KEY LARGO, Fla. -- A 33-year-old 'aquanaut' has broken a 59- day underwater endurance record by living in a plush undersea habitat 30 feet beneath the surface of a lagoon in the Florida Keys since May 6.
Richard Presley of Miami entered Jules Undersea Lodge as part of a four-man research team conducting a 30-day study for the Marine Resources Development Foundation and NASA.
One aquanaut fell ill and was forced to surface only three days into the project. Two others completed the 'Project Atlantis' experiment and came up June 5.
Presley chose to stay in the habitat 30 feet below the surface in an attempt to break the world record for living beneath the sea at ambient pressure.
The previous record, according to Dr. James W. Miller, a retired federal scientist with the Office of Naval Research and co-author of a book on undersea habitats, was set by four men in a 1969 undertaking known as Tektite I.
They spent 59 days, nine hours and 13 minutes in an underwater habitat 45 feet beneath the surface of Lameshur Bay, in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Presley passed their record Saturday at 9:37 p.m. EDT.
'It was an exciting moment and at the same time it was a great relief that I finally did it,' Presley said in an interview via a radio-telephone link to the research command center on the surface.
'There have been a few nights where I've had dreams imagining that somehow I surfaced and was back topside,' he added.
He is scheduled to return to the surface July 13.
Miller said others have spent much longer periods in pressurized simulators or chambers, but no other person has spent that much time in an undersea habitat on the sea floor in ambient pressures.
During his 60-plus days in the renovated research module that usually operates as a hotel, Presley has conducted experiments ranging from measuring air exchanges in sea water to growing a hydroponic herb garden.
The research habitat has a VCR, sound system, full bathroom with shower, beds and a kitchen complete with microwave oven and sink.
Visitors were prohibited during the 30-day NASAportion of the project, designed to simulate the isolation astronauts would experience on long space missions.
But friends have visited frequently during the second half of Presley's mission.
He celebrated his record with a July 4th dinner of a grilled grouper with marmalade sauce, smoked trout, pasta and field greens. The meal, prepared by chef Keith Keogh of Walt Disney World's EPCOT center, was cooked on the surface and sent down to him in a waterproof container.
Presley has not dined on any of the lobsters or snappers that share his home in the lagoon, nor has he been tempted to make a snack of the three shrimp that have 'adopted' him and cling to his leg when he swims outside the research module.
Presley occasionally leaves the chamber by swimming through an air- lock hatch and breathing through a line connected to an air compresser.
For inside entertainment, Presley watches the fish and air bubbles that dance across a 42-inch acrylic porthole.
The Marine Resources Development Foundation, which owns the habitat and is overseeing the research, has run it as a hotel in recent years. The Jules Undersea Lodge is named for Jules Verne, the French author of the 1873 book 'Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.'
Hotel rates run $195 to $295 a night including meals, and as many as six guests can stay at a time after diving down to the habitat.