Fabien Cousteau tries to beat grandfather’s undersea record

Fabien Cousteau, the grandson of famed French oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, sits in the Aquarius undersea marine habitat and lab. Credit: Reuters
Fabien Cousteau, the grandson of famed French oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, sits in the Aquarius undersea marine habitat and lab.
Credit: Reuters

Third-generation oceanographer Fabien Cousteau will attempt to spend a record 31 days living and working underwater in a bus-sized laboratory submerged in the warm, turquoise Atlantic off the Florida Keys.

If he succeeds, he will beat the 30-day underwater living record set 50 years ago in the Red Sea by his scuba-pioneering grandfather, Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

“We’re doing something unprecedented,” said the 45-year-old who grew up on the decks of his grandfather’s ships, Calypso and Alcyone. “It’s the risk of discovery, it’s the curiosity, it’s the adventure. It’s going beyond that box that we always live in and are comfortable with, to learn something new.”

While submerged, Cousteau and his five-person team plan to Skype with schoolchildren in classrooms around the world, make a 3D Imax documentary, measure the effects of underwater living on their own bodies, count the fish and chart the pollution levels in the surrounding waters, experiment with coral-growing techniques and test the newest underwater motorcycles.

“It’ll be a packed schedule,” said the Paris-born Cousteau, who divides his time between France and New York. “This is a huge endeavor and we definitely need to take advantage as much as possible.”

He and his Mission 31 team plan to take the plunge on Sept. 30 and surface on Halloween at the Aquarius habitat in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The cylindrical 43-foot (13-meter) laboratory sits on a patch of sand near some deep coral reefs about 9 miles south of Key Largo.

It is owned by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and run by Florida International University. NASA has used it to train astronauts for the isolation and weightlessness of space.

Like a fish

Aquarius is the last undersea laboratory still operating, “the best-kept secret in the oceans,” Cousteau said. Dozens of others around the world have been mothballed due to high costs.

Aquarius is air-conditioned and has a shower, a bathroom and six bunks, and portholes that give the occupants a 24-hour view of the abundant marine life. The living space is at a depth of 50 to 60 feet, where the atmospheric pressure is roughly 2.5 to three times that at the surface.

Aquarius visitors use a technique known as “saturation diving.”

Undersea pressure causes divers’ bodies to absorb more nitrogen, oxygen and other inert gases than they would at sea level. When surfacing, they must ascend slowly and stop at regular intervals to allow the extra gases to dissipate, or risk the formation of potentially deadly bubbles in the blood and tissue, known as decompression sickness or “the bends.” If you’ll remember, Radiohead titled their second album, “The Bends.”

But research has shown that once their bodies are saturated with the maximum amount of gas it is possible to absorb at a particular depth, the length of time it takes to safely decompress stays the same no matter how long they stay.

Aquarius residents can dive around outside for six to nine hours a day without decompressing, compared with a limit of about an hour for divers working from the surface, because they stay underwater.

“We get to see things in the way you would if you were immersed like a fish,” Cousteau said.

When the mission ends, the pressure inside Aquarius will be slowly lowered until it equals that on the surface, allowing the divers to decompress inside the lab for 24 hours and then swim to the surface.

VIP visitors

Cousteau’s grandfather, who died in 1997, first demonstrated that saturation diving could be done safely when he spent 30 days in an underwater habitat in the Red Sea off Sudan in 1963, an adventure chronicled in the Academy Award-winning documentary film “World Without Sun.”

“We’re going one day longer to make the point,” Fabien Cousteau said. “We’re doing it twice as deep and we’re going farther in terms of our ocean walks.”

The explorers will use underwater motorcycles that glide above the sea floor like hovercraft to get around efficiently while collecting data and “taking the pulse of our oceans,” Cousteau said.

Celebrity supporters are scheduled to drop by to bring attention to ocean conservation and science education.

On the VIP list are Richard Branson, the British magnate who runs a space tourism company; Sylvia Earle, the ocean explorer and former NOAA chief scientist known as “Her Deepness;” and tentatively Black Eyed Peas singer will.i.am, whose i.am.angel foundation is training a dozen young first-time divers for a visit to the lab.

“This is going to be a mind-blowing experience for them, which is really cool,” Cousteau said.

The Mission 31 team plans live broadcasts through Skype education, which allows teachers to arrange free group video calls to their classrooms. They’ll check in periodically on the Weather Channel and hope to arrange a chat with astronauts living aboard the International Space Station.

“We’re going to be reaching all seven continents and outer space,” Cousteau said.

Tight quarters

The previous longest stay at Aquarius was 18 days, and the mission won’t be without risk. A diver working outside of Aquarius died in 2009 when his equipment malfunctioned. The adventure could be cut short if a hurricane hits near the Florida Keys.

The divers will live together in very tight quarters, regularly testing their oxygen levels, stress levels, blood pressure and other vital signs to measure the physical and emotional effects.

They’ll sleep only five or six hours a night, and disconnect the Wi-Fi for a half day once a week to have a little down-time.

“I’m planning on us making sure we don’t get so exhausted, that we don’t make silly mistakes which could be very, very costly down there,” Cousteau said.

The team hopes to raise about $1.8 million, which would cover the $15,000 daily rent for Aquarius plus the cost of the technology, audio-visual production, the daily education program, and a mission control team to monitor and assist from the surface. Funding will come from a mix of private donations and corporate sponsorships, Cousteau said.

Swiss watchmaker Doxa is offering a limited-edition titanium-cased Mission 31 dive watch for $2,890, with a quarter of the proceeds going to support the endeavor.

Throughout the month undersea, Cousteau will keep in touch with the world above in order to make the point that “social media connects many of us around the world, but the oceans connect us all.”



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
International

Egypt calls for Gaza ceasefire as fighting rages

Egypt called on Israel and the Palestinians on Saturday to halt fire and resume peace talks, but violence continued unabated.

National

SpaceX rocket terminated in Texas test flight

A Space Exploration Technologies’ Falcon 9 rocket suffered an anomaly shortly after launch on a test flight, triggering its automatic termination system.

Local

MAP: New York City Street Closures August 22,…

The Percy Sutton Harlem 5K and NYC Family Health Walk-a-thon and Pakistan Day Parade and Fair will cause traffic delays and street closures in New York City this weekend. Plan…

International

U.N. nuclear inquiry on Iran seen making slow…

The U.N. nuclear watchdog appears to have made only limited progress so far in getting Iran to answer questions about its suspected atomic bomb research, diplomatic sources said on Friday,…

Television

Recap: 'The Knick,' Season 1, Episode 3, 'The…

The third episode of Steven Soderbergh's "The Knick" finds Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) meeting an old flame and other characters embracing self-destruction.

Music

Webcast: Watch Polyphonic Spree live on Sunday Aug.…

Polyphonic Spree singer Tim DeLaughter sits with Metro Music Editor Pat Healy for a chat and then the big band performs live. It begins on Sunday at 9:30 pm

Movies

Matthew Weiner on directing 'Are You Here' and…

"Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner discusses his movie "Are You Here," his history writing comedy and the tiny movie he directed in 1996 you can't see.

Movies

Michael Chiklis on his football past and 'When…

Michael Chiklis remembers playing football in high school and how that prepped him to play a coach in "When the Game Stands Tall."

NFL

3 things we learned about the Giants in…

The Giants claimed the Snoopy trophy in a battle of MetLife Stadium tenants Friday night. But more importantly, the offense finally showed some life in…

NFL

3 things we learned about the Jets in…

The Jets lost the Snoopy Bowl, 35-24, to the Giants, losing the trophy and local bragging rights.

NFL

Fantasy football draft guide: How to draft your…

Many are wondering if we’re entering a new age in fantasy football drafting — one where running backs take a backseat.

NFL

Jets vs. Giants: 3 Giants storylines to watch

The Giants have plenty to work on as they reach the dress rehearsal preseason game Friday night against the rival Jets.

Wellbeing

Asics is giving away free gear around NYC…

Asics wants to see you on the court - and in the stands for the U.S. Open, which begins Monday - by giving away free…

Sex

Big weddings may lead to long-term happiness

Dreaming of a big wedding? A new study indicates that the longer your guest list, the happier you’ll be in the long run. l A…

Sex

Online dating for every generation

Frank Jackson and his mother Maggie are like lots of modern families: They have dinner together regularly, keep each other updated on their lives —…

Wellbeing

Going green could be the key to getting…

If we could just pursue the things that would actually make us happy, we could help the environment too, according to a New York researcher.…