Fabien Cousteau Leads “Aquanauts” in Record-Breaking Undersea Expedition

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Launched on June 1, 2014, Mission 31 is a 31-day, privately funded expedition at Florida International University’s Medina Aquarius Reef Base. The habitat lies 63 feet (19 meters) below the surface in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary [see previous post Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary ].

Fabien Cousteau is leading this team of scientists, educators, and filmmakers this month on the longest-ever expedition in a stationary habitat beneath the sea. The project aims to build awareness about the need to protect the ocean and honors a historic expedition 50 years ago by Cousteau’s famous grandfather, explorer Jacques Cousteau. Cousteau and his colleagues are also making a documentary film about the expedition and its findings. Read excerpts here and access the full article and interview with Cousteau in the National Geographic link below:

The team is studying climate change, ocean acidification, plastics pollution, decline of biodiversity, and predator-prey relationships. [. . .]  Aquarius is the world’s only underwater marine laboratory. It measures 43 by 20 by 16.5 feet (13 by 6 by 5 meters) and weighs approximately 81 tons. It has six bunk beds, hot water, a mini-kitchen, climate control, computers, and wireless Internet.

Fifty years ago, Jacques Cousteau led a 30-day expedition underwater aboard a habitat called Conshelf II in the Red Sea off Sudan. He and his team proved that “saturation diving,” which means living and working at a pressure higher than on the surface, was possible for long periods. Mission 31 is 30 feet (9 meters) deeper than Conshelf II.

National Geographic spoke with Fabien Cousteau, as well as scientists Liz Magee and Grace Young, inside Aquarius via Skype. Magee is a research diver with Northeastern University; Young graduated in May from MIT with a degree in mechanical and ocean engineering, with a specialty in marine robotics.

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What was the impact of Jacques Cousteau’s Conshelf II expedition 50 years ago, and how did it inspire your current mission?

Cousteau: My grandfather was a pioneer in building underwater habitat. He and his team spent 30 days gathering scientific data, on both the ecosystems around their habitat and the physiological effects of working underwater. We are going one day longer than that expedition in a symbolic nod to honor them and to point the way toward future ocean exploration. I grew up with a grandfather who was a visionary, a philosopher, and a wonderful storyteller. He was also very connected with young people. Being the oldest grandchild I got to live 30 years of my life with him. I’ve been on expeditions since a young age and have been immersed in that world. Conshelf II has always been one of those legendary stories I kept in the back of my mind. When Sylvia Earle did her Mission Aquarius [in July 2012] to highlight the importance of ocean habitats, I realized I wanted to live the dream of becoming an aquanaut. And I realized what an amazing platform it is for education.

You are underwater in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and President Obama just announced plans for a huge new marine sanctuary around remote islands in the Pacific. How important are these protected areas?

Cousteau: Being a third-generation explorer, it brings me a lot of hope to see that the U.S. is leading by example. The Obama administration is protecting swaths of ocean that really need protecting. I look forward to seeing it come about and being enforced. We desperately need protected areas around the world so we can rebuild the natural bank account that we all need.

Magee: If more people were exposed to the wonders of the sea, then everyone would be all for protecting it. That’s why part of our mission is exposing people who don’t normally think about the ocean to how vital it is to our livelihoods and our lives.

Young: I find it incredibly frightening that we have the technology to completely destroy the ocean in my lifetime, but marine protected areas are hope spots, as Sylvia Earle calls them.

For full article and interview, see http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/06/140624-fabien-cousteau-aquanauts-aquarius-mission-31-ocean/

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