We humans

What Fabien Cousteau learned from living underwater for 31 days

Oct 10, 2014 /

Ocean exploration has been the Cousteau family business for three generations. In this fascinating Q&A, aquanaut Fabien Cousteau discusses everything from why we need underwater cities to what it’s like to beat your grandfather’s world record.

In 1963, Jacques Cousteau lived for 30 days in an underwater laboratory positioned on the floor of the Red Sea, and set a world record in the process. This summer, his grandson Fabien Cousteau broke that record. The younger Cousteau lived for 31 days aboard the Aquarius, an underwater research laboratory nine miles off the coast of Florida. While he and his team conducted experiments —  they did three years worth of science in 31 says — and held virtual classroom sessions with students around the world, each moment of their adventure was captured on film. Lots of the footage can be found on the Mission 31 YouTube channel, and Cousteau is making a documentary about his Mission 31 experience.

We caught up with Fabien Cousteau just before he spoke at TEDGlobal 2014. Below, an edited transcript of our conversation.

I’m much more comfortable underwater than I am on land. I’ve been diving since my 4th birthday.

What were your biggest goals with Mission 31?

The biggest goal was to connect the world with the oceans in a way that sparks a new dawn of ocean exploration. For the satiation of curiosity, but also for the very tangible benefits that it gives us — a better grasp on what oceans mean to climate change, and a better understanding of what the over-consumption of natural resources means to us as a species. It really is a closed-loop system that returns to haunt us.

I didn’t want to talk about these things in a way that generates animosity or disinterest. I wanted to talk in a way that is empowering, through a conduit that everyone can attach themselves to: adventure, discovery, new and interesting information, new things that people haven’t seen before. I wanted to find a way to deliver information that is scientifically and educationally constructive, and that also tantalizes us.

The hardest part for me was the lack of time. I know that sounds strange because 31 days underwater sounds long, but it wasn’t nearly enough for what we needed to do.

We’ve explored less than 5% of our ocean world, and very few people know that. But there’s a new interest showing its face with regards to oceans. Whether it’s President [Barack] Obama’s declaration about creating a protected zone in the United States’ waters in the Pacific, or whether it’s the country of Palau declaring that all its waters are off-limits to commercial fishing, there are so many signs that are encouraging, compared to what the last two decades brought us. But there’s a lot of work to do. We need to leverage that momentum and continue rolling that into the future, if we’re to imagine a different course than we’ve set for ourselves. I wanted to do my part.

What was life like aboard the Aquarius? What was surprisingly easy underwater, and what was surprisingly difficult?

I don’t think anything was surprisingly easy. [Laughs] Honestly, I’m much more comfortable underwater than I am on land; I’ve been diving since my 4th birthday. So the easiest part, for me, was the living situation. Sleeping in tight quarters is not foreign to me. Calypso, which was my grandfather’s ship, was a World War II minesweeper — a military ship with very tight quarters. Much tighter than the Aquarius, actually. I also live in New York City, so I’m used to tripping over my own things and bumping into people.



I think the hardest part for me was the lack of time. I know that sounds strange because 31 days underwater sounds like a long time, but it wasn’t nearly enough for what we needed to do. Soon it was, “Oh my gosh, we only have 29 days. Oh my gosh, we only have 7 days left.” As time went on, I noticed that we started disconnecting a bit from the topside world — from you air-breathers. We started really living in our own little microcosm. We obviously had daily visitors and were connected via wifi — we had Skype classroom sessions, for example. But more and more, we concentrated on our daily lives and what it was to be on that final frontier. I would venture to bet that if you’re to look at the future of space exploration, for example, those colonists that want to go populate Mars, that for the first month they’re going to want to communicate with Earth a lot, but afterwards, they might feel that disconnect that we felt. It’s very interesting, the similarity between space and ocean. NASA saw it — that’s why astronauts train underwater before they go into space.

The food was also difficult for me. It was quite literally astronaut food.

The food was also difficult for me. It was quite literally astronaut food, because we were very limited in the type of cooking we could do — we could only reheat things through hot water and a microwave, because we couldn’t have open flames down there. Also, after the first day or two, your taste buds go a bit numb, so your enjoyment of food gets dulled. I don’t like hot sauce, but I put hot sauce on a lot of things just to taste it.

Of course being away from friends and family — and my dog, Heidi — that was difficult in the beginning, but less difficult as time went on. I’m used to traveling, so that certainly was less difficult of a transition for me than for some of the other aquanauts.

Why 31 days?

It was symbolic — one extra day than my grandfather did. Mission 31 is based on the history of Conshelf II, my grandfather’s expedition back in the ‘60s. It was a good benchmark for us, both historically and emotionally. The fact that we did one day longer is inconsequential, really, though it does mark the next step in ocean exploration. We picked that number more to say: for one lunar cycle, human beings lived and worked underwater, and here’s what we found.

Doing this in modern times afforded us a lot of things that just weren’t possible back [in my grandfather’s time]. First, we were able to invite people in real time to be part of the expedition, virtually speaking. My grandfather never had that kind of communications platform. All he had was traditional media — and he did wonders with that. But by June 15th, we had already reached millions of people through the traditional press alone.

Second, we were able to do three years worth of science in one month. Ten to twelve scientific papers will be generated from Mission 31 because we had that luxury of time — we were able to be on the bottom for up to 12 hours a day.

Finally, we were able to impassion students around the world, in all six continents. We reached something like 70,000 students. This is a fantastic education platform.

Yes, we need to build a future underwater city. Or better yet, a network of them around the world.

All those things, to me, culminate in: yes, we need to build a future underwater city. Or better yet, a network of them around the world. As we push further, longer and deeper, we can learn a lot more. We can invite more people to do this kind of ocean exploration, so that we know more about our planet. This is our life-support system — water is a circulatory system of this planet. It connects us all, and we know so little about it. It’s mind-boggling to me. I’ve spent my life doing this — our family’s spent three generations doing this — and yet we have barely scratched the surface of our ocean world. For young people, there’s a lot to be done. I plan on continuing for many decades to come, if life affords it to me.

Do you think your grandfather would have been thrilled or a little upset that your mission went one day longer than his?

I think he would have been thrilled. I don’t think he would have been upset at all. If I were to imagine what he would think or say, it would be that this is a wonderful way to connect people with the ocean. It’s picking up where my grandfather left off. I would’ve loved for him to be around so I could learn from his wisdom. That said, we did our homework — we talked to some of the elders [who were on his mission] and are still around.

Did you consider going longer than 31 days for Mission 31?

No, quite simply for budgetary reasons. This is the first time that a non-governmental endeavor has gone this long — and for good reason. It’s extraordinarily expensive, it’s extraordinarily difficult, and it requires some very special training.

When you were growing up, did you ever consider any other career paths besides ocean exploration?

Oh, I was encouraged to explore other career paths. My family would have supported anything. They weren’t set on my going into the family business.

It’s a kaleidoscope. It’s Pandora’s box. It’s a place of magic and mystery and beauty and danger. There’s always something new, every dive.

I grew up on expeditions — my first was when I was seven. It’s such a different world. It’s a kaleidoscope. It’s Pandora’s box. It’s a place of magic and mystery and beauty and danger. There’s always something new, every dive. So it’s more that it would be very difficult to find a career that would trump that. I tried! I went to school for environmental economics, and I went into international business and marketing afterwards. I did stints in different places — I worked at Seventh Generation, I worked in graphic design, I worked in interior design. All those were very short-lived careers for me, because at the end of the day, my mind and my soul kept driving me back to the ocean. To the thing that really attracted me to this life — which is the adventure, the discovery.

Climate change starts in the ocean.

Can you give us a sneak peek of some of the discoveries made on Mission 31 that are especially exciting?

We looked at the zooplankton that live in and around coral reefs. We looked at how temperature variations really disrupt the zooplankton, which are the basis of life underwater. The animals and colonies — like corals and sponges and all these things — depend on zooplankton to feed on, and the metabolism of the colonies gets shut down because of the temperature variation. Of course, it’s not just about the zooplankton; it’s about us. Because what happens to the zooplankton affects the web of life. Climate change starts in the ocean. The ocean relegates and dictates weather patterns on land, and we see the repercussions of that.

By and large up until now, scientists have been studying these things by diving down from a boat or by sending an ROV. Those offer very finite moments [of observation]. What we are able to do [on Mission 31] is not only peek through the keyhole to try and figure things out, but also open the door and stick our foot in. We got a taste of what it could be like to really spend quality time at the bottom, and study these things day after day. To get a nice long data set that’s not just a month long, but maybe a year long. That would give us a much better pulse of what’s happening to the oceans.

We also did a lot of work with man-made pollutants — especially around fertilizers and toxic chemicals — as it pertains to coral colonies. That was fascinating, because we used cutting-edge technology called PAM, a pulse amplitude modulated fluorometer. It’s a small, touch-sensitive computer that’s enclosed in an acrylic cylinder, with a laser that tests for the fluorescence of coral. It gives a good read on how they’re doing physiologically by the way they feed and by the way they luminesce at night. We looked at their high activity time — late at night, early morning — and we compared that to midday. That data set, because it was done three times a day, gives us a much better set than would be done from a boat. You can only do that maybe once or twice a day from a boat, and most likely, it will be broken up because of bad weather, visibility, equipment failure, diver limitations, etc.

Additionally, we’ve also taken up an enormous data set of sponge DNA. I know that sounds weird, but we’re working with Northeastern’s sea program to collect DNA from over 40 different sponges so that we can catalog them and have their DNA strands — so that if we lost a species, we’d still have that on catalog, and could eventually do something with it.

Finally, we also worked on predator-prey fear behavior. What happens to a coral reef system and its inhabitants when the predators are taken away? What happens to algae, what happens to prey fish, what happens to the system itself, when we overfish a place? We came up with some surprising finds. Anecdotal evidence right now, because the paper hasn’t been published — but to me, that was pretty interesting.

And of course, we have a lot of anecdotal stories of how the local residents of our underwater city started becoming used to us because we were there for an extended period of time. There’s always a period of adaptation and, in the beginning, it’d be very difficult to get close to any of these animals. They acted in strange ways because there we were — we were the invaders of their cities. But soon, we were accepted as co-inhabitants. That, to me, is really good, because it opens up a whole new perspective of what animals do when we’re not around on the coral reefs.

I mean, I could go on and on.