ISLAMORADA -- Suspenseful orchestra music plays in the background as the disc-shaped underwater vehicle propels through a deep, offshore marine world that few people had ever seen before.
The narrator of the 1964 Academy Award-winning documentary, World Without Sun, states in an ominous voice: “The diving saucer returns from a world where the sun never shines. The saucer is the spearhead of an historic adventure, conceived not only to explore, but to inhabit the seas. The French expedition is led by Jacques-Yves Cousteau.”
Inhabiting the seas never happened. But Cousteau’s pioneering Continental Shelf Station Two — a month-long saturation mission, in a habitat 33 feet deep off the coast of Sudan in the Red Sea in 1963 — proved that humans could live and work under the sea. Its success also made the world’s oceans more exciting and inviting, heralding in a new era of exploration and research.
Now, to honor the 50th anniversary of “Conshelf Two” and continue Cousteau’s later-in-life quest for ocean protection and conservation, the legendary sea explorer’s grandson, Fabien Cousteau, is leading an ambitious saturation project called “Mission 31.”
But unlike his grandfather, who helped create and build Conshelf’s innovative habitat Starfish House, Fabien Cousteau is renting the decades-old Aquarius, the only offshore, underwater laboratory still operating in the world. The school-bus size habitat rests in 63 feet of water, on the sandy bottom next to a coral reef that is about 3.5 miles off the coast of Key Largo in the Atlantic Ocean.
“Moments to go,” an excited Cousteau said Sunday morning before leaving the dock at Aquarius’ land base in Islamorada with his five fellow aquanauts and other crew members. “We’re going on an epic mission to live and work under the water for 31 days. Is everyone ready for that?”
“Splashdown” was a few hours later, beginning the $1.3 million, privately funded expedition that is scheduled to last one day longer than Conshelf II. If all goes according to plan, the aquanauts will surface July 2 after many hours of decompression.
Students and faculty at Florida International University, Northeastern University and MIT will conduct in-depth science and research, but the mission’s primary focus is educational outreach to the world.
“Jacques Cousteau inspired me and I was a kid growing up in the cornfields of Ohio,” said Mike Heithaus, executive director of the school of environment, arts and society at FIU. “Fabien Cousteau is trying to do the same thing for this generation.”
Cousteau said: “We want to inspire kids to get out in the water. Video games are fine, but you know what the real world is just as fascinating if not even crazier than the craziest video games.
In 1963, the underwater world was as mysterious to most people as was outer space. Part of Jacques Cousteau’s success was his storytelling ability. “My grandfather could take this little lamp and tell an interesting story about it and explain why it was important,” said Fabien Cousteau, 46.
While so much has been learned about the oceans and its creatures and ecosystems in the last half century, Cousteau says these vast blue frontiers still remain mostly unknown. That has been evident for anyone who has followed the coverage of missing Malaysian Flight 370, which is believed to have landed somewhere in the remote, unexplored areas of the Indian Ocean.
“At the end of the day, we have explored less than 5 percent of the oceans,” Cousteau said. “Our aquatic backyard, because it has been so little explored, still has got so many mysteries left in it.”
The more people learn about the amazing creatures and habitats of the oceans, the more people will care and work toward preserving and conserving this vulnerable natural resource that is being destroyed at the hand of man by pollution, overconsumption and global warming, he says.
When World Without Sun debuted a half century ago, there were skeptics who believed some of the jaw-dropping footage collected by Cousteau and his Conshelf II crew must have been fabricated because it was hard to believe.
There was the great scene where oceanaut Andre Falco admits that even after 20 years of diving, “Alone in the sea at night, I’m still afraid. At night you meet strange creatures, shapes, colors and movement, stolen from nightmares. A sea devil flies with curling wings. I found myself alone, staring in fright, at a bush that walks. This tangle of roots and branches is a single animal.”
The walking bush looked like it belonged in a bad sci-fi movie. Then there was the hilarious scene of scared scallops in their shells scampering for their lives to avoid being devoured by the carnivorous starfish. Cousteau explains that the scallops have many eyes with which to see the dangerous predator.
Conshelf II’s crew was exploring virgin territory for humans. This is far from the case with Mission 31, which is using a lab that has been anchored at the same location since 1993. Hundreds of divers have explored the area, including Navy personnel and astronauts training for NASA missions in space.
Still, Fabien Cousteau says he thinks there’s a great possibility his expedition will discover something new. “I get goose bumps thinking about it,” he said.
His excitement stems from the story he heard about two technicians seeing fire red worms through the porthole of Aquarius one night. “Thousands and thousands of them were spinning in front of the porthole for as far as the eye could see. We had no idea what they were because they were not caught on camera to be identified,” Cousteau said.
And during his recent 10-day aquanaut training at Aquarius, Cousteau said he personally saw an interesting looking, seven-inch long millipede worm that he had never previously seen. “Unfortunately I could not really observe it or take pictures of it because I was in the middle of training. But during 31 days, who knows, we might discover a new species on that reef.”
The Conshelf II expedition, which included two of the oceanauts living at the more risky depth of 86 feet for a week in another deep cabin habitat, led to a mini underwater building boom. More than 60 underwater habitats from 17 countries would take the plunge, including the U.S. Navys SEALAB, the General Electric-developed Tektite, the U.S. governments Hydrolab and La Chalupa Research Laboratory, developed by ocean explorer and entrepreneur Ian Koblik, who lives in Key Largo.
But the excitement for offshore underwater research habitats died down as the money dried up. Two years ago, Aquarius was in danger of being defunded, too, by its owner, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Cousteau was a VIP guest for renowned oceanographer and marine biologist Sylvia Earle, who led an Aquarius mission to save the habitat.
“The alarm bells went off,” Cousteau said. “It reminded me that Aquarius was a project I wanted to do.”
Once FIU saved the day and took over operations of Aquarius, Cousteau said he was able to put together the mission.
There will be no time for boredom for the aquanauts. Scientific studies will be conducted on the reef regarding response to climate change, pollution and overfishing. They will study biology and physiology of corals and sponges, and investigate how seawater chemistry is influenced by coral reef organisms and nearby ecosystems. Another study researched the importance of large predatory fish to a healthy reef. Studies also will be conducted inside the habitat, dealing with sleep and human physiology and psychology.
Filmmakers will capture footage with new high-tech cameras and devices, including one that uses sonar that can be converted to video. This makes it possible to capture footage of sea creatures at night without using lights that may alter behavior.
Cousteau, who learned to scuba dive when he was 4 and spent a lot of time with his grandfather on his famed boat Calypso, will lead the 24/7 educational outreach that is available to anyone in the world who has access to the Internet and social media. He will Skype to classrooms around the world, museums and modern day explorer Sir Richard Branson. There also is hope of a Skype session with the White House.
Cousteau wrote in his book that Conshelf II was a comfortable place to live, with carpeting that was pleasant for bare feet, foam mattresses for sleeping, “hot, but not too hot” air conditioning, fresh water showers and a daily six-minute bath of ultra-violet rays, which the surgeon has prescribed to make up for the absence of direct sunlight in the undersea home.
The men even smoked cigarettes and cigars in it, as well as drank wine. A parrot was brought down, presumably as an early warning if conditions began failing for human life. Fabien Cousteau said one of the things he’ll miss most for the next 31 days is his dog and wine.
“Jacques Cousteau also had a rule of no visitors,” said Amy Summers, who has led the massive public relations component of the mission. “He wrote in his book it upset the rhythm of their lives.”
That will not be the case of his grandson. “He’s going to have people shuffling in and out almost every single day,” she said.
The Internet was in its infancy when Jacques Cousteau died in 1997, at age 87. His grandson is taking advantage of today’s technology to reach millions in a day, and one way is by bringing VIPs into the habitat who are not necessarily connected directly to the ocean community. They will include actor Ian Somerhalder of the Vampire Diaries. “That good-looking guy will be able to bring in people from circles that may or may not be connected to the ocean,” Cousteau said.
For all that Jacques Cousteau did to lead Conshelf II, he was too busy directing the operation topside from Calypso to be an oceanaut.
But during the mission his wife, Simone, became the first female oceanaut after getting fed up with life on Calypso. Cousteau wrote his wife “had been slaving as matre ’d hotel, nurse, ambassadress to the Sudan, and confidant for 50 men. With a look in her eye that said argument-will-get-you-nowhere, she announced: ‘I am going down to Starfish House.’ “
The men evacuated one dormitory wing for her, and the next morning she had a professor order the divers from the Calypso to bring her toiletries in the pressure cooker. She would remain there for the rest of the mission.
“In the first 12 hours she received the maximum saturation of nitrogen, which placed her on the same decompression status as the men, and whatever may have been my view of her transfer, she would only be brought up when they came up,” Cousteau wrote.
The Cousteau family has learned to expect the unexpected. During Mission 31, Fabien Cousteau says he would be happy to have an uninvited guest: Katharine, the great white shark that has recently been tracked up and down the East Coast of Florida, including in the Keys.
“To see a white shark in the tropical waters off the Florida Keys would be really unique and pretty neat, especially with Aquarius in the background,” he said. “We are so blessed to be here.”