PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN SKERRY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
Published June 24, 2014
Fabien Cousteau is leading a team of scientists, educators, and filmmakers this month on the longest-ever expedition in a stationary habitat beneath the sea. The project, called Mission 31, aims to build awareness about the need to protect the ocean and honors a historic expedition 50 years ago by Cousteau's famous grandfather, explorer Jacques Cousteau.
Launched on June 1, Mission 31 is a 31-day, privately funded expedition at Florida International University's Medina Aquarius Reef Base.
The habitat lies 63 feet (19 meters) below the surface in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Windows look out on swimming fish and deep coral reefs. (See "Stunning Underwater Photos for World Ocean Day.")
The team is studying climate change, ocean acidification, plastics pollution, decline of biodiversity, and predator-prey relationships. Cousteau and his colleagues are also making a documentary film and have participated in more than 50 educational Skype sessions with schools, aquariums, and museums in the United States, Canada, Australia, Kenya, and the Czech Republic.
Guests who have dived to Aquarius for short visits with the Mission 31 team include National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle, Greg Stone of Conservation International, marine artist Wyland, actors Adrian Grenier and Ian Somerhalder, and retired NASA astronaut Clay Anderson.
"Jacques Cousteau was my hero, and I believe Fabien is following closely in his flippers," Wyland said in a statement. "Fabien is sharing the beauty of our undersea world with everyone and inviting artists, scientists, and all of us on this epic mission that will help us all have a better connection with our water world."
On June 11, Jacques Cousteau's birthday, Florida Governor Rick Scott called to wish the team well. The members also celebrated by wearing red caps, as Cousteau often did, and eating French pastries and "red cap" cookies.
Aquarius is the world's only underwater marine laboratory. It measures 43 by 20 by 16.5 feet (13 by 6 by 5 meters) and weighs approximately 81 tons. It has six bunk beds, hot water, a mini-kitchen, climate control, computers, and wireless Internet.
Fifty years ago, Jacques Cousteau led a 30-day expedition underwater aboard a habitat called Conshelf II in the Red Sea off Sudan. He and his team proved that "saturation diving," which means living and working at a pressure higher than on the surface, was possible for long periods. Mission 31 is 30 feet (9 meters) deeper than Conshelf II.
National Geographic spoke with Fabien Cousteau, as well as scientists Liz Magee and Grace Young, inside Aquarius via Skype. Magee is a research diver with Northeastern University; Young graduated in May from MIT with a degree in mechanical and ocean engineering, with a specialty in marine robotics.
What was the impact of Jacques Cousteau's Conshelf II expedition 50 years ago, and how did it inspire your current mission?
Cousteau: My grandfather was a pioneer in building underwater habitat. He and his team spent 30 days gathering scientific data, on both the ecosystems around their habitat and the physiological effects of working underwater. We are going one day longer than that expedition in a symbolic nod to honor them and to point the way toward future ocean exploration.
I grew up with a grandfather who was a visionary, a philosopher, and a wonderful storyteller. He was also very connected with young people. Being the oldest grandchild I got to live 30 years of my life with him. I've been on expeditions since a young age and have been immersed in that world.
Conshelf II has always been one of those legendary stories I kept in the back of my mind. When Sylvia Earle did her Mission Aquarius [in July 2012] to highlight the importance of ocean habitats, I realized I wanted to live the dream of becoming an aquanaut. And I realized what an amazing platform it is for education.
You are underwater in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and President Obama just announced plans for a huge new marine sanctuary around remote islands in the Pacific. How important are these protected areas?
Cousteau: Being a third-generation explorer, it brings me a lot of hope to see that the U.S. is leading by example. The Obama administration is protecting swaths of ocean that really need protecting. I look forward to seeing it come about and being enforced.
We desperately need protected areas around the world so we can rebuild the natural bank account that we all need.
Magee: If more people were exposed to the wonders of the sea, then everyone would be all for protecting it. That's why part of our mission is exposing people who don't normally think about the ocean to how vital it is to our livelihoods and our lives.
Young: I find it incredibly frightening that we have the technology to completely destroy the ocean in my lifetime, but marine protected areas are hope spots, as Sylvia Earle calls them.
Now that the mission is more than half over, what has it been like to live and work underwater for days at a time?
Cousteau: Today [June 19] is day 19 of the mission, which makes it officially the longest mission that has happened in the Aquarius habitat. We have another 13 days to go.
It's now been a few days since Liz and Grace joined us. They switched out with Andy [Shantz] and Adam [Zenone], two students from Florida International University. They've become surface dwellers again. We also have a team of 36 people at the surface, both scientists and support staff.
What have you learned about the physiological and psychological effects of living long-term underwater, at high pressure and without the sun?
Cousteau: We wear bands that monitor light and our activity, and we are doing a survey of how we sleep. We're working long days down here. At first we got up at 4:30 every morning and went to bed at 11. Now things have slowed down a little bit, and we're getting up at 6 but still going to bed around 11. We're studying the effects of being down here.
How did the decompression go for the first team—Adam and Andy—that left after the first part of the mission?
Cousteau: The decompression process takes about 18 and a half hours; it's lengthy. But living at saturation allows us to go diving as long as we want.
Magee: When we were getting ready to go down, we saw Adam and Andy come up. They said they were sad that it was over, but they were really excited to see the sun.
How does the saturation diving work?
Magee: After 24 hours of being down here, we are considered fully saturated, or fully nitrogen loaded. So we have more nitrogen dissolved in our blood [because of the pressure from the surrounding water].
That means we can stay out in the water diving for up to nine hours. It's such a unique opportunity, and one of the things I was most excited about, to be able to dive for so long.
Cousteau: When astronaut Clay Anderson came down here, he could only stay for 45 minutes. In that case it is just like a normal 60-foot (18-meter) dive. If he had stayed longer, he would have had to go through decompression.
Do you think we are any closer to realizing Jacques Cousteau's vision of underwater colonies?
Cousteau: Technologically speaking, we're absolutely capable of doing it at this point; it's a matter of funding and willpower. On the flip side of that coin, there is a lot of technology now that my grandfather had only dreamed of: for example, the ability to talk to you on the surface [through WiFi]. Underwater habitats are a fantastic tool for science and education, and they provide a unique perspective.
Young: I could see myself having an underwater vacation house, but I'd miss my friends and family too much to live underwater permanently.
You have pointed out that we have explored only about 5 percent of the ocean. Why is it important to keep exploring?
Cousteau: I think it's paramount to learn more about the ocean, not just for science, which is incredibly important, but also for ourselves. We need to learn more about the interconnectivity of the ocean. This is our life support system. Otherwise, we are just a little brown rock in space like all the others. There's no such thing as healthy people without a healthy ocean.
We're polluting what's left in ways that are starting to affect us. It's leading to increased rates of cancer and all sorts of other diseases. We're basically using the ocean as a garbage can.
Young: I'm concerned we might destroy ecosystems in the deep sea before we even know they existed. Now we have the technology to mine the seafloor, overfish, and destroy coral reefs by changing acidity.
Your team has been studying ocean acidification. How have you been doing that, and what have you learned?
Magee: There are beautiful giant sponges right outside the habitat. Some could be thousands of years old. Some call them redwoods of the reef. And we're setting up sensors inside them to measure such variables as oxygen and temperature, so we'll be able to understand what happens with rising acidity of the water and its impacts on the sponges. It will also help us better understand the activity of these sponges.
What else are you studying?
Magee: We are using sonar to study predators and prey. The sonar mounts to the top of your helmet so you can visualize it. And Grace brought a high-speed camera.
Young: The camera came out just five weeks ago, and we got one of the first models. We had a housing built for it, and we are using it for the first time underwater. Last night we looked at Christmas tree worms. We hope to better understand how the creature moves.
Magee: A grouper fish releases a pulse of sound to stun prey fish. We hope to capture that with the high-speed camera. It's so fast that you wouldn't hear it if you were diving right next to it. The only way we can hope to capture it is by spending hours in the water, and the only way we can do that is by saturation diving. The only way to do that is by a habitat, so Aquarius gives us the gift of time.
When retired astronaut Clay Anderson visited you at Aquarius earlier today, did he find the habitat similar to being in space?
Cousteau: NASA uses Aquarius as a training ground for space because the parameters are very similar to living in space. In 2003 Clay Anderson came down here to train. It's also thrilling to have an astronaut here to explain why it is so important for exploration in general.
Young: In my background in robotics, I think of the ocean and space as similar environments.
What do you do for fun underwater?
Magee: Yesterday was really fun for me. I made a dive over five hours, my longest ever. It's really fun just being in the water.
Young: We can watch movies, but we haven't much—we have too much fun looking out the window.
Cousteau: We have playing cards, but they haven't been opened. Most of the time we're just looking out the window. It's so fascinating. It's a unique experience.
Magee: The fish are just as intrigued with us as we are with them. Last night we had a grouper that was staring in at our window. She was checking us out.
Cousteau: It's also neat how many people are watching us online. We have a constant video stream. My mom saw me blow my nose, and she emailed to ask if I had a cold.
What have been the coolest things you've seen on the mission?
Cousteau: One evening [while diving] I was waiting for the cameraman, and I looked over at a post [outside the habitat]. All of a sudden, it started smoking. I thought it might be an electrical fire or something. But when I got closer, I realized there were about 30 Christmas tree worms on the post, and they had started spawning all at once, so it looked like smoke. I also saw a giant tarpon swimming around close enough to touch. A few days ago we saw a grouper strike a barracuda. I've never heard of that behavior before.
Young: What amazes me is I'll look at a patch that looks like empty sand, but the more you look the more you discover. I saw a piece of sea grass and then saw it walking. I thought I was hallucinating, and then I saw it was a tiny crab.
Any final thoughts?
Cousteau: For Mission 31 we have the goal of reaching 331 million people around the world, and hopefully we'll double that. We'll have a feature documentary, and we have many blog posts and information on our website. We've done many sessions with classrooms around the world.
We hope to continue the synergy that we're starting to see around ocean protection. It's critical so our children will be able to enjoy the ocean. When I first had the idea for the mission, I didn't know if we would pull it off, but my grandfather used to say only the crazy ideas succeed.
Young: It's been a splash.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Generally, subs are pressurized and remain at regular atmospheric pressure. It's very different to actually leave the vessel daily to go out into the ocean. To do so, aquanauts fully saturate to the surrounding water's atmospheric pressure, which allows them unlimited time outside the vessel while living in the underwater lab without the constraints of time required by surface dives to certain depths (needing decompression). The unlimited bottom time actually out in the ocean for this extended period of time is why they were able to collect years worth of data.
It is such an amazing and respectable project that could rise huge awareness of public to protect and enjoy our oceans. Too precious to the world!
Um... I have personally spent more than 90 continuous days underwater - several times. We have these things called submarines? Yes, you qualified this story by appending the word "stationary" but lets be frank - it is a heck of a lot easier to sit in one spot underwater than to transit the globe that way.
Overlapping the time Fabien was sitting around surfing the web at 60 feet, these guys did 140 continuous days:
To phrase it in submariner terms, "I have more time sitting on the sh*tter at test depth, eating peanut butter sandwiches, than this guy has in his little underwater lounge."
Let's give credit where credit is actually due.
We are so incredibly fortunate to have pioneers amongst us to protect and preserve our world's oceans. These are the heroes I admire and wish our youth would find more admirable people than movie or pop stars. What a fascinating adventure! I hope to be part of a research team one day that can provide education and understanding of the ocean to further conservatory stewardship!
I am totally behind anything that is for the good of our oceans and coral reefs,and all life there under. If anyone as ever lived on a tropical island you can,t help but to learn about your invironment. I lived in the Fla. Keys for quit a while and I really got into knowing everything I could about everything, ( sea life, flowers, trees, the history of the islands and especially how humans affect everything. You seem to be so close to nature on an island. I loved it. I love National Geographic. the Cousteau,s have been have hero,s of mine a long time.
I only wish that the whole world saw and read what NG is providing here. Fabien Cousteau is a hero, just like his grandfather before him. I feel that some (or most) of the money that we put into space exploration should be used for ocean exploration. The ocean could be so much more beneficial to us immediately than anything we find in space.
Some of you truly amaze me. Such great accomplishments going on down there for 31 days,,, and all you can do is focus on a guy smoking. Sad,,, truly very sad. The air in that environment down there is most likely better than the air in your house. There are such things now a days called filtration systems.
Oh! These guys look like a bunch of teen agers just out to spoil themselves. Scanty dressing, is it somekind of dressing code down there? Mmmmmmh! Environmental conservationists!
An underwater habitat, similar to the Space Station, I take it, and they allow smoking?
I don 't care about the guy's habit, but what does that do theoxygen supply?
I'd really like to send some time in one of these machines, but not with a smoker.
Oh to be young, to explore the real unknown. Keep up the interesting observations, but continue to make the trashing of our oceans the really important story. Without clean water we are gone.
Amazing achievement and possibilies. Though each time I look at the main photo, my eyes are drawn to the guy smoking.
There is so much we don't know about the oceans and this is a great project. Way to go and keep up the good work. I am saddened to learn that we use our oceans as trash cans and maybe this will raise niece awareness that will stop this practice completely.
Amazing!!!!!!...Inner Space...sooo much to learn from...and the New Frontier....Even the great have flaws our heroes have flaws...they smoke and drink...etc etc etc et al...if that is all u can focus on...well ...how small of you........
There is no smoking or alcohol in Aquarius. Safety is of paramount importance.
There are many videos showing Fabien Cousteau's Mission 31 on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCTM21PTZAETACc7CDLGOXYg and well worth taking a look.
I was totally excited unit I realized what was in the 4th picture. SERIOUSLY?!? Smoking cigarettes. I am appalled and disgusted! I felt heaviness in my chest just looking at the photo. That is all you can see and it is horrible and prejudicial... no scientist with allergies could be there due to just that. Cousteau talking about how we are polluting the oceans and the scientist there are polluting themselves along with everything outside as their air is expelled from the Mission 31! I am deeply saddened. I can't get over it :-(
How exciting! It is fascinating - if I wasn't on this site I would have no idea of what people get up to - and brilliant photos!! Especially the one with the smoking! Oh to have a more interesting life, i must get out more
Inspired by Cousteau in the early 50's, at my dad bought a pair of aqualungs which I used off the Jetties in Montauk NY and Newport Rhode Island. I've been a swimmer all my live and continued to skin dive through the 60's when I lived in Puerto Rico. It is another world............you can get lost in the wonder of it. Face to face with a huge Moray Eel was probably the scariest,.
Wow! I didn't even know this was happening otherwise u would gave tuned in much sooner, it's so interesting informative and utterly necessary for this kind of innovation and research.
Keep up the valuable work!!!
I agree completely with Chuck Main when he says "underestimating the value of "the romantic and the emotional" is utterly impractical."
Embracing and acknowledging the importance of what the Cousteau family has done for those of us who are not immersed in the marine world is paramount. For the last several decades, the Cousteau family has raised awareness and shared their passion for our oceans. This will, no doubt, facilitate a "call to action" for people around the world to take part in protecting this vast, and yet finite, resource.
I don't understand why Cousteau allows smoking in such a confined area. It's forbidden indoors in most countries nowadays as there's such a clear health-risk.
Having sailed on and off the "Seven Seas" for approx 23 years as a Marine Engineer i am now thinking of learning "Scuba Diving" at the young age of 54! Have been fascinated by underwater photo's and articles but initially never had the money and later the time to study "Scuba Diving".Have watched National Geographic video's on Jacques.Cousteau and this article is the ultimate in inducing ocean awareness and scuba diving to young as well as old nature enthusiasts.
Not sure how this qualifies as "record breaking". Aquanauts on project "Tektite" spent 60 days underwater in 1969.
As a US Navy Diver, I find it interesting that Cousteau would have allowed smoking in the first habitat. In our decompression chambers we are using 100% O2, a small spark has deadly results.
Interesting. I remember reading Grandpa Cousteau's book, "Silent World". He and Emile Gagnan built the first Aqua Lung in Nazi occupied France. The following 10 years were filled with underwater adventures. learning, and tragedy.
I suspect if God intended us to live underwater, we'd still be there. Either that or we evolved to leave more resources for less resources, which has to make us wonder about human intelligence.
Firstly I feel rather an outsider in this. I was in COMEX as physician for many years. I was taught by Xavier Fructus. I was also privileged to be part of a Hydrolab expedition and I have done many things since. In 1992 I was a physician on the HYDROX dives and went to 1000ft in the chamber on that mix.
The hard truth is that the concept of living beneath the sea has little value apart from the romantic and the emotional. Technically, using surface saturation techniques and ROVs, there is little value apart from the public relations in even living under the sea. I was part of the Hydrox series of dives on oxy-hydrogen to depths in excess of 287m in 1982. I was the physician who went there. Similarly the SAGA programme of a nuclear powered submarine with saturation/lockout capabilities died.
So lets get real: there is nothing difficult about habitat living to relatively shallow air depths as is proposed but it is not a cost-effective way to go. Tunnel workers do it all the time. Deep marine penetration is worthwhile. But it is not the stuff of dreamers. Google Glass, suitably water-proofed and lowered would probably be more use.
I am not myself a diver, but if you do a little research into some of the clandestine submarine/diver operations that have finally come to light, you will find that continuous submerged operations that far exceed the depths and times of this have been going on regularly for decades. Our current, Top Secret capabilities make this look about as "pioneering" as camping out overnight in a tree fort.
I am all for ocean research, I only take issue with articles like this that describe Fabien as having broken any kind of record. By all means he should continue doing research and drawing media attention to it, but there is absolutely nothing "record breaking" about this.
@joel Ongom That was a picture from 1963, the first mission that inspired Mission 31 in the aquarius
@John Romig From the caption BELOW the image:
Jacques Cousteau led a group of "aquanauts" in an underwater habitat in the Red Sea in 1963, proving that such expeditions were possible.
@John Romig I believe that picture is from the 1963 group in the Red Sea. I don't think they'd go for that now-a-days
@John Romig Yes, I couldn't believe that either. They are against trashing the oceans (we all are), but unfazed about trashing their bodies (and those of their cohorts). People are so selective in their causes. I have to include myself – humans are dirty little creatures.
Well get over it, it was the 60's and everyone smoked. Cigarette smoking was part of the culture and there was a vague awareness of the dangers compared to what we know today. I love the photograph. A bite of history. I love the woman's bathing suit ( I believe it is Simone Cousteau). I love how the men are being themselves. It is of the moment… Are you so focused on the cigarettes that you forget why they were there? … So small minded.
Back then, everyone smoked evetywhere. Movie theater, train, bus, restaurant, you name it. Even cooks smoked while they were cooking.
@Kimberly Purdy I had the same reaction at first, but, like Pam Hollows, realized that was 50 years ago. Not that it was any safer back then, but there was much we didn't realize was harmful. I'm surprised you didn't point out the booze. :-)
@Kimberly Purdy That photo was taken in 1963, it is Jacques Cousteau. I must admit I did a double take myself... then saw the bathing suit the lady was wearing....
@Ruth Vilmi the picture of a person smoking was on the Jacques Voyages dive, not the current one. I wondered about that too until I realized that it was Jacques not his grandson in the picture. Picture mislabeled.
@Rudolph Furtado don't let 54 get in the way. I haven't dived in over 30 years but I'm going to start again at 55. Hell, we're just kids! Good luck.
@Ken Clifton -project "Tektite" may have been longer, but I understand that the individuals on the team did not stay down for the the entire mission. They were underwater for up to 2 weeks.
As a practical matter, underestimating the value of "the romantic and the emotional" is utterly impractical. Your comment begs the question of whether science exists in the service of romance and emotion or vice versa. The joy of discovery is emotional and romantic and is the very reason, for the true scientist, for doing science. If science is done for other reasons-money, power, etc, those are similarly appealing for those so inclined. And as a further practical matter, unless the emotional and romantic PR appeal is successfully made, we will lose our oceans, if we haven't already, until we are either wiser or gone, and ocean/earth systems can renew themselves in newly adapted form.
Thank you, thank you. Science has enough accountants, but your assessment of the practical value of "the romance and emotional" has made my day.
Yes! We pursue the studies of the ocean due to our innate curiosity about the world. Romance and emotion are of course an undeniable and powerful driver of that curiosity and love for nature. Science helps us solve the ecological problems that we have created and is integral to repairing the damage to our oceans! Science and emotion easily co-exist and must do so to continue the world's journey towards a cleaner environment. (BTW, the photo needs to be seen in the context of 1963 when it was taken. Interviewers, doctors, scientists, rabbis and ministers all smoked then!)
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