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72 days under the sea

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Roane State faculty members aspire to break immersion record — will still teach

By Cindy Simpson

Two Roane State faculty members plan to live under the surface of the ocean for 72 days this fall semester.

If successful, they will not only set a world record for living underwater, but will also provide a unique educational experience by teaching from their underwater quarters.

“It is exciting. It’s intimidating,” said Bruce Cantrell, an associate professor of biology at Roane State. “Seventy-two days — break that down, that is called 10 weeks. We will not see the sun; we will not see the sky. We cannot break the surface of the water for over 10 weeks, and we are going to be living in basically 320 square feet.”

They won’t be completely isolated at the Jules’ Undersea Lodge at Key Largo Undersea Park in Florida.

People will be coming and going with supplies and to help produce the show for their undersea lecture park.

It’s the broadcast he’ll do with adjunct professor Jessica Fain that has Cantrell excited.

“Everyone is centered on the world record for staying there, but the broadcast is a record,” he said. “It has never been done before in the history of marine science. It has never been done before in the history of education.”

The lecture series is the idea of Ian Koblick, the founder of the Marine Resources Development Foundation.

“He has been involved in marine science since the 1960s,” Cantrell said. “What he wants to do is revitalize science with young people, make young people interested in science again, particularly marine science.”

The result will be 10 underwater lectures — one live lecture a week. It will go to anyone who wants it, Cantrell said.

The plan is to have the programs hosted on the Roane State website.

Cantrell will be handling his fall online biology class from Jules’ Undersea Lodge, as well.

He and Fain plan to begin their underwater experience on Oct. 4, not surfacing again until Dec. 15.

Roane State and the Marine Resources Development Foundation in Key Largo, Fla., are partnering for this Classroom Under the Sea project.

Cantrell has a long relationship with the Marine Resources Development Foundation.

In 2005, Cantrell began taking students to its MarineLab education program.

While there, students survey coral reefs and upload their findings to a database hosted by the Los Angeles-based Reef Check Foundation.

“One of the things students have to learn is how to identify the invertebrates and the fishes. They have to be able to identify about 100 (fish). Most of those are permanent residents on the reef, but a lot of them come and go,” Cantrell said.

“A lot of times, we see different stuff each trip. Every time we go, we see something we’ve never seen before or something slightly different than before,” Fain said.

Each year, they take about 20 students. Some get special privileges.

“We take a select few in to the habitat and actually let them stay overnight and get aquanaut certified,” Fain said.

“The facility is only 600 square feet, and only about 320 square feet of that are living spaces,” Cantrell said. “So when you crowd eight people into that space for 24 hours, you have to have good group dynamics.”

Koblick approached Cantrell last fall about the Classroom Under the Sea project, and Cantrell accepted the offer to participate. Cantrell invited Fain, who has assisted with organizing the trips to the MarineLab.

For Koblick, Cantrell and Fain — with their extensive experience at the lodge — were a perfect fit.

“Each year, I have been deeply impressed by Bruce and the Roane State students who visit MarineLab,” Koblick said.

Cantrell said he and Fain are excited to share this experience, something they’ve been talking about a long time.

“Over 50 percent of the United States is under water. That is if you include our territorial waters off coast,” Cantrell said. “There is new stuff being discovered every day, literally every day — new species are being discovered, new advances in technology.”

Cantrell said that Roane State President Chris Whaley has been behind them 100 percent.

Jules’ Undersea Lodge, where Cantrell and Fain will stay, is 21 feet below the surface of the sea at Key Largo Undersea Park.

For safety, the facility is monitored at all times by Jules’ staff.

While they can leave the lodge for underwater excursions, Cantrell and Fain do not plan to break the surface of the water for 72 days.

If successful, they will break the record of Richard Presley, who spent 69 days and 19 minutes underwater from May 6-July 14, 1992, according to Guinness World Records.

For updates on the Classroom Under the Sea project and for more information, visit www.roanestate.edu/classroomunderthesea.

Anyone interested in having Cantrell and Fain talk to their classes or group can contact the college.

Marine Resources Development Foundation is a nonprofit organization with the goal of developing a better understanding of Earth’s marine resources.

For more information, visit www.mrdf.org.