published Monday, February 10th, 2014

Roane State Community College going for an undersea record of 72 days

Jessica Fain, an adjunct instructor at Roane State Community College, comes into the "wet room" in the high-tech undersea laboratory at the bottom of an ocean lagoon in Key Largo, Fla.
Jessica Fain, an adjunct instructor at Roane State Community College, comes into the "wet room" in the high-tech undersea laboratory at the bottom of an ocean lagoon in Key Largo, Fla.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Roane State Community College associate professor Bruce Cantrell talks about an upcoming 72-day stay under the ocean that's both an educational endeavor and an attempt to break a world record. Listening is adjunct instructor Jessica Fain, who is also participating. In front is a spiny dogfish shark ready for dissection.
    Photo by The Knoxville News Sentinel /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

HARRIMAN, Tenn. — They’re taking a roll of duct tape with them when they scuba dive down to what is intended to be their undersea home for 72 days in a first-ever venture that could break a world record.

That way, “if one of us decides they want to leave, the other one is going to duct-tape them to the chair until they get over it,” said Bruce Cantrell, joking.

Cantrell, an associate professor at Roane State Community College, and adjunct instructor Jessica Fain are about to embark on what college officials call the “most unique educational experience” in Roane State’s history.

They’re going to live and teach in a high-tech lab anchored 21 feet beneath an ocean lagoon in Key Largo, Fla.

And if they manage to tough it out in the tiny lab and not resurface for 72 days, they will break a Guinness world record for an undersea stay that was set in 1992.

The more important facet, Cantrell said, is the novel educational effort that’s planned there.

Each week, they will conduct half-hour interviews with notables ranging from Buzz Aldrin — the second astronaut to set foot on the moon — to renowned international experts on all facets of marine science.

Those interviews will be available for free worldwide on the Internet through Roane State’s website on a weekly basis. Some of the experts will dive down to the lab for their discussions.

“This has never been done before in the history of marine science,” said Cantrell, a former state representative. “It’s never been done before in the history of education.”

Cantrell also will be teaching an online biology course to his Roane State biology students during the fall semester.

He said it should prove to be “an amazing learning experience for my students. We want to get them wanting to learn science and see that science is cool.”

The title of this experiment: “Classroom Under the Sea.” The project is a joint venture with the Marine Resources Development Foundation.

That nonprofit organization is headquartered near Key Largo Undersea Park, where the lab — called Jules’ Undersea Lodge — is located.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’m looking forward to it,” Fain said.

Both Fain, 24, and the 62-year-old Cantrell are highly qualified veterans in scuba diving. Both are certified and both have spent more than 100 hours in underwater habitats and labs.

Yet both readily admit that staying underwater from Oct. 4 until Dec. 15 will be a truly daunting challenge.

Foundation founder Ian Koblick said he once spent three weeks in the tiny lab. “I was ready to see the sun,” he said. “Living in this gray cloud [underwater], that’s what you miss the most.”

“Every time you want to go outside, you have to get wet,” he said of exiting the lab and scuba diving into the lagoon.

The lab is only 600 square feet, and nearly half of that is the “wet room,” where divers enter and exit.

Living quarters are two 10-foot-by-8-foot cylinders. There are three windows, one in each bedroom and one in the common area across from the wet room.

“You get to sit and watch the fish swim by and look in,” Cantrell said. “It’s very peaceful.”

He developed his passion for marine science while in the Navy and has taught at Roane State since 1992.

Still, challenges loom. Given the undersea air pressure, “It’s almost double the effort to breathe,” Cantrell said.

Then there is the strain of living in close quarters with tons of water pressing down on your home.

“It’s going to be stressful,” admitted Fain, who has taught at Roane State for three years.

“We’re not going in there blind,” Cantrell said. “We know what we’re getting into.”

And should they endure and ultimately triumph and see the sun again for the first time in 72 days on Dec. 15, the current world-record holder for the longest stay undersea will be there to congratulate them, Koblick said.

Contact Bob Fowler at 865-481-3625 or fowlerb@knoxnews.com.

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