Dive on in: Fabien Cousteau and the urge to live under the sea

Next spring, Fabien Cousteau, grandson of the legendary Jacques, will lead a 31-day mission, living in an underwater lab and exploring the mysteries of the deep. And you're invited to come along.

Anne Dujmovic Former Senior Editor / News
Anne Dujmovic was a senior editor at CNET. Her areas of focus included the climate crisis, democracy and inclusive language. She believes in the power of great journalism and art, and the magic of tardigrades.
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Fabien Cousteau, Aquarius, Mission 31
Fabien Cousteau (pictured) is planning an undersea living expedition similar to one his famed grandfather undertook in 1963, but going deeper and one day longer. The Aquarius lab will be home base for 31 days. Kip Evans/Mission Blue

Half a dozen half-naked men are sitting around, talking, drinking, and smoking in Starfish House, 33 feet below the surface of the Red Sea. It's 1963. Among them is ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau -- still clad in his silver diving suit -- commandant of the first undersea village.

That scene comes early on in "World Without Sun," the Oscar-winning documentary released in 1964. It provided moviegoers with a window into the underwater world of oceanauts living and working for a month in "inner space."

Now, 50 years later, Fabien Cousteau, grandson of the famed ocean explorer, is planning a similar expedition but going deeper and one day longer. And you won't have to wait for the movie to come out -- you can watch Mission 31 unfold in real time.

Next spring, Cousteau and five others will dive down to Aquarius Reef Base, an undersea lab 63 feet down in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. They plan to make the school-bus-size lab their home for 31 days, while exploring the deep and conducting scientific research (yes, there's a documentary in the works) -- all the while broadcasting the mission live.

Fabien Cousteau, Mission 31, Jacques Cousteau
Fabien Cousteau on his grandfather's shoulders in 1970. Mission 31

"We're in a whole new generation," said Cousteau, 46, a filmmaker and ocean explorer like his grandfather. During the last half of the 20th century, film and TV audiences became immersed in the undersea world of Jacques Cousteau, who was 87 when he died in 1997. "The Internet was in its nascent stage at the end of his life, so he never got a chance to reach out through that medium," he said.

Though time has advanced and so has technology, one thing hasn't changed much. "The reality is that we've explored less than 5 percent of our ocean to date," Cousteau said. So there are still a lot of stories to tell, and discoveries and adventures to be had, he said. "In essence we're hoping to continue on where my grandfather left off."

But it's not just by symbolically going deeper and one day longer than the 1963 expedition, he said. "There's a human-ocean connection that hadn't really been fathomed -- or certainly not enough -- that we need to emphasize now."

During the expedition, the aquanauts will conduct scientific research on how climate change, overconsumption, and pollution are affecting the health of the ocean. The aquanauts themselves will become specimens too, participating in experiments on the physiological and psychological effects of living under the sea -- and without sun -- for a month.

Immersion program
Cousteau describes Mission 31 as "an underwater classroom," where he and his team will share their discoveries with viewers -- through daily Skype video calls with students around the world, live reports on the Weather Channel, and real-time updates on social media.

"I think there's a way to wow today's generation in a way that [my grandfather] did, maybe by engaging them in a more real-time sort of way with more alternative kind of media," he said.

The 50th anniversary of his grandfather's experiment in undersea living, known as Conshelf Two, comes at an opportune time for updating our knowledge too, he said.

Get Cousteau talking about the changes he's witnessed during his time in and around the ocean and he'll take an Aquaman-like dive into the scientific research as well. Caused "just by the actions of one species," the changes are both fascinating and scary, he said.

And he has a couple of decades' worth of firsthand knowledge to draw on. Cousteau grew up on the decks of the Calypso and Alcyone, the ships that transported his grandfather and crew on many of their expeditions.

"You go to the Florida Keys, for example, and it's a shadow of its former self," he said. But take someone, say a 12-year-old, diving in that area for the first time? "They've never seen how it was, how it was supposed to be, which is this fireworks display of life that I grew up with, when I was 12 years old."

The point of Mission 31 is more than going deeper and longer than Conshelf Two. "We're also showing the wonders of the undersea world in a way that most people will never get a chance to see," Cousteau said.

Fabien Cousteau, Aquarius, Mission 31
Fabien Cousteau describes Mission 31 as 'an underwater classroom,' where he and his team will share their discoveries with viewers in real time. Carrie Vonderhaar

In October, an international panel of marine scientists released a report saying that increased carbon emissions have led to a "deadly trio" that threatens the world's oceans: waters are acidifying, warming, and losing oxygen. Pollution and overfishing are adding to the stress too. And things are worse than previously believed.

"The health of the ocean is spiraling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought," Alex Rogers, scientific director of the International Programme on the State of the Ocean, said in a statement. "The situation should be of the gravest concern to everyone since everyone will be affected by changes in the ability of the ocean to support life on Earth."

The findings go beyond even the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that preceded it by a week, which said that the ocean is bearing the brunt of global warming.

Daily life in the deep
In addition to the mysteries of the underwater world, viewers may find life inside Aquarius just as compelling. What happens when you pack six people who don't know each other well into a school-bus-size space for a month? Aquarius, the world's only operating undersea lab, is about 43 feet long and about 9 feet wide inside. There are six bunks, a shower and toilet, hot water, a refrigerator, a microwave, air conditioning, and an Internet connection. The longest mission Aquarius has hosted was 18 days, with a typical mission lasting about 10 days.

Cousteau has assembled a team of people with science and engineering backgrounds, three women and three men, ranging in age from 19 to 46. For most of his team, including Cousteau, it'll be a new experience living as saturation divers, enabling them to stay underwater for the length of the mission. The 1963 expedition in part was an early, successful effort in saturation diving -- a technique that allows divers to safely explore the deep for a much longer period of time compared with surface-based diving.

Fabien Cousteau's Mission 31: Adventures in undersea living (pictures)

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What will their daily life aquatic look like? The aquanauts aim to have a routine, keeping hours similar to most landlubbers. "We're just going to be doing it down at three atmospheres and beyond," Cousteau said.

Their days will be spent diving six to nine hours -- conducting scientific experiments and filming -- doing broadcasts, and receiving supplies as well as VIP guests. (Expected celebrity visitors include adventuresome billionaire Richard Branson and "Her Deepness," oceanographer Sylvia Earle.) The evenings will likely be spent filling in logs, doing stress tests and lab work, and enjoying a little downtime.

Doesn't quite sound like your ordinary workday? They'll also have cooler tech toys: underwater robots and motorcycles.

Thanks to its scientific advisory team, Mission 31 will have access to autonomous underwater vehicles that can be used to help study, among other things, the effects of ocean acidification on coral. There's also an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) that can take very high-resolution video in deep water, detailed enough to capture the bioluminescence of sea creatures.

The underwater motorcycles are basically propulsion vehicles, streamlined so aquanauts can hover or zip around more quickly and while carrying more gear. Picture the speeder-bike chase scene in "Return of the Jedi," Cousteau said.

Fabien Cousteau just inside Aquarius Reef Base. Mission 31

A monthlong mission takes extensive planning (though maybe not quite as much as producing a science-fiction blockbuster). That includes preparing in case something goes wrong.

"This is a very serious endeavor," Cousteau said. "Physically you have to be in very good shape. It's very much like going into outer space." In fact, many astronauts become aquanauts at Aquarius to train for space missions. Aquarius has hosted 18 NASA training missions.

Before the launch, the team will train by doing things like simulating emergencies, he said. That includes the aquanauts having to find their way back to the habitat after taking off their masks about 200 yards away and being spun around to lose their orientation. They don't expect to have to use that training, but it's necessary, Cousteau said. "We need to know that everyone's prepared because of the parameters that we're working under, which are very extreme, very difficult."

Those parameters include living in navy-style quarters. ("You're stacked like sardines in there. That doesn't bother me," Cousteau said.) Without sun. And being away from friends and family for a month, though the Internet will help the aquanauts stay connected.

"Ultimately, psychologically, I think if you really put your mind to it, anyone can stick something out for a month, but it's certainly not going to be easy," he said.

Maybe just as tough to withstand: subsisting on astronaut-type food, because of limited space at Aquarius. Starfish House -- which, to be fair, was the headquarters of an undersea village -- had a chef de cuisine, who served dishes like bifteck saute marchand de vins.

"We're really, really, really hoping that someone will have mercy on us and bring us down some decent food once in a while," Cousteau said.

Mission 31 had been set to launch this month but Cousteau decided to postpone it until spring, in part because science and film permits got held up because of the US government shutdown last month.

Funding for the expedition, projected to cost $1.8 million, is coming from corporate sponsors and private donations. There's a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo that runs through December 6 with a goal of raising a minimum of $100,000. (For $10, you get a shout-out on Twitter and Facebook. For $25,000, you get to dive down to the mission as a VIP guest.)

"People can peep in whenever they want to see what we're up to day and night," Cousteau said. From time to time though, they might shut off a few of the cameras to give the aquanauts a little privacy.

"We want everyone to be part of this adventure," he said.

During the 1963 expedition, oceanaut Pierre Vanoni kept a diary. In the companion book to "World Without Sun," one passage makes clear what he thought about his own undersea adventure.

After three weeks at Starfish House, Vanoni wrote that he became aware again that time was passing: "I fear I may rise to the surface next week without having seen and experienced absolutely everything."