On the 50th anniversary of ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau's 30-day undersea stint in a lab below the Red Sea, his grandson, aquanaut Fabien Cousteau, decided to honor his journey. Cousteau the younger recently spent 31 days inside the Aquarius Reef Base, currently the only underwater marine habitat and lab on the planet.
While living at the underwater base at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Cousteau conducted a number of scientific studies with a rotating team of aquanauts. The group looked at ocean acidification, pollution, fish behavior, and even the impact of sleep on humans living underwater.
"Basically, what we were able to achieve in 31 days is collecting over three years worth of data because we were living and working at the bottom of the sea. That gave us the luxury of time to collect that data," he says. "Scientists were overwhelmed and elated by the amount of data and DNA samples we were able to collect." Northeastern University and Florida International University—which both dispatched researchers to join Cousteau in the schoolbus-sized undersea lab—expect to generate at least 10 scientific papers from the journey.
In addition to researchers, an array of other guests visited the Mission 31 crew. NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson was one of them. This wasn't Anderson's first time to Aquarius; he visited over a decade ago training for a space mission. NASA sends astronauts to the base because the deep sea mimics the effects of weightlessness and isolation that astronauts experience—and Aquarius has tight living quarters, just like what astronauts deal with on missions into space.
Throughout the journey, Cousteau and his fellow aquanauts kept in touch with the world above water, through Google Hangouts, Skype sessions with classrooms across the planet, daily video updates, and a blog on the Mission 31 site. The video updates were short and educational, like this one:
For Cousteau, getting the public interested in ocean conservation was a major goal of the trip. "For the first time, we were able to invite the world in live during the 31 days on a Cousteau expedition. The fact that you could see the curiosity in kids, and in even in older adults, was a huge reward for me personally because I believe we sparked something that hadn’t happened to the ocean since my grandfather’s era," he says.
There were some hiccups along the way. The thickness of the air underwater—density of the air in Aquarius is three times what we breathe on land—took some getting used to. The aquanauts lost their sense of taste. And on the tech side, things didn't always behave as they should. Rechargeable equipment, for example, would appear to be charged, only to have no charge at all.
But the Wi-Fi, cabled down from a buoy floating atop the sea, worked well, and the sea creatures surrounding Aquarius quickly became accustomed to their new human companions. "Goliath Groupers started resting and relaxing when we were around instead of swimming away," Cousteau recalls. "One allowed me to get within six inches of its snout. This animal is six feet long and about 600 pounds."
Next, Mission 31 plans to fundraise for a documentary on the journey, to be released next year. There will also be a traveling exhibit, for those who missed Mission 31 the first time around.