Cousteau passes halfway point in the underwater Aquarius lab off Key Largo

June 25, 2014 

Fabien Cousteau sits inside the Aquarius Reef Base, where he is studying reef fish.

MISSION 1

Fabien Cousteau is now well into the second half of his 31-day underwater living experiment off Key Largo.

Cousteau and a team of researchers dove June 1 to the Aquarius Reef Base to study the coral reef. The base is near Conch Reef about 60 feet down. He plans to stay there 32 days.

Officials with Florida International University, which operates Aquarius, say the data collected by the so-called Mission 31 team so far shows how significantly the activity of small fish on the reef is affected by large predators, which could change how those species are managed. The team also is measuring ocean acidification.

Cousteau also has been holding online chats with classrooms worldwide. He has been visited actor Ian Somerhalder, marine biologist Sylvia Earle, artist Wyland and his father, Jean-Michel Cousteau.

Aquarius allows scientists to live and work underwater and scuba dive without needing to return to the surface or decompress.

Following Cousteau's stay, astronauts will become aquanauts twice in Aquarius. NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations training activities are scheduled for July and September.

A nine-day mission starting July 21 will focus on human health and behavior. A seven-day mission starting Sept. 7 will evaluate communications operations for the European Space Agency. Both missions also will experiment with technology that could be used for exploring in varying levels of gravity, from asteroids to Mars and its moons.

Astronauts from NASA, Europe and Japan will participate in the missions.

Cousteau and the astronauts aren't the only researchers planning extended stays in an underwater Key Largo habitat.

Two educators from a college in landlocked Tennessee -- one a 62-year-old Vietnam veteran turned biology professor and the other a 24-year-old adjunct professor -- plan to take a plunge Oct. 4.

If all goes according to plan, Bruce Cantrell and Jessica Fain of Roane State Community College will re-emerge 72 days later from a 600-square-foot underwater habitat that serves as the Jules Undersea Lodge.

That would be a new underwater record. In 1992, Richard Presley set the mark of 69 days, 19 minutes at Jules.

From the habitat, Cantrell will teach an online biology class to his students back at Roane State. And the duo will host a once-a-week live broadcast, available free online, on ocean topics. The feat should be easy considering that in 1995, ocean pioneers Scott Carpenter and Ian Koblick spoke from the habitat to astronaut Mike Gernhardt, who was aboard the space shuttle Endeavour.

This report was supplemented with information from the Miami Herald.

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