Cousteau splashes down in Aquarius off Key Largo for month-long research stay

Miami HeraldJune 4, 2014 

Fabien Cousteau works inside Aquarius, the world's last remaining offshore underwater laboratory.

BRIAN HALL

Suspenseful orchestra music plays in the background as the disc-shaped underwater vehicle propels through a deep, offshore marine world that few people had ever seen before.

The narrator of the 1964 Academy Award-winning documentary "World Without Sun" states in an ominous voice: "The diving saucer returns from a world where the sun never shines. The saucer is the spearhead of an historic adventure, conceived not only to explore, but to inhabit the seas. The French expedition is led by Jacques-Yves Cousteau."

Inhabiting the seas never happened.

But Cousteau's pioneering Continental Shelf Station Two -- a month-long saturation mission in a habitat 33 feet deep off the coast of Sudan in the Red Sea in 1963 -- proved that humans could live and work under the sea. Its success also made the world's oceans more exciting and inviting, heralding in a new era of exploration and research.

Now, to honor the 50th anniversary of the so-called Conshelf Two and continue Cousteau's later-in-life quest for ocean protection and conservation, the legendary sea explorer’s grandson, Fabien Cousteau, is leading an ambitious saturation project called Mission 31.

But unlike his grandfather, who helped create and build Conshelf's innovative habitat Starfish House, Fabien Cousteau is renting the decades-old Aquarius, the only offshore, underwater laboratory still operating in the world. The school-bus-size habitat rests in 63 feet of water on the sandy bottom next to a coral reef that is about 3.5 miles off Key Largo.

"Moments to go," an excited Cousteau said Sunday morning before leaving the dock at Aquarius' land base in Islamorada with his five fellow aquanauts and other crew members. "We're going on an epic mission to live and work under the water for 31 days. Is everyone ready for that?"

Splashdown was a few hours later, beginning the $1.3 million, privately funded expedition that is scheduled to last one day longer than Conshelf II. If all goes according to plan, the aquanauts will surface July 2 after many hours of decompression.

Students and faculty at Florida International University, Northeastern University and MIT will conduct in-depth science and research, but the mission's primary focus is educational outreach to the world.

"Jacques Cousteau inspired me and I was a kid growing up in the cornfields of Ohio," said Mike Heithaus, executive director of the school of environment, arts and society at FIU. "Fabien Cousteau is trying to do the same thing for this generation."

Cousteau said: "We want to inspire kids to get out in the water. Video games are fine, but you know what the real world is just as fascinating if not even crazier than the craziest video games."

In 1963, the underwater world was as mysterious to most people as was outer space. Part of Jacques Cousteau's success was his storytelling ability. "My grandfather could take this little lamp and tell an interesting story about it and explain why it was important," said Fabien Cousteau, 46.

While so much has been learned about the oceans and its creatures and ecosystems in the past half century, Cousteau says these vast blue frontiers still remain mostly unknown.

"At the end of the day, we have explored less than 5 percent of the oceans," Cousteau said. "Our aquatic backyard, because it has been so little explored, still has got so many mysteries left in it."

The more people learn about the amazing creatures and habitats of the oceans, the more people will care and work toward preserving and conserving this vulnerable natural resource that is being destroyed at the hand of man by pollution, overconsumption and global warming, he says.

Another world deep below

When "World Without Sun" debuted a half century ago, there were skeptics who believed some of the jaw-dropping footage collected by Cousteau and his Conshelf II crew must have been fabricated because it was hard to believe.

There was the great scene where oceanaut Andre Falco admits that even after 20 years of diving, "Alone in the sea at night, I'm still afraid. At night you meet strange creatures, shapes, colors and movement, stolen from nightmares. A sea devil flies with curling wings. I found myself alone, staring in fright, at a bush that walks. This tangle of roots and branches is a single animal."

Conshelf II's crew was exploring virgin territory for humans. This is far from the case with Mission 31, which is using a lab that has been anchored at the same location since 1993. Hundreds of divers have explored the area, including U.S. Navy personnel and astronauts training for NASA missions in space.

Still, Fabien Cousteau says he thinks there's a great possibility his expedition will discover something new. "I get goose bumps thinking about it," he said.

His excitement stems from the story he heard about two technicians seeing fire-red worms through the porthole of Aquarius one night. "Thousands and thousands of them were spinning in front of the porthole for as far as the eye could see. We had no idea what they were because they were not caught on camera to be identified," Cousteau said.

And during his recent 10-day aquanaut training at Aquarius, Cousteau said he saw an interesting looking, seven-inch long millipede worm that he had never previously seen.

"Unfortunately I could not really observe it or take pictures of it because I was in the middle of training. But during 31 days, who knows, we might discover a new species on that reef."

The Internet was in its infancy when Jacques Cousteau died in 1997 at age 87. His grandson is taking advantage of today's technology to reach millions in a day, and one way is by bringing VIPs into the habitat who are not necessarily connected directly to the ocean community.

They will include actor Ian Somerhalder of the "Vampire Diaries." "That good-looking guy will be able to bring in people from circles that may or may not be connected to the ocean," Cousteau said.

To follow Cousteau's mission, go to http://fabiencousteau.org/tag/aquarius/.

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