Diver takes undersea research to new depths

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Posted by . on November 05, 2003 at 22:58:51:

Michael Lombardi's marine science company hopes to collect "several thousand" new species from previously unexplored areas. "Once I got underwater, I fell in love with it.

01:00 AM EST on Thursday, November 6, 2003

Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE -- Michael Lombardi's willingness to take his team of underwater explorers to places few others would dare to go could soon be paying off.

The 24-year-old scientific diver and Seekonk High School graduate, founder of Applied Subsea Technologies Inc., at 95 Hathaway Center, says his marine science and technology company has formed an alliance with the Florida-based Magellan BioScience Group to hunt for new marine organisms that could be the key to combating Alzheimer's, diabetes, HIV and several forms of cancer.

Just why the marine biotechnology company went to Lombardi may not be hard to explain.

Over the last couple of years, the University of New Hampshire biology graduate has shown a proclivity for exploring "extreme environments," going to depths that, until now, would be out of the question for scuba divers not using a submersible.

In May 2002, for example, he was hired by the Caribbean Research Center in the Bahamas to coordinate the logistics for the first private marine science expedition to use "mixed gas" technology, a system enabling the divers to go to depths of more than 300 feet -- well beyond the 190 feet typically allowed university research teams.

He was also part of an expedition that went to Antarctica for six weeks last fall to examine the effects of ultraviolet radiation and the depletion of the ozone layer on the South Pole. To better understand the effect on marine life, Lombardi employed his diving expertise to drop through a tube that had been cut into a 10-foot ceiling of ice to go exploring in the frigid waters beneath.

But Lombardi and other business partners in Applied Subsea Technologies say that the best is yet to come.

In August, Lombardi went to the New England Aquarium in Boston to demonstrate the use of a new, bubble-free underwater breathing apparatus that will make deep diving more productive and less costly.

"It's really space-age stuff," Lombardi said the other day. "There is a continuous loop that recirculates your exhalations and replenishes it with oxygen."

Lombardi explains that, with the open-circuit technology which he had been using up until recently, a dive to depths of 300 feet or more required him to carry as many as five tanks at once -- "two on my back, one under each arm and another hanging on a line." It amounted to more than 200 pounds of equipment.

In addition, the dives were time consuming. Because the oxygen becomes toxic at depths beyond 218 feet, and nitrogen can become like a narcotic beyond 130 feet, Lombardi needed to constantly change the mixture of oxygen, nitrogen and helium on his way up and down.

It took a staff of seven people to support the divers at 300 feet, and generally took 90 to 100 minutes to safely make their way back to the surface.

"It was a 14-hour process, when you count loading the boat and getting the support team together, the briefing and the organizing and the actual dive. All that for about 8 minutes of underwater exploration."

But now with the new system, which previously had been limited to the military, Lombardi and other divers -- including fellow East Sider Don Goulart, his company's vice president for marketing; Jim Jaworski of Salem, Mass., his vice president for sales; and Caleb Thibeault of New Hampshire -- should be able to cut their preparation time to one hour and expand their actual exploration time from 10 minutes to a full hour.

And the depths that they'll be able to explore, says Lombardi, will be 600 feet and more.

With their first expedition set to begin with the cave systems in the area of the Bahamas on Monday, Lombardi says he anticipates that he and his partners will be able to bring up to the surface "several thousand" new species that have been unknown until now because they exist at depths that have never been explored. That's quite a bit more than the 29 species of sponge that he and his fellow divers were able to bring up during their expedition last year.

And the payoff could be enormous.

If past experience is any indicator, says Lombardi, one in every 5,000 newly discovered specimens will contain chemicals useful to the pharmaceutical industry, not to mention agriculture and the health and beauty industries.

With expeditions also planned for February and next summer, Lombardi believes his team will be able to come back with "tens of thousands" of new specimens, from which there should be "a half dozen or so drug hits."

Lombardi, who earned his degree in biology from the UNH in December 2000, is also a 1997 graduate of Seekonk High School.

His interest in diving, he says, began in 1996, when he managed to sneak over to Brown University to attend a basic scuba class run by Brown's physical education department.

"That's what sparked my career," he says. "Once I got underwater, I fell in love with it."

Lombardi says his interest has always gone beyond mere recreational diving, to one where he could bring together his love for diving and science.

In addition to building up his consulting experience, and starting Applied Subsea Technologies in 2001, Lombardi has been a photojournalist for Dive magazine, and has published 11 articles for scientific journals.

It is, he says, a lifestyle commitment. When he is not driving, "I'm either running or working out at the gym."

He doesn't deny there are risks.

"There is definitely a risk in all diving," he says. "And the risk at this level is way beyond normal. When you're at that depth, when you are under the ice, when you're in a cave, surfacing is not an option. You have to deal with all your problems underwater because you know that if you surface from a 300-foot dive without compressing, you're dead, and when you're under the ice, you have to get back to that hole to get out.

"It's the same thing in a cave. If you lose your light, you're lost. You have lifelines and stuff like that. But it's still a psychologically demanding environment to be in."

And then there are the sharks.

"Yes," he says, "when you do these deep dives in the Bahamas, sharks are an issue."

When confronted by an aggressive shark, you have a limited number of options, Lombardi says. You could try to surface and probably get the bends, become paralyzed or die. Or you can stay in the water and battle it out with the shark if need be.

Lombardi has had two encounters with sharks that he remembers well. Three years ago, he was approached by a shark that began circling around, about an arm's distance away.

"This was a juvenile 4 to 5 footer. The young ones are the ones you have to worry about because they don't know any better. In this instance, he just gave me a look, as if to say, 'You're in my territory,' and took off."

Then there was another instance when he and two other divers were approached by three reef sharks, each 7 to 8 feet long. "They were circling, and for whatever reason, they were swimming just far enough way so you would only see a shadow.

"We had no idea what they were doing. We all had an eye on one of the sharks when, out of nowhere, a fourth one came up. As I turned around, I could see him going after my friend. My friend hit him in the nose and it took off."

The trip to Antarctica was no piece of cake either.

"Antarctica was difficult because you are as far away from home as you are ever going to be. You're in the middle of nowhere, in a barren wasteland. There are labs there to support the scientist, but when you are out there ready to make a dive through a 10-foot tube of ice, you do ask yourself, 'what am I doing here?' 2/3"

But then you look around and see such a beautiful scene, with crystal clear water and visibility at more than 1,000. Beautiful, but extremely cold.

To protect yourself, you wear a fabric suit with fleece gloves and heavy wool socks underneath a full body jump suit, but even that goes only so far. It's easy to become hypothermic.

"Getting back to that hole can be a problem too," he recounts. "I was already getting mildly hypothermic when I was approached by a large seal. He kept looking at the same hole."

Deciding he was not going to fight the animal to be the first one out, Lombardi took out his video camera and got some great footage before the seal finally swam away and Lombardi escaped.

But all those risks are worth it, says Lombardi, when you consider that the ocean is the last frontier on this planet.

"Not to compare myself to Christopher Columbus, but people also questioned his efforts to push the limits. But when he did, he sparked a worldwide and generation-long movement and literally changed the world.

"If it's possible to be a professional explorer, that's what I am."

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