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An Interview with a Guy Who Lived Underwater for 31 Days for Science

Fabien Cousteau lived underwater for a month and built a robot shark to swim around in.

by Georgia Rose
Dec 19 2014, 8:30pm

Fabien Cousteau in Aquarius. Photo by Kip Evans

We all watched The Little Mermaid as kids and prayed that one day we'd sprout a tail and fins so we could join the magical world at the bottom of the ocean. In reality, for a human, spending extended periods of time at the bottom of the ocean means living in a claustrophobic pressurized box, chowing down on some freeze-dried food, and trying to stave off infection because of all the moisture in the air.

In June this year, as part of his project Mission 31, Fabien Cousteau and his team of six went to live in an undersea laboratory called Aquarius for 31 days, breaking a world record. Aquarius is the world's only underwater marine laboratory. It's located nine miles off the coast of the Florida Keys, and 63 feet beneath the sea.

Living underwater allowed the team to squeeze three years' worth of science into just over a month. The project illuminated some amazing new revelations about life underwater, soon to be published in a series of 12 scientific papers. Fabien thinks the ocean may hold the answers we've been looking for—cures for diseases like cancer and Ebola, and a whole realm of different species and resources we've never even imagined.

The ocean runs in Fabien's blood. His grandfather was the famous scientific explorer Jacques Cousteau, and Fabien believes that one day humans may be able to spend long periods of time comfortably living at the bottom of the sea. I called him up for a chat about his underwater adventures.

VICE: Your first scuba dive was when you were just four years old. Your grandfather strapped a custom-made scuba tank to your back and sent you off into the Mediterranean. That's pretty crazy.
Fabien Cousteau: Not as a four-year-old. It felt quite natural, actually. We feel it's crazy when we're older, but when you're a child you haven't learned fear yet. It all started one day before my fourth birthday. My parents' friend was sitting at the bottom of the pool with a scuba tank, reading the newspaper—we have some crazy family friends. I was curious as to what he was doing, so I put on a mask and my little fin and went down to the bottom of the pool, just breath-holding. He gave me his regulator and we started buddy-breathing. We sat down there for 20 minutes practicing [breathing techniques], and it just felt normal.

It caught my parents' attention, and so a week later off we went to Catalina Island, where I went scuba-diving in the ocean for the first time. It was on my fourth birthday. That was really how it started—it started very organically.

Fabien getting into Troy. Photo courtesy of Fabien Cousteau

Let's talk about your project before Mission 31. Can you tell us a little bit about Troy, the shark-shaped submarine?
I remembered that a childhood comic book series that I loved, Tintin, had this brilliant idea: to disguise oneself as a shark. So I thought why not bring my childhood fantasy to life? Also, on a scientific and observation level I thought, How cool is that?—to be able to camouflage oneself and quite literally mingle with the planet's most feared creature and see what they do when we're not around.

How did you make it?
I wanted the submarine to be flexible because I wanted to be able to swim like a fish, which, technologically and engineering-wise, is a difficult thing to mimic. Second, it had to be stealthy. It had to look exactly like a shark and move like a shark, and it had to be camouflaged in a way that other sharks would potentially see as one of them. We ended up using materials that aren't built for submarines. Lexan is a kind of plastic bulletproof resistant substance that is flexible enough that we could build a spine out of it, and then we used stainless steel ribs for shape and protection and then finally a sheath around it that was made of Inflex, which is a material that people use for prosthetic limbs to mimic skin. I spent three and a half years and four months on site diving every single day with the submarine.

A young Fabien and his grandfather, Jacques Costeau. Photo by Anne-Marie Cousteau

You had a couple of hairy moments, right?
It was more than a couple. One of the most difficult scenarios happened at night. I wanted to see what sharks did late at night when we aren't around. I went out in the submarine and had—in theory—connections to the surface, to my team. The reality was that it didn't work so well, so not only did I lose contact with my team, but I lost it at the worst possible moment: during feeding time in a shark-feeding zone a mile away from the ship. And then the submarine's propulsion went out. I was alone in the dark at about 80 feet below the surface and 200 miles from shore. I had two choices: to either anchor the submarine and get out—mind you, this is a wet sub, so I'm in scuba gear, in a re-breather—and scuba dive, or swim to an island, probably about 200 yards away, or float it to the surface and hope that I wouldn't get swept away into the Pacific forever.

None of the options was really all that great, but the first was probably the better one, so that's what I chose to do. I anchored the submarine to the bottom and swum along the bottom of the ocean to the island. That was probably the least confident I had ever been scuba-diving. As I was swimming, trying to get to shore as quickly as possible without raising any alarm bells to the predators at large, I came nose to nose with a giant bull elephant seal—there was only about ten feet of visibility in the murky water. It was a very scary moment. These animals are huge, probably several thousand pounds. He and I spooked the hell out of each other. That was probably a moment we are both going to remember for the rest of our lives.

Aquarius. Photo by Kip Evans

Let's get on to Mission 31. What were the main physical effects and challenges of living underwater for so long?
When you first get into the habitat, which is the only one of its kind in the world, you notice that the air is thicker, heavier to breathe. We were at three atmospheres of pressure, so the air is kind of syrupy. You're in a small enclosed environment, something about the size of a school bus, about 43 feet long and nine feet wide, and it's packed full of equipment, so the hallways are about two feet wide. And you're there with six people for 31 days. Between the psychological effects of the small environment and the physical effects of the air, it's not a place you would want to be claustrophobic in.

The pressure at that depth does play with your senses. You lose your sense of smell and taste. You still feel pressure waves from the surface, so when there's a big storm it's almost like a plunger, because a habitat, as opposed to a submarine, is open to the environment. Imagine a submarine is like an airplane: it's one atmosphere of pressure; no matter what depth you're at, you're in a capsule, segregated from the environment. The whole point of being in a habitat is that you're immersed in the environment, and to be able to do that you have to create an atmospheric pressure inside the habitat that is the same as the atmospheric pressure outside. Meaning that anything outside, for example swells or a storm or what have you, you're going to feel at the bottom of the ocean.

What are the benefits of a habitat opposed to a submarine?
It meant that any time we wanted to commute to work we just had to don our scuba gear and walk down the stairs into the water and swim off. The most valuable asset is the luxury of time. As a saturated diver [your body has already taken on the different pressures and you're at total equilibrium with the bottom] we can go off to our jobs in our aquatic backyard for as long as we want. I could go out and dive for 12 hours if I wanted to, which isn't feasible from the surface.

That's really the point of Mission 31, being able to go longer, deeper, and farther. We did three and half years of science in 31 days. We also had modern technology, which allowed us to communicate in real time through Skype from the bottom of the ocean directly into the classroom. In fact I had better Wi-Fi at the bottom of the ocean than I do in New York City. We were able to reach more than 70,000 students on all six continents. We even talked to a scientist in Antarctica at one point.

At the moment Aquarius is the only underwater marine habitat and lab in the world. In the future could we colonize the ocean floor? Could people live for long stretches, or even permanently, at the bottom of the sea?
That was my grandfather's dream. Could we build the real life Atlantis? Could we do a network of those? I, for one, believe that we can, technologically speaking. Physiologically, we can certainly spend an extended amount of time underwater, but the challenges aren't dissimilar to space travel and exploration: missing family and friends and being in an environment that our species isn't familiar with.

Something I haven't mentioned before is the problem of infection underwater. Because of the humidity and atmospheric pressures, infection does tend to run rampant and is faster-acting on our bodies, so we have to keep them in check. With that in mind, provided that those challenges are taken into consideration and dealt with, I do think that we could—not indefinitely, but for extended periods of time—live under water. That could be for six months or even a year, maybe more.

Without letting the cat out the bag, I'm actually working with a couple of universities to envision and maybe even build the first underwater city or village. Aquarius is old. It's a legacy and it's a dinosaur because it's the only one of its time. What I envision the next underwater habitat to be is something akin to a self-sustaining village. An underwater platform where you have vehicles, where you grow your own food, where you harvest your own energy at the bottom of the sea.

Could you have underwater bars?
Well, exactly. Joking aside, you're actually right. It's important to create something that we're familiar with, because the more familiar we are with our surroundings, the more comfortable we are and the longer we could stay there.

What did you miss the most?
My dog and the wine. I think that being French might have had something to do with it, but also food. It is nice to have fresh food again. Morning noon and night we were eating freeze-dried foods. Because of the partial pressures of oxygen, cooking with open flame was not an option. The only way we could feed ourselves was through hot water or the microwave.

Could people grow fresh food under the sea?
Oh, certainly. Aquaponics for one. Growing vegetables in a no-earth atmosphere, where they grow just simply from having their roots suspended in a water solution. You can grow lettuce... you can grow all sorts of vegetables.

And ceviche?
Well, yeah, if done sustainably, there is a possibility to harvest local animals and sea life, absolutely.

Scientific testing and research. Photo by Kip Evans

What did you discover that you didn't know before? Did you add to our knowledge about the ocean?
Absolutely. There are going to be 12 new science papers based on climate-related issues. I can't divulge any information as the papers haven't come out yet. I wish I could, but my scientists would be very upset with me so I have to say stay tuned, unfortunately. But we can promise some exciting revelations to come: some things that no one has ever seen, thought of, or understood until now—whether it be from the dynamics of the cold water upwellings, to the depletion of predators, to pollution issues that have infiltrated certain animals in the coral reefs that we depend on for food. There are some very profound repercussions we've discovered that we've never known before. It's very exciting.

The underwater world represents over 99 percent of the planet's living space, where 93 percent of biodiversity lives. We have explored less than 5 percent of it. What else could there be out there?
Oh my gosh. New resources, new cures for diseases that we're facing including Ebola or cancer, new species... the list goes on and on. Just imagine what we dream of when we look into space exploration, the kinds of things that we are expecting to be discovered. I would that say that, in the short term anyway, the ocean will offer more than that. It's mind blowing. I think there are discoveries for the next several generations out there.

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