Aquanaut” program, wherein SCUBA-certified young people could actually dive to the habitat on a Saturday or Sunday and have lunch with Jess and me (underwater pizza delivery was a big hit). We would spend a couple of hours with the young people talking about how a habitat works, what you need to survive, and even some of the physics involved. We would end the session with the students actually designing their own habitats. We had students visit us on almost every weekend; some came from as far away as Virginia and Massachusetts.

Our final goal was to break the existing world record for underwater habitation. In the early 1960s a Jacques Cousteau team spent 30 days in the Red Sea in CONSHELF II. Although he visited his team, Cousteau himself did not spend the entire 30 days in the habitat. Former Mercury 7 astronaut Scott Carpenter also spent 30 days living under the sea in the US Navy SEALAB II program off the coast of Southern California. In 1969 a 6-man team spent 60 days in the TEKTITE II program in the Caribbean. The 60-day record remained intact until 1992 when Richard Pressley lived for 69 days in Jules Undersea Lodge—the same habitat we lived in.

Breaking the world record was very rewarding, but please remember that education was our primary mission.

SDL: Do you feel like you accomplished those goals?

Professor Cantrell: In my opinion, we not only met our goals, but we surpassed them to a degree that we could not have imagined when our mission began. Not only were schools responsive, but we also had children write letters and draw pictures. We personally hand-wrote a reply to everyone that sent us a letter. In fact we had our own unique mission envelopes and stationary printed. One Monday we thought we might actually have a day off, but then another package of letters arrived. We spent most of the entire day writing replies.

We also Skyped live with schools and other groups from around the country. We did live interviews with media from around the world. And our message spread. According to the latest figures I’ve seen, articles about our Classroom Under the Sea mission have appeared in over 40 countries in publications with a combined subscription of over 368 million people.

SDL: What was the coolest thing you witnessed in the water outside your windows?

Professor Cantrell:  Every day that we looked out our portal, there was always something fascinating to see. But if I had to pick one thing as the coolest, I would have to say that it was the manatees. We had a special note posted topside in the command van that if any manatees were spotted in the vicinity of the habitat, the watch was to notify us immediately. When a manatee would be spotted, which wasn’t that often, Jess and I would try to get on our dive gear to observe them underwater. One day we had a mother and her calf hang around for a very long time. Eventually we got low on air and had to return to the habitat.

SDL: What do you feel is the most important issue our oceans face today?

Professor Cantrell: I feel that the most important issue that our oceans face today is a lack of awareness. One of the most surprising things that I found during our mission is how little that land-locked people, particularly young people, know about our oceans. Most agree that the oceans face some serious problems, but they aren’t sure what these problems are or what can be done about them. And since they don’t live near an ocean, most believe that they can’t have an impact anyway. I have students in my college biology classes every semester that have never been to a beach or seen an ocean. Somehow we have to make these future educators, future scientists, future politicians and decision-makers understand that we live on a world where every drop of ocean and every acre of land is intimately connected. Everything that we do with one affects the other. Indeed, life itself is only made possible by a healthy ocean.

SDL: What do you feel the average person could do that would help our oceans the most?  What about divers in particular?

Professor Cantrell: Very simply put, the average person needs to become educated about, and actively involved in, some environmental activity. By “actively involved” I do not mean to just write a check to some non-profit.

For example, even if you aren’t anywhere near an ocean, you can volunteer for something as simple as a river-cleanup project. What goes in the river ends up in the ocean. There is a tremendously large “dead zone” where the Mississippi river dumps into the Gulf of Mexico. Every stream dumps into a river which in turn dumps into another river, which in turn makes its way to the Mississippi and into the Gulf.

I think that divers have come a long way in actively becoming stewards of our oceans. Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of divers that are doing much more harm than good, but most serious divers want to protect our resources. After all, we would all like to dive on a healthy reef as opposed to a dead one. Organizations such as Project AWARE and the Reef Check Eco Diver program have made tremendous strides in educating the dive community and, more importantly, getting them actively involved. One a local level, there is no end to volunteer organizations that are doing great work. The Reef Environmental Education Foundation in the Florida Keys, to mention just one, is a great example. My challenge to all divers is to get involved and make a difference!

SDL: How do you feel about the future of our oceans? Hopeful? Pessimistic? Sad?

Professor Cantrell: Before our mission started, I have to say that I tended to be on the pessimistic side when it came to the future of our oceans. Like everyone else, all I would see or read in the media was doom and gloom. But every week during our educational mission, we would discuss a different topic affecting our oceans. I was completely surprised when NONE of our guests, who were all experts in their respective fields, talked doom and gloom. Every one of them was upbeat. Yes, the oceans have problems, but we are turning the corner. Serious work is being done and a lot of progress is being made. For instance, we all hear about how our coral reefs have been decimated. But what we heard from the experts is that coral restoration is alive and well. Scientists are now growing coral for transplant much faster than nature itself. Imagine my shock and surprise to know that we have thousands of coral ready to be put back on a reef but our biggest stumbling block is not the science or divers or boaters or even Mother Nature. Our biggest obstacle today in the regeneration of coral reefs is government red tape and regulations.

I am now a complete, 100% excited optimist. We have the people working on the problems and they are developing the know-how. A lot of good is being done.

SDL: If you could ask our readers to do just one thing associated with ocean conservancy, what would it be?

Professor Cantrell: Ocean conservancy is a team sport. From the scientist diving on the reef in Florida to the elementary school class that is recycling their plastic bottles in small-town Tennessee, everyone is important. It doesn’t matter that if you live over 1,000 miles from the reefs of Florida, we all play a vital role in the health of our oceans.

The single most important thing a person can do is to get educated. Once someone is educated, they tend to want to explore what they have learned. This information is then shared with others. It’s only natural. Others will then be inspired and the cycle will repeat itself. Over and over.

So I would ask your readers to do three simple things:

Explore. Educate. Inspire.

Your ocean and its countless inhabitants will thank you.

If you’d like to read more about the Classroom Under the Sea and/or watch some of their classroom videos, head here.