Shark-Shaped Submarine Is Latest Cousteau Star Vehicle

John Roach
for National Geographic News
Updated June 27, 2006
Photo Gallery: Mind of a Demon: Cousteau's Shark-Shaped Sub >>

His name alone makes Fabien Cousteau, grandson of the late Jacques, a big fish in the world of underwater exploration. Now he's taking that big-fish status to extremes.

The Paris-born, New York-based explorer had become a virtual shark, thanks to his new shark-shaped submarine. He uses the sub to dive incognito among the oceans' top predators, great white sharks.

Created at a cost of more than U.S. $100,000, the 14-foot-long (4.3-meter-long) contraption is designed to look and move as much like the real thing as possible. It carries a single passenger, who fits inside lying down, propped up on elbows to navigate and observe (see photo).

"This is akin to being the first human being in the space capsule in outer space," Cousteau said. "It's pretty similar. You have no idea what's going to happen; it's a prototype." (Read a National Geographic Adventure magazine interview with Cousteau.)

Cousteau used the submarine to make a documentary intended to demystify the notion that great white sharks are ruthless, mindless killers.

Great whites have been around for more than 400 million years. Anything that has survived that long isn't "stupid," he said.

The documentary, Shark: Mind of a Demon—a nod to the human misperception of the creatures—airs Wednesday on CBS TV in the U.S.

Cartoon to Reality

Cousteau calls the sub Troy, in reference to the mythical Trojan horse statue, in which Greek soldiers were spirited into the fortress kingdom of Troy.

The idea for the sub, though, came from a slightly more prosaic source.

Troy was inspired by Tintin, a Belgian comic book character. On the cover of the book Le Trésor de Rackham le Rouge (published in English as Red Rackham's Treasure), Tintin and his dog are pictured in a metal, shark-shaped submarine.

"I was 7 when I first saw the cartoon book, first read it," Cousteau, now 38, said. "It stuck in my mind as a great idea. We went one step further; I didn't want something rigid that didn't move."

Propelled by a wagging tail and covered in a flexible, skinlike material, the sub—created by Cousteau and a team of scientists and engineers—swims silently.

The steel-ribbed, womblike interior is filled with water, requiring Cousteau to wear a wet suit and use scuba gear to breathe (see photo).

George Lauder is a professor of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has not personally seen the shark sub, but said that if the contraption moves as advertised, the team deserves congratulations.

"It is notoriously hard to produce natural-like swimming motions of fishes with robotic models," Lauder commented in an e-mail.

Be a Shark

Importantly, Troy allows Cousteau to be a shark, not shark bait.

At the heart of the project is a desire to observe what great white sharks do when people aren't around to watch.

Prior to this, most shark observations have come from humans sitting in cages and enticing the predators with bait—conditions that spawn unnatural behaviors, Cousteau said.

"Now all of the sudden we can see what they do as white sharks rather than as trained circus animals," he said.

While Cousteau is reluctant to guess what the sharks thought when Troy invaded their space, the explorer said they seemed to act naturally (see photo). Some even puffed their gills and gaped toward Troy—actions thought to be communication signals.

And though a few sharks made aggressive gestures, none of the predators attacked the shark-shaped sub.

One reason for the lack of attack may be Troy's substantial size, Cousteau said. Fourteen feet (4.3 meters) long and fat enough to accommodate a human, the sub looks like an exceptionally robust, well-fed shark.

"I would imagine that animals that have lived on the planet for over 400 million years are there because they're smart and because they're survivalists," Cousteau said. "Survivalists don't take on unnecessary risks. And attacking another great white shark is undertaking an unnecessary risk."

Given his preliminary success with Troy, Cousteau hopes other researchers will come in and pick up where he left off.

"There's so much more we can learn with the next set of experiments like this," he said.

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