he first full day of Mission 31
dawned stormy, and it was with some trepidation and a hastily chewed Bonine tablet that I boarded the boat at Reef Base in Islamorada to motor out to Aquarius. The wind and seas were at the limit of what the Mission 31 officials deemed safe diving conditions, but by the time we reached the underwater habitat’s Life Support Buoy (LSB), the waves had calmed enough to let me gear up and slip into the water. Once under the surface, the churning swells were replaced by calm and I descended to Aquarius
, which was visible from above, the lights from its windows appearing like those of a cabin in the woods. As I approached, I could see schools of colorful reef fish picking at the coral that coated the habitat and, further down, several six-foot-long tarpon hanging in the shadows. A lone aquanaut was out walking on the seafloor, as if on the Moon, his helmet tethered to the habitat by a length of precious umbilical hoses.
I had been warned to keep my depth
above 50 feet to maximize bottom time, and as I slipped under the “porch” of Aquarius, I saw my computer read 48 feet. I popped up inside the moon pool, removed my regulator and mask and took a breath of the pressurized air inside. “Welcome to Aquarius”, Fabien Cousteau said with a smile as he stood above me in the wet room.
Last time we caught up with Cousteau, he was preparing for Mission 31, his epic monthlong stay at Aquarius, the world’s only underwater research lab. After a June 1 splashdown, he’s over two weeks into his stay and all seems to be going as planned, other than an air conditioning hiccup that left Cousteau and his aquanauts sweltering in their school bus-sized home under the sea for a night or two.
I had less than an hour to spend inside the habitat. Cousteau led a hasty tour of his temporary home, out of the wet room, through the galley, past a panel of switches and gauges and into
the bunkroom. He pointed out emergency oxygen maks and the emergency escape hatch, driving home the point that this was no cabin in the woods. The constant ear-popping from the pressurized air and the unnerving rocking of the structure as the swell-tossed LSB umbilical tugged us from above were other reminders.
In the past fortnight, Aquarius has played host to a variety of guests, from actors, authors and news reporters to Fabien’s own father, Jean-Michel Cousteau, and another famous aquanaut, Sylvia Earle. The habitat’s aquanauts have celebrated World Ocean Day; they donned red caps to pay tribute to Fabien’s grandfather, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, on what would have been his 104th birthday on June 11. Earlier this week, Cousteau chatted with Richard Branson via Skype while two aquanauts and a cameraman decompressed and swapped places with their alternates for the remainder of the mission.