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.
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.
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!
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?