Underwater Living
By Jason Heaton
on 4.29.14
Photo by C. Vonderhaar/Mission 31

Fabien Cousteau has some big shoes to fill. Or rather, big fins. As the eldest grandchild of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Fabien has inherited the family love of the ocean and also the savviness to know what will get attention. On June 1, Cousteau is embarking on Mission 31, an ambitious project that will have him living for an entire month underwater. No, he and his small team of aquanauts won’t be blowing bubbles and cuddling in wetsuits for 31 days. They’ll be living in the Aquarius underwater habitat off the coast of Florida, a scientific research facility 65 feet down that is tethered to a surface support barge for air and electricity.

Mission 31 has several goals. Cousteau hopes to use the project to study the coral reef up close, gather data, and educate schoolchildren (and anyone else who will listen) in real time via an uplink from Aquarius. The big picture? Trying to wake up a world that is largely apathetic to the state of the oceans. It’s an audacious plan, and if he pulls it off, he’ll beat a 30-day underwater record set by his grandfather in Conshelf II back in 1963. He certainly had our attention when we caught up with him several weeks ago to talk about preparing for the project, the challenges he expects to face and whether or not he eats seafood.

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Q:
What’s the latest news with Mission 31?

A:
We were originally scheduled for November into December. If memory serves, beginning of November to mid-November was training and then splashdown was to be mid-November through mid-December. We got so late because of the government shutdown and all the uncertainties that we’ve faced around that, including the permitting process and everything else that you have to go to do this sort of thing. It’s like having to reset the clock like NASA does when they abort a launch. It’s actually not coincidental that I’m using that as an example. That really is the complexity with which we have to start it all back up from square one, unfortunately, once we stop the countdown.

We wanted to avoid having to do that again, hence why we didn’t do the dive in January, which was the next logical month. Then we needed to avoid the Christmas season and the really terrible weather where the habitat’s located during February and March into early April. Those months have very high wind that’s not conducive for our surface support as well as visibility and all sorts of other things.

Q:
I’m guessing there are organizations coming and going from the habitat regularly. Do you have to schedule time in between other projects that are going on there?

A:
They’re not regular. It is a very expensive endeavor, but there are some other [groups]. It’s mostly scientific entities, and in general, those project lengths are anywhere from a few days to, I think, a maximum of ten days. But because the habitat itself is now operated by FIU [Florida International University], they’re still in the learning process of how all that works. They’re not really booking too many other projects right now.

They are updating and renovating some of the internals, which takes time. To paint the inside of a habitat you need to wait anywhere from six to eight weeks or more, depending on the air quality tests inside, before you can start letting projects go. Last thing I want to do is sit in giant rebreather and be rebreathing paint fumes!

Q:
How did you decide on this project? Obviously there are the ties to your grandfather and Conshelf, but were you just sitting around having a beer with friends and it popped into your head?

A:
Just like any crazy idea, a whole series of events and random talks amounted to this, but one of them was that I came to the realization through some mutual friends that this is the only underwater marine laboratory in the world. Which was surprising to me, considering I had grown up with a person who had kicked off this sort of underwater living with the Conshelf series. I’d always thought there’d be habitats in different parts of the world, whether they’d be run by government entities or scientific entities.

I was under the impression — and a false one at that, obviously — that these [underwater habitats] were a little bit more commonplace than they are. Thinking a little bit deeper into the history, I realized that there have only been about a dozen in general, of which this one is the only one around today. It’s also unique for various reasons, including the fact that all of the previous habitats were mission-based, built for specific missions and then pulled out or retired.

Why are oceans so important? Why is it that we’ve only explored five percent of them?

This particular habitat has been around for 20 years, more or less on the same site for 20 years, which gives us a nice long dataset to look at things like the changing biodiversity around coral and what’s happening to coral reefs in general in that area. It gives us a better gauge of on the long-term for all those things.

That was intriguing in itself, and then when I realized in 2012 that Sylvia Earle and her team were going down to Aquarius to try and save the habitat because the government budget cuts had included retiring this habitat. I became very interested in not only what made Aquarius and aquanaut living so special, but also all the benefits that it brings to advance knowledge and science and, of course, storytelling. One extra step beyond that is to help my oceanic friends, so to speak, and to use this platform for the next project, which was Mission 31. That’s how it started to form.

From there I realized, okay, the longest anyone’s ever stayed at this habitat is 19 days. By symbolically going one day longer than my grandfather, we can have a new dawn of ocean exploration, and we can pay tribute to all the aquanauts that have come previously, and we can hopefully engage the general public in not only making it [Aquarius] interesting and having them be curious about this house under the sea, but also just the ocean in general as part of the human-ocean connection.

Why are oceans so important? Why is it that we’ve only explored five percent of them, and why is it that they’re still so interesting to someone who may never see them, someone who may live in the middle of the United States or in the middle of a country in Africa? Why is this so important? Why are oceans integral to our well being, whether it be on an economic level, a health level, or at a natural resource level?

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