Deep thoughts from aquanauts: Meet the Mission 31 undersea team
Who would live underwater for weeks at a time -- and in view of the public? Get to know Fabien Cousteau and his crew doing it for science, bragging rights, and, uh, the freeze-dried food.
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It has a dramatic setting: an undersea research lab. It's got star power: Jacques Cousteau's grandson Fabien. And it has an intriguing premise: Half a dozen people will live and work together in that school bus-sized lab for 31 days, while exploring the ocean deep. There's even a character nicknamed Otter.
Sound like a fish story? Viewers can tune in to watch the expedition unfold live online starting Sunday, when Mission 31 is set to launch. Fabien Cousteau and his fellow aquanauts will dive to Aquarius Reef Base, an undersea lab 63 feet down in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. For the next month, they'll conduct scientific research on the marine life and themselves.
Cousteau's undersea-living expedition is similar to one his famous grandfather undertook in 1963, but this one is going deeper and one day longer.
Cousteau and habitat technicians Mark Hulsbeck (aka "Otter") and Ryan LaPete will stay below for all 31 days, while Kip Evans, Andy Shantz, and Adam Zenone will live at Aquarius for the first half of the mission. Then midway through, Matt Ferraro, Liz Magee, and Grace Young will take their places until the team surfaces July 2.
Why did they agree to do Mission 31? What are they most dreading? While training for the mission, the aquanauts answered these and other questions via email. (Their responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.)
Name: Fabien Cousteau Age: Eternal Hometown: Atlantis Day job: Fish Primary role on Mission 31: Baggage handler, shark whisperer
Why did you decide to do Mission 31? Why not? Only the curious stand to learn about the unknown.
What's the most adventurous thing you've done up to now? Survive life.
What are you most looking forward to? Returning to an aquatic world from which we were born.
What are you most dreading? Man-made damage to the aquatic environment.
What's your favorite underwater movie? "The Silent World," "Le Grand Bleu," "Beyond Mission 31."
What do you hope will come out of Mission 31 -- whether for science, the viewers, or for yourself? Reaching at least 331 million people and influencing at least 31 million to help protect the ocean.
Name: Mark W. Hulsbeck Age: 58 Hometown: Key Largo, Fla. Day job: Aquarius operations field manager Primary role on Mission 31: Lead habitat technician
Why did you decide to do Mission 31? To serve as lead habitat tech.
What's the most adventurous thing you've done up to now? Navigation officer on a NOAA research ship on an around-the-world research cruise (and living and working in Aquarius).
What are you most looking forward to? Diving at night.
What are you most dreading? Can't think of anything to dread, other than missing family and pets.
What's your favorite underwater movie? "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" (great book, also).
What do you hope will come out of Mission 31? An appreciation of the public for the history of underwater habitats. Showing how living under the sea can better facilitate marine science studies by allowing longer in situ observations and experiments.
Name: Ryan S. LaPete Age: 30 Hometown: Tallahassee, Fla. Day job: Owner and head brewer of Deep Brewing Company Primary role on Mission 31: Habitat technician. As one of two technicians on this mission, our role is to ensure a safe working environment while maintaining and operating Florida International University's Aquarius and all of the equipment used to deploy divers and their instrumentation to the underwater world. My specific focus will be on supporting the deployment of technology from Aquarius. I'll also be tasked with making sure everyone makes their beds before they head out for their morning dives.
Why did you decide to do Mission 31? The fame and glory! But seriously, Mission 31 presents an enormous opportunity for personal and professional development. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to aid in the advancement of ocean science. Personal pride, war stories, and bragging rights are just a few of the fringe benefits!
What's the most adventurous thing you've done up to now? Started a family! Started a business! Definitely the high points even considering some of the crazy tech diving adventures, shark encounters, spearfishing, and riding on submarines.
What are you most looking forward to? I am most looking forward to the challenges that a mission of this scale presents. The logistics involved in getting the divers and their instruments out on the reef every day is a feat of planning and execution. Also consider the intricate ballet of coordination that goes on topside just to keep the lights on, the air flowing, and the food in adequate stock. I look forward to rising every morning with a new set of tasks to complete, schedules to maintain, and camping food...That's right, delicious freeze-dried ice cream sandwiches!
What are you most dreading? I am concerned about the lack of natural sunlight for such a long time and all of the things that come with it. Disruption of sleep cycles, seasonal affective disorder, looking pale! Luckily we are so busy during the day that we will most likely be exhausted by bedtime. But all kidding aside, I'm mostly dreading the lack of fresh cold beer!
What's your favorite underwater movie? "The Abyss" and/or "Leviathan," depends on which way the tide is flowing.
What do you hope will come out of Mission 31? For science, the benefits of long-term data collection and how its relevance can be amplified when coupled with human observation.
For viewers, hopefully they will be left with a renewed appreciation for manned exploration and the benefits that the human experience can offer us.
For myself, to advance the boundaries of what I can accomplish physically, mentally, emotionally, and professionally. To this date I've only ever been in saturation for 10 consecutive days. Even that can seem an eternity if everything doesn't run smoothly. Our days are filled from before sunrise to well after sunset which makes coordination with topside the key to maintaining schedules and our sanity. This mission will also be a supreme test of willpower, as all of our food is stored at eye level!
Name: Kip Evans Age: 47 Hometown: Monterey Bay, Calif. Day job: Professional photographer and filmmaker Primary role on Mission 31: Cinematographer/photographer
Why did you decide to do Mission 31? I've spent most of my adult life exploring and documenting the oceans. As a filmmaker and photographer, Mission 31 will allow me to push both personal and creative boundaries. In addition, this project has the potential to reach millions of people, many of whom don't know much about the ocean, or underwater exploration.
What's the most adventurous thing you've done up to now? I've climbed tall mountains, hiked the John Muir Trail, made dives in remote corners of the world, and participated in some pretty crazy cycling adventures. One of my favorite adventures happened 10 years ago, when I was hired by the National Geographic Society to document a five-year project to explore our national marine sanctuaries. I spent over 300 hours diving one-person submersibles to depths over 1,500 feet, in Hawaii, the Gulf of Mexico, California, Belize, and Mexico.
What are you most looking forward to? I'm really looking forward to all the photographic opportunities! Beyond that, Skype sessions with schools, special visitors, working with our awesome sponsors and the opportunity to share this once-in-a-lifetime adventure with my colleagues.
What are you most dreading? I will miss my family dearly for the month that I'm away. Beyond that, I will miss the sun, the taste of fresh food, and, of course, breathing fresh air. To help overcome these issues, I'm going to post photos of my wife, kids, and the sun above my bunk.
What's your favorite underwater movie? "Finding Nemo." My kids used to watch this movie over and over again and it brings back so many great memories!
What do you hope will come out of Mission 31? Three things for me: a greater awareness for the ocean's overall health (which is declining); a great appreciation for ocean exploration and what it takes to live underwater for an extended period of time; and beautiful footage and photographs that will help touch millions of viewers.
Name: Matthew Ferraro Age: 40 Hometown: Carmel Valley, Calif. Day job: Underwater cinematographer Primary role on Mission 31: Director of photography
Why did you decide to do Mission 31? Fabien was the best man at my wedding so I owe him one. :)
What's the most adventurous thing you've done up to now? I don't know about adventurous, but probably the most stupid thing was diving into the oil plumes suspended under the surface during the Gulf oil spill. That stuff is toxic!
What are you most looking forward to? Just settling in and feeling like part of the reef around Aquarius.
What are you most dreading? Going number 2. I can't quite get my head around that one.
What's your favorite underwater movie? "The Abyss"
What do you hope will come out of Mission 31? A renewed public interest in ocean exploration and science. I think Fabien's time has come and I want to see Mission 31 become a huge success.
Name: Liz Magee Age: 29 Hometown: Westford, Mass. Day job: Diving safety officer for Northeastern University and program coordinator for the Three Seas Program, a marine-biology study-abroad program Primary role on Mission 31: Mission scientist
Why did you decide to do Mission 31? Mission 31 is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The first time I learned about the Aquarius Habitat was when I was a Three Seas student. I remember thinking that it was one of the most unique places on the planet. It is now 10 years later, and I'm going to be able to share my own Aquarius experience with Three Seas students.
What's the most adventurous thing you've done up to now? I fed sharks, rays, eels, and turtles when I worked as a Giant Ocean Tank diver at the New England Aquarium!
What are you most looking forward to? I'm most looking forward to being able to dive for hours upon end without having to worry about staying down for too long.
What are you most dreading? Nothing! I'm excited about all of it!
What's your favorite underwater movie? I love the visual beauty of the animated sea creatures in "The Life Aquatic."
What do you hope will come out of Mission 31? I hope that I'm able to spark an interest in marine science and diving in young women. I think it is so cool that both Grace Young and I will be representing women in science during Mission 31.
Name: Grace Calvert Young Age: 21 Hometown: Bethesda, Md. Day job: Ocean engineer (just graduated from MIT and will start graduate studies at Oxford University in September). Primary role on Mission 31: Mission scientist
Why did you decide to do Mission 31? I love the ocean, whether I'm scuba diving, sailing, operating underwater ROVs, or walking the beach. So when Fabien invited me to join the team, I didn't think twice. The chance to live underwater, totally immersed in an alien habitat, is too exciting to pass up. Plus, I'm passionate about M31's outreach mission.
What's the most adventurous thing you've done up to now? A few experiences come to mind...Living by myself in England at age 15 to study at the Royal Ballet School, dropping out of high school, working at CERN at age 18, and lots and lots of travel, including trekking in Wales, the Alps, High Atlas Mountains, Egypt's White Desert, and visiting Eastern Congo in the middle of a civil war.
What are you most looking forward to? So many things. Being able to live peacefully with all types of marine wildlife in their habitat for several weeks will be an unforgettable and, I think, life-changing experience. I'm also looking forward to our research projects and the opportunity to connect with people, especially students, around the world from underwater to spotlight immediate threats to the ocean and the critical need for radical conservation action.
What are you most dreading? Wet-suit burn. That's when your skin gets a rash from taking on/off a wet suit too frequently. Also I'm going to miss the color red. Water absorbs red wavelengths of light.
What's your favorite underwater movie? "The Life Aquatic" with Bill Murray, hands down.
What do you hope will come out of Mission 31? I hope M31 sparks interest in the crises facing our oceans, including overfishing, pollution, and climate change. I hope it awakens people to the need for more intensive ocean research as well as immediate remedial action. Our human survival depends upon the oceans, yet we know shockingly little about them.
Name: Andy Shantz Age: 32 Hometown: Miami, but considers Washington, DC, his real hometown Day job: Ph.D. student at Florida International University Primary role on Mission 31: Mission scientist. Our research will explore the effects of two of the most pervasive human impacts on coral reefs -- overfishing and pollution. I'll be handling a lot of the biology and ecology and working closely with our sonar specialist, Adam Zenone, to see if we can apply new sonar technology to understand some old, unanswered questions in reef ecology and really gain a better understanding of what's needed to keep reefs healthy and functioning.
What's the most adventurous thing you've done up to now? I used to rock climb quite a bit. I've been skydiving and bungee jumping, and been lucky enough to travel and dive in a lot of remote and amazing places around the world. So I'm not really sure what I would say is the most adventurous, but I'd definitely put Aquarius up there on the list.
What are you most looking forward to? The view from the galley window at night. There's nothing more surreal than sitting down at the table, having dinner, and just watching the fish swimming around and looking in at you. It really makes you stop and think about where you are and is just an amazing, crazy experience.
What are you most dreading? That's a toss-up between weeks of freeze-dried food and the cold. People think of diving in South Florida as warm, tropical diving. But it doesn't matter how warm the water is, when you spend eight hours in it you get cold. Then when you go back to the habitat, it's climate-controlled and has to stay cooled to keep the humidity down, so you never get completely warm.
What's your favorite underwater movie? "The Abyss"
Name: Adam Zenone Age: 24 Hometown: Chest Springs, Penn. Day job: Graduate student at Florida International University Primary role on Mission 31: I guess you could say I'm the mission's acoustic specialist! I will be deploying and monitoring data collected with cutting-edge hydroacoustic technology. I will be working with Andy Shantz to examine the effects of predators on herbivore behavior. Essentially I will be the guy that you always see in the background of James Bond movies in the bad guy's lair, casually turning knobs and staring at computer screens that may (if I'm doing my job right) or may not have something on them!
Why did you decide to do Mission 31? The ability to saturate and be at depth for weeks at a time will give us a view of predator/prey behavior that cannot be examined anywhere else. Also, as a big fan of the work and messages of Jacques Cousteau, you can imagine my excitement when I found out that I would simultaneously have the opportunity to work alongside Fabien Cousteau and his team!
What's the most adventurous thing you've done up to now? I've traveled to Alaska, and Iceland, and numerous Caribbean countries. I've hung off the edge of moving boats in freezing cold water. I've dove in underwater caverns that were completely pitch black and, hand over hand, crawled through crevices that a person could barely fit through.
What are you most looking forward to? We've had an amazing opportunity to work with the prototype of a new wide-band sonar system from Kongsberg Maritime that is the only one of its kind. Along with a cutting-edge imaging sonar from Sound Metrics, we are going to be collecting very unique and novel data on this mission!
What are you most dreading? I guess deep down there's always the realization that if an emergency occurs, we're about 50 feet below the surface of the ocean with a limited ability to surface immediately. But I know the FIU Aquarius team is highly trained for every situation and scenario. And I suppose we're still definitely safer than a normal day of driving in Miami.
What's your favorite underwater movie? "Finding Nemo," hands down.
What do you hope will come out of Mission 31? That's a big question! From a science perspective, we really don't understand as much as we need to about the effects of reef predators on herbivores. Because these complex interactions can have very large effects on reef health, I am hoping that the data collected here will illuminate fish behavior in exciting ways.
Most of all I hope that the mission will align with the Cousteau family legacy and generate huge exposure for the science of the ocean, ultimately helping people understand how important the preservation of these ecosystems are to human society! One of my greatest interests is educating others about the ocean.
Personally, I'm extremely excited about the training and experience that saturating on the Aquarius will offer me. I'm also pretty stoked to make some calls to my family and friends to say, "Hey, I'm sitting on the bottom of the ocean right now."
The opportunity still seems surreal to me, and I don't think I'll be able to quite appreciate how amazing this experience will be until I'm there.