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November 8, 2017

CHUCK WICKENHOFER/Free Press MarineLab, a Key Largo-based educational facility that has introduced students from around the country to oceanic study for over three decades, plans to transform an underwater habitat into an interactive museum next year.

KEY LARGO — MarineLab, one of three operational undersea laboratories in the world, all located in the Upper Keys, is being reimagined to become an interactive museum so that visitors can get a glimpse of a unique habitat that also serves as an educational experience for students from around the country.

Though that effort is underway, the project and many classes that are regularly held at the facility have been pushed back due to Hurricane Irma. 

Jeanette Hughes, vice president of operations for MarineLab, says that the idea of the new venture is to familiarize the public with an environment that few have the opportunity to experience, once the museum is up and running.

“We decided that we want to pull (the lab) out of the lagoon and turn it into an interactive museum topside so more people can have an opportunity to see what it might be like to live in an underwater habitat,” Hughes said.

MarineLab, which is the education arm of Marine Development Resources Foundation, is designed to research and develop technology in the interest of advancing undersea research, according to the lab’s website. It has functioned as a destination for students interested in marine life since 1984.

Ian Koblick, who founded the Marine Development Resources Foundation in 1970, says the idea behind the lab is to familiarize students with ocean study as it relates to the environment as a whole.

“It’s marine environmental education,” Koblick said. “It teaches these young folks about the importance of the ocean, why they should get involved in protecting it and managing it properly.”

He also says that the Key Largo-based lab collects information about the ocean that contributes to a better understanding of its ever-changing conditions.

“We do a number of data collection programs that we turn into various agencies that then becomes part of the data bank,” Koblick said.

Some classes have continued, though Irma has disrupted the schedule somewhat as the lab works to recover. However, Hughes says that most of next spring is booked and that next year should be business as usual.

Normally, the lab houses visiting students for three to five days, but right now the facility is only equipped to accommodate local students during day trips as restoration continues. Recently, students from Westminster Christian in Miami-Dade County made a day trip, and Hughes says they are among the lab’s regular visitors.

“We took them to Rodriguez Key in the morning for a snorkel. They bring students to us a few times a year,” Hughes said, adding that visits to MarineLab have become “part of the culture at the school.”

The conversion of the lab to a museum will not affect MarineLab’s mission to educate students who visit the lab, who range from fifth graders to some college students, according to Hughes, and is designed to broaden the lab’s reach so visitors can join in learning about the operation of the underwater lab as it relates to the marine ecosystem.

Study at the lab focuses on seagrass, mangroves and coral reefs, along with the region’s varied marine life. Visitors to the interactive museum will have the opportunity to see the one-of-a-kind lab for the first time while learning its history and function.

The transformation of the lab is being funded by a grant via the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, though the original plan to have the museum up and running was upended by the storm.

“Irma kind of threw a catch in the works,” Hughes said. “We had planned on already having it pulled out of the water in September, so we were going to have it pretty much ready for renovation by January. Obviously, we haven’t been able to do that, and it’s still in the lagoon.”

Despite the delay, visitors can expect to have access to the museum after January, joining students from at least 40 states around the country who have studied at the lab.

“We’ll be fine for next year,” Hughes said.


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