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Scuba Travel

Mickey Mouse Underwater

by Susan Reed

Reproduced from in focus 23. (Aug. 1987)

Fed up with March in the Mediterranean, I thought I'd go and see what was happening across the water In 'Good Old USA'. On arrival I discovered that the mighty Mouse had done it again - Mickey had taken to water and gone diving!

I don't think anyone who has seen the film 'The Deep' could ever have imagined that it would spawn the designs for Walt Disney's latest extravaganza - the multi-million dollar 'Living Seas' at the Epcot Centre in Florida. Picture if you can an Oceanic Research Base in the 21st Century, designed as an attraction to encourage people who will never dive and perhaps don't even swim, to learn something of life in our seas.

Our oceans are the last frontier to be explored and paradoxically that part of our planet about which we know least. In fact we have spent less time exploring our deepest oceans than we have exploring space. It was, with this thought in mind that Kym Murphy, who was rsponsible for the technical side of the underwater sequences in 'The Deep', approached Disney World eleven years ago with his dream project. It sent him an a roller coaster of traumas, finding sponsors and gathering a team of specialists together. In spite of all the planning the 'Living Seas' wasn't ready when Epcot opened and only went into action 18 months ago. A diver himself, Kym learnt at the age of 13 with the Abalone Divers, and wants to share his enjoyment of the sport with everyone. So 185,000 square feet of building houses information on Marine Life, Diving, Earth Systems, Undersea Exploration and Ocean Resources.

Twenty-two months of building resulted in an ocean 203 feet in diameter and 27 feet deep filled with 'designer water'. This is recirculated at 35,000 gallons a minute, the entire 6 million gallons being recycled every 160 minutes through 10,000 feet of underground piping. Sixty-one acrylic viewing panels, each measuring 8ft x 24ft and weighing 9,000 lbs, give the visitor a unique opportunity to observe at first-hand living marine plants and animals and technical and scientific research In action.

The concept is an endeavour to educate and foster research as well as to entertain. Everyone I spoke to was eager to point this out and Bob Weisman, who is Diving Safety Officer, said that for him that is was a dream come true,
Kym told me that collaboration with the Florida Institute of Technology and with the Marine National Fisheries is a common occurence. Work taking place or planned to date includes a reef census, and research into dolphin physiology, nutrition, ozone and decompression plus a dolphin breeding programme which will hopefully start soon.

Initially visitors enter the 'Living Seas' through a 'queue area' which is filled with all kinds of interesting information and artifacts from a model of a diving suit and the submarine 'Nautilus' used in the filming of '20,000 leagues under the sea' to models such as Sir Edmund Halley's first diving bell (1697) and the 18th century Klingert diving dress. This all serves to prevent boredom in the event of having to wait to long - though they reckon to shift 2,000 people an hour! Next, visitors progress to a small pre-show presented by the sponsors followed by a dramatic movie presentation depicting the origins of life in the sea. Automatic doors open and you board a hydrolater to 'Sea-Base Alpha', an ocean research centre of the future. Moving walls and water viewed through acrylic panels give the impression that you are descending to great depth. Thirty seconds later the doors open and you board a sea-cab to take you through the spacious tunnel on the ocean floor. It is at this point you realise that this is a marine project quite unlike any other!

Within moments you are in the main concourse of 'Sea-Base Alpha', the sheer size overwhelms. Directly in front of you and dominating the concourse is the acrylic diver lock-out chamber. Overhead is suspended a full scale model of a 'Deep Rover' one-man submersible, capable of attaining depths of up to 3,500 feet.

Those interested in 'Ocean Ecosysytess' can stop and admire the Pacific kelp forest, so tall it extends up to the next level. Wonderful displays of phytoplankton and zooplankton in acrylic columns stand nearby tanks containing predators such as barracuda, bonnet-head sharks, morays and groupers. Symbiotic relationships are highlighted in a Pacific lagoon, home to numerous urchins, starfish and small reef fish. Among all these live exhibits, videos display up-to-the-minute information on marine life and test your knowledge. Upstairs, where you can see the top of the kelp forest, I met Jim Korzep who explained that experiments were carried out at the 'Mariculture Hatchery' for the visiting public to see and ask questions of the researchers, Everyone I spoke to from diver to designer has this burning desire to educate the public about our seas, and learning here is so easy you can't fail.

Divers amongst the visitors will be fascinated by the 'Undersea Exploration' section. 'Jason' is there, along with 'Jim' and 'Alvin'. You can test your manipulative skills in a out-away model of 'Jim' and two absolutely first-class, highly acclaimed animated films make the physics of diving so easy to understand I wish I'd had access to it when I started diving. Still with exploration, the 'Earth Systems' section has the most spectacular displays of the earth's oceans from space. Again apart from all the well-presented information there are more 'hands-on' features.
Kym and his team are justifiably proud of their dolphins. A Dolphin and Sea-Lion Research Centre has been set up on two levels. Communication experiments are conducted with the dolphins and video monitors show visitors a slice of the action above and below water.

Finally, and by no means least, comes the 'big-one' - Sea-Base Alpha's Coral Reef - home for nearly 6,000 sea creatures. Looking like a design straight out of 'Jaws III' visitors view the reef from an acrylic tunnel with a circular 'walk-round' at one end, In the surrounding ocean you can see dolphins, sharks, diamond rays, myriads of reef-fish, schools of butterfly and angel fish, blue chromis, barracuda, snappers and parrot fish. The environment outside the tunnel looks like an authentic coral reef. It is here that not only are experiments, research and observations being made on marine life, but man comes under scrutiny as well.

Some fourteen divers are currently engaged on Sea-Base Alpha, half of then women! Kym said no exceptions or discriminations were made for either sex - and added that in fact that in some situations women divers were more suitable, particularly in training dolphins and sea~lions. It looks very glamorous working as a diver at 'Living Seas', but is in fact extremely hard work - anything up to five hours underwater a day, not only caring for the marine life and conducting experiments but simulating such things as an archaeological dig on the ocean floor for the visiting public! It is with this total immersion in mind that extensive experiments are being carried out in relation to decompression.

A number of the divers are biologists holding college degrees and most hold Divemaster or Instructor qualifications. Asked if any particular qualities were essential for a diver working at Sea-Base Alpha, Kym replid that an effervescence and sheer joy for the job that came through to the visiting public, even at the end of a long weeks diving, were iaportant ingredients; and I must say that this was the overwhelming impression they made on me. One diver told me that the day he no longer gets a 'buzz' out of diving he will stop; and I think that Is what its all about.
The Americans may envy our history and tradition, but I envy their ability to produce such educational extravaganzas. If you go to Florida make sure you don't miss this one.

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