Aquanauts have been strapping on scuba tanks, wet suits and other gear for years to study the marine environment located about nine miles southeast of Key Largo in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.On their latest mission, they had some virtual company.For the first time, the researchers’ activities were webcast in real time. Viewers, remaining on good old terra firma, were able to watch and listen as the aquatic scientists conducted tests and gathered data on coral reefs and sponges. Divers wore helmets mounted with cameras and audio equipment. Aquarius mission aquanaut Niels Lindquist secures monitoring instruments that measure the water flow and respiration rate of a sponge. Courtesy of NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program.The ongoing study is connected with Aquarius, a research facility located about 60 ft below the ocean surface at the base of the Conch Reef. During the September mission, six aquanauts lived in Aquarius for nine days while studying the surrounding marine environment. In particular, they tracked the ecology of the site to determine whether climate change and other factors — such as pollution — are affecting the health of the reef system. The study began in 1994.The research was Webcast to educate students and the public about the work and to make people more aware of the fragile state of marine ecosystems. Live footage of the aquanauts inside Aquarius also was offered.The underwater lab was built in 1986. It is 9 ft in diameter and 43 ft long. It is equipped with bunk beds, showers and kitchen appliances. Divers can stay in the shelter for extended periods without surfacing or decompressing.