Under the sea: Area native part of historic mission, collects scientific data

Area native Adam Zenone loved going to the beach every year on family vacations.

“I don’t know if it was the fact it was vacation or what it was, but I was always kind of really just fascinated with water and just with being in it, and then I saw an episode of ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy,’ and they interviewed a marine biologist on it and like, ‘Oh my gosh, people can do this for a job. I’d like to do that,’ so I did.”

And he did it in a big way.

The 2007 Cambria Heights graduate was one of two Florida International University mission scientists who got to live underwater in the Aquarius, the world’s only underwater marine laboratory, during a historic mission with Fabien Cousteau. Cousteau is an oceanographic explorer, conservationist, documentary filmmaker and grandson of the late famed undersea explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

Mission 31 went longer – 31 days instead of 30 – and deeper – 30 more feet of saturation – than a Jacques Cousteau-led mission from 50 years ago, according to the Mission 31 website.

Fabien Cousteau, who began the nonprofit organization Plant A Fish, is writing a book on Mission 31.

The FIU-operated lab is the size of a school bus, Zenone said; and is located 63 feet below the surface near deep coral reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Nine aquanauts were included in the overall mission team, and Zenone was part of a team living in the Aquarius and collecting data for the first 17 days.

“The beautiful thing about the Aquarius is that it gives you the gift of time. We were able to get out in the water before the sun rose every morning and examine the effects of nutrients on corals, both before the sun comes up, in the middle of the day and then when the sun goes down. … That kind of data set is very difficult to get when you’re diving from the surface,” Zenone said. “We were also able to study the effect of predator-prey interactions so other than just eating fish, predators can change the way that their prey behave.

“If you think about it in human terms, if we dropped a lion in the middle of the food court, how much would you really be willing to risk in order to get that McDonald’s? We need to understand the way that these predators effect the prey, because these prey are usually herbivores and they can be incredibly important for structuring the reef.”

Adam is the son of Michael Zenone of Panama City, Fla., and Angela Shuke of Patton.

“He always enjoyed animals. We went through lots of stages growing up of different types of pets: hamsters, reptiles, bearded dragons, tropical fish – live bearing and salt water,” Michael said.

The proud dad said he followed his son’s undersea blog, and “day by day I just couldn’t wait to hear what happened new, and it was just an amazing adventure for all of us,” he said.

Adam began scuba diving through a Cambria Heights High School program. He and his classmates got certified and even got to dive in Mexico on a class trip, his dad said.

Adam led the way for his family’s interest in scuba diving and several family members are certified, Michael said.

Adam received his bachelor’s degree in biology from Clarion University of Pennsylvania in 2011, and is a graduate student earning his master’s degree in marine biology at FIU.

He worked closely with fellow FIU mission scientist and lead investigator, Andy Shantz, during their time underwater.

Adam is a master student in the Acoustics and Fisheries Ecology Lab run by Kevin M. Boswell, FIU assistant professor, biological sciences department, Marine Science program.

It “was really great to see these students step up and help further our science and obviously a great opportunity for them to really showcase their skills. I can only imagine it will help them down the road,” Boswell said.

Adam’s bio on the Mission 31 website said, “His current research involves surveying local reefs in Miami-Dade and Broward counties through the use of high-resolution hydroacoustic technology. Zenone is in search of characteristics that may structure reef communities in the hopes of enhancing conservation efforts on critically important and endangered reef habitats. This focus on conservation has recently taken him to the fjords of Iceland to study spawning cod and to the Prince William Sound in Alaska to examine potential lingering effects of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. For Zenone, Mission 31 is both an exciting realization of a dream to explore the ocean in a unique way and also an amazing opportunity to learn about important reef communities and share these findings with a broad audience.”

That audience included some closer to home.

Adam spoke to Margaret Cavallo’s seventh-grade science students at Cambria Heights Middle School during his time underwater via Skype, his dad said.

The experience on Mission 31 is “still very difficult to describe,” Zenone said. “It was just incredible, all around, and we were working very hard; we were up before the sun rose, we were in bed rather late after our dives, but any time you started feeling wear and tear or getting down, you just looked out the view port and there was a school of fish, a living coral reef, right outside your window, and it was just unbelievable. You almost feel like an astronaut.

“It’s difficult to describe, looking back on it almost feels like a dream, you know how those experiences go: you do them and you’re loving it and then you look back and you’re like – Did that really happen to me? And you have trouble processing it, but it was excellent.”

Zenone said he would do it again.

“Oh, in a heartbeat. I would love to,” he said. “The data we’re getting from this is going to be incredibly interesting and we’re hoping to get a lot out of it. Good data is great because it answers maybe the question you were looking for in the first place, but it opens up so many more. There’s so many more questions we can ask, and really the habitat is the only way to answer them as effectively as possible.”

Although the mission is complete, Adam’s blog and a website dedicated to the mission were, as of press time, still available online at: zen1for31.weebly.com/ and mission-31.com/.

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030. Follow Amanda Gabeletto on Twitter (@AmandaGabeletto) or on Facebook (Amanda Gabeletto Altoona Mirror).