30 Minutes With: Fabien Cousteau

We talk with Fabian Cousteau as he preps for Mission 31, an endeavor to live underwater in the Aquarius habitat for 31 days.

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.

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?

Q: Diving today is so much more commonplace than in the days of Conshelf. A lot of people will go on a cruise and sign up for “Discover Scuba”, a little 30-foot dive or the like. How many consider they’re taking their life support system on their backs, that they’re weightless, looking at alien creatures? There are so many foreign and exotic aspects and extreme aspects to diving.

A: I think that we’re so used to being bombarded with television programming and online programming and just in general having a lot of information around us. Of course, that coupled with the fact that travel is much easier for many of us and we have this false sense of familiarity with oceans because we may take a vacation on an island nation. We happen to walk down the beach in Florida, for example, and take a dip. We have this sense of well-being, of course, and delight towards the oceans, but also false sense of understanding of exactly what it means and what’s below that blue veneer. There’s so much.

You’re absolutely right. This is an alien world that’s very much akin to space travel when we go and explore it. There are all the parameters and difficulties and all that, and then all the wonders and discoveries around every turn, every coral reef. This hopefully will be one of those projects that will reignite that interest, or like I said, a new dawn of exploration of the oceans. Day to day, they [the oceans] represent our life support system. Why wouldn’t we want to know more about our very own life support system?

Q: What you’re doing is akin to somebody going to live on the international space station for a month. There’s all the same sort of logistics involved.

A: There really are. But most people think, “Ah, you just go in, you kind of strap on a tank and jump in and have a good time.” I’m like, “It’s not quite like that.” It’s like saying that jumping on a plane to go to California is the same thing as going to outer space and living on the space station. No.

Q: You’re going to be 60 feet deep, or close to two atmospheres [a unit of pressure], right? What sort of implications does that have on your decompression and breathing gas logistics?

Most people think, “Ah, you just go in, you kind of strap on a tank and jump in and have a good time.” I’m like, “It’s not quite like that.”

A: The entrance to the Aquarius habitat is, I believe, at 65 feet. The bottom is at about 75 feet or something like that. There’s an eight or ten foot difference to the bottom. What that allows us to do once we’re saturated is to go, for example, to 100 feet for five hours. We’ll run out of air way or get cold way before we hit our bottom time. It’ll allow us to dive anywhere from 10 to 12 hours a day, essentially.

Q: Will you be tethered or will you be on scuba?

A: We’re going to be doing both. We’ll be tethered [attached to an air hose] for close-in projects or for close-in science. Anything that has to do with 100 yards or less, I think that the extent of the cable is 100 or 150 yards. Anything beyond that will be scuba [“self contained underwater breathing apparatus”]. We’ll be diving doubles, triples [two or three tanks].

Q: How are you training for this?

A: Each person is doing their own thing until we get to the training days, which will be run by director of operations and his team. They’re going to be running us through quite a battery of tests and exercises for ten days prior to splashdown, including of course getting used to the hard hats [diving helmets]: doing the course lengths in a pool and then doing the length underwater unassisted and all sorts of things like that, then running through emergency procedures and just making sure we’re familiar with the operations of the habitat itself, although we will have two engineers with us who are experts at running the habitat, so we don’t have to worry about it. But we still need to know what that big red button does, for example.

Q: How many of you will be there at one time and how many will be there for the full 31 days?

A: The habitat accommodates six aquanauts. Two of them being those engineers. Two of us will definitely be there for the full 31. I’ve heard that the engineers also want to do the full 31. It’s really up to them. We’re going to need to switch out the two scientists in the middle with two other scientists so that we can get the full battery of scientific observance.

We’re going to be using our own ROV [Remote Operated Vehicle]. I love this one little robot that I call the “Coral Hummingbird”, which our friend Dr. Mark Patterson is kindly letting us use. Basically it’s a little ROV that, without damage to any corals, will use its 100-nanometer probe to go into each one of the coral polyps on a given coral head to bring back data from a pH balance to O2 exchange to CO2 concentrations and so on and so forth within the coral polyp itself. It’s pretty cool.

Q: There’s going to be a really interesting psychological aspect to this that you didn’t even mention, but you’re testing some boundaries.

A: I’m being ginger about mentioning the physiological and psychological aspects, because those will definitely be something on a personal level I’ll be keeping an eye on because they’re interesting. I’m hoping that we can gather some useful data around that by using a few “citizen scientist” pieces of gear. But these are important parts of living underwater: what happens to a human being, both physiologically and psychologically, from being detached from the familiar in this completely new and alien environment.

I spent 30 years with my grandfather. Conshelf was just one of many experiences that we talked about.

If you take the journals that were written back in those days [of the underwater habitat experiments] and read the experiences, it’s really interesting. The effects are very different depending on the personality. For example, you can have two similarly robust and trained divers experiencing two very different aspects of the same thing. One may be sleeping soundly while the other one can’t sleep at all and is cursing the one that’s sleeping soundly.

Universally I’ve heard, at least as Aquarius is concerned, that people just love being down there. When the mission’s over they have a real gut-wrenching feeling of abandoning their home. It’s a really interesting thing for me to be able to hopefully experience this and, more importantly, to see what we can derive or what we can extract from those experiences so that maybe future aquanauts might be even better prepared for their long saturation missions.

Q: Did you ever have any conversations with your grandfather about Conshelf and his experiences there?

A: I spent 30 years with him. We had many chances to talk about a lot of things. Conshelf was just one of many experiences that we talked about, and it was well before my time, so I only got a chance to hear about it. Whereas later on in his career, I definitely got a chance to go off exploring the Amazon and spent my summer break there for three months in the middle of nowhere living amongst the Yanomami, etc. It was a pretty amazing… I guess it was an experiential learning experience.

Q: Are any other family members going to come and visit you at Aquarius?

A: Yeah, so my sister [Celine] and my father [Jean-Michel] are both are planning to come down and visit. A visit is not very complicated. They’re both planning to come down for the maximum amount of time we can allow them, which is a 45-minute dive.

Q: With all the reports of ocean depletion and overfishing, do you eat seafood? How do you feel about kind of that whole problem?

A: It’s a tough one. There’s never a perfect answer. But by and large, we’ve just exploited our oceans way too much, and that includes sea life which we consume. I’ve been trying to be as good and conscious of environmental stresses as possible and try to make the appropriate decisions in my everyday life. I’m certainly not perfect. But as far as seafood’s concerned, I eat less and less of it. I certainly don’t eat very much meat anymore these days. It’s not as much a conscious decision than my body’s just not craving it. But as far as seafood’s concerned, I try to pick the most appropriate option.

I think what really goes into the general philosophy is to never tell someone what not to do, just suggest alternatives and have them come to the conclusion on their own. It’s a much better thing to eat something once in a blue moon that you’re craving rather than just explaining the fact that you can’t eat something. Because at the end of the day, we’re all kids at heart. The more we say “don’t do something”, the more we want to do it. Occasionally if you want to eat that tuna or that salmon, do it once a month, or once every couple of weeks rather than every day or every week. By doing so, not only does the environmental aspect not backfire, I think it enhances the experience and it gives us more of an appreciation for the rarity and the privilege of being able to do that.

Learn more about Mission 31 here.

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