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Beneath the sea

Dr. Craig McKinley, a surgeon at the North Bay General Hospital,(L) practices hand signals 19 meters down in the Atlantic outside of the Aquarius Underwater Lab. Photo used with permission.

Dr. Craig McKinley, a surgeon at the North Bay General Hospital,(L) practices hand signals 19 meters down in the Atlantic outside of the Aquarius Underwater Lab. Photo used with permission.

Pop cans don’t fizz when you open them deep in the ocean, Dr. Craig McKinley says.

And he should know.

The North Bay surgeon has spent 10 days in the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory 19 meters down in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, 5.6 km off Key Largo, as part of the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) project.

The project involves the Zeus robotic surgical system, controlled by Dr. Mehran Anvari, Director of the McMaster University Centre for Minimal Access Surgery at St. Joseph's Healthcare, in Hamilton, removing a gall bladder stone and draining abscesses on a special training dummy.

Extreme environment
If the experiment proves successful, astronauts will eventually be able to receive emergency care while serving on board the International Space Station, NEEMO Project Manager Bill Todd told Science Daily.

"Astronauts navigating between planets won't be able to turn around and come home when someone gets sick, and this undersea mission will help chart a course for long-distance healing," Todd said.

"Aquarius, with its physical and psychological isolation on the floor of the Atlantic, will provide the real stresses needed to validate telemedicine in an extreme environment.

The system actually has a number of advantages on Earth, Todd said; fatigue is reduced because the surgeon does not need to constantly hold instruments and ordinary muscle tremors are filtered out.

Another world
McKinley, the medical payload specialist on the mission, and Anvari have collaborated before, when they performed the world's first telerobotic-assisted surgery last year on a patient at the North Bay General Hospital.

But for a week-and-a-half McKinley’s operating room this time around was a marine habitat about 3 by 14 meters in size, with 11 cubic meters of living and laboratory space.

“It looks like a spacecraft that has landed on another world,” McKinley said, while speaking to earlier this week from the Aquarius.

His co-workers in the Aquarius were Canadian astronaut Dr. Dave Williams, the mission commander, and NASA Astronauts Dr. Michael Barratt and Catherine Coleman.

Black at night
McKinley, who was scheduled back in North Bay today, called the experience of living and working beneath the sea “mystical.”

The ocean is blue during the day, he said, and black at night.

“We don’t have a sun and we don’t have a moon.”

A number of two-foot portals in the vessel allow the crew to see the daily commute of marine life; one day about 50 to 75 grouper stopped by , McKinley said, “to say hello.”

Quite amazing
There were other visitors too.

A barracuda which floated by the window opened its mouth so wide “you could see through its gills,” McKinley said, and fed on a sardine.

“It was quite amazing. Also, at the same window, a remotely controlled rover paid us a visit. This is a miniature submarine that can be controlled by an umbilical cord from the surface,” McKinley wrote in a segment of his journal posted on the Internet.

“It actually was bearing a gift for one of our habitat technicians, a soda.”

Pretty cool
Because they’re living live at two-and-a-half atmospheres down, McKinley said, opening that soda just wasn’t the same as on terra firma.

“It didn’t fizz, nothing, no bubbles.”

And no one can whistle that far down either, McKinley said, due to the severe change in pressure.

While the crew maintained a very “hectic” work schedule, McKinley said—“there isn't a lot of time for introspection”—there were a few minutes to talk to someone on the opposite end of the spectrum from where the crew was.

“We hooked up with American astronaut Michael Fink on the space station,” McKinley said, “and that was pretty cool.”

He also spoke to pioneering heart surgeon Dr. Michael Debakey.

Somewhat surreal
McKinley took his first ever dive on the fourth day of the mission.

He said trying to describe the feeling to someone who’s never dived before is like trying to explain the joys of fatherhood to someone who'd never been a father.

What McKinley did say about the dive is that he felt somewhat “surreal.”

Inner world
As he was performing his task during the dive, it slowly became dark.

“I could see the light of the habitat at a distance and it was my home. Logically, I knew the surface of the water column existed, but it was beyond what I could experience and so I had a sense that I had left one world and was living in another,” McKinley wrote in his journal.

"Beyond the top of the water column was an outer world, and I was living in an inner world. And in my world, a push with my hand sends me floating across the landscape, and a kick of my feet moves me through a three- dimensional space I cannot access if I were above the water column.”

Safe haven
When McKinley got back to the Aquarius after the dive, he said it was with a different perspective.

“For me, Aquarius had become an outpost, a safe haven, and a place I consider home.”

McKinley asked astronaut Coleman, who’s flown the shuttle twice, one question.

"Is this like being in space?" Her answer was ‘Yes.’”