Fabien Cousteau’s undersea mission in Florida Keys concludes with significant accomplishments

07/05/2014 12:00 AM

07/06/2014 11:23 AM

Outside the view port of the underwater habitat Aquarius, during the Fabien Cousteau-led Mission 31, a Goliath Grouper nicknamed Sylvia attacked a barracuda while a reef shark and aquanauts watched in delight.

“Oh, did you see that?” one of the aquanauts said with the excitement of a kid opening a Christmas present. “Oh, wow. Did you get it?”

Yes, underwater videographer Kip Evans did indeed capture this fascinating snippet of the marine world on video for anyone with Internet access to be able to see.

That 1-minute, 3-second video starring Sylvia the Goliath Grouper, named after renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle, was as important to the main purpose of Mission 31 as was all the research conducted and data collected that likely will lead to at least 10 scientific papers on issues vital to the health of the coral reef and the marine ecosystem.

For Cousteau, the main goal of the more than $1 million mission always has been this: “To reach as many people around the world for 31 days as possible to empower and impassion future generations to care about the oceans, to cherish them, to be curious about them in a way that was during my grandfather’s era.”

His grandfather was the legendary ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who 51 years ago led a pioneering underwater expedition called Continental Shelf Station II. On that mission, aquanauts lived in an underwater habit 33 feet deep off the coast of Sudan in the Red Sea for 30 days.

Cousteau admitted he symbolically picked 31 days to break his grandfather’s record by one day only as a way of attracting media attention and sponsorships. He said this mission never was really about a record — Jacques-Yves Cousteau didn’t even live under the sea during that mission (he coordinated it from the topside support on his famed boat Calypso). And the all-time underwater record is 69 days and 19 minutes set in 1992 by Richard Presley, who lived in an underwater habitat in a lagoon in Key Largo.

This mission, Cousteau said, was always about getting people to care about the oceans so they will want to help protect them from overfishing, pollution, climate change and other things humans are throwing at them.

Wednesday afternoon, just hours after “splashing up” from the school-bus size Aquarius where he lived 31 days in the habitat 65 feet below the surface and about 3.5 miles offshore of Key Largo on Conch Reef, Cousteau proclaimed in a press conference that the mission was a big success.

“The goal was symbolically to reach about 331 million people around the world,” he said. “We hit six continents and we’re waiting for the matrix, but I believe we are way beyond that. We were using tools [his grandfather] only dreamed of but were just not in existence when he passed away” in 1997.

The younger Cousteau reached the masses with the help of modern technology, social media, VIP visits from celebrities including actors Ian Somerhalder and Adrian Grenier, an underwater painting session with marine artist Wyland and an animated short from Jim Toomey (the creator of the syndicated comic strip Sherman’s Lagoon).

Earle, known as “Her Deepness,” also made a trip to the habitat, as well as Cousteau’s father, Jean-Michel Cousteau, former U.S. astronaut Clay Anderson, renowned underwater photographer Stephen Frink and Dr. Ray Johnson, senior vice president of Lockheed Martin. During the Conshelf II mission, there were no guests allowed.

Fabien Cousteau said before the mission started June 1 that he was excited to have people participate, like Somerhalder, who had roles in the TV dramas Lost and the Vampire Diaries, because it would help him reach a broader and younger audience. And it worked. Of the 30-plus videos produced and posted on YouTube during the mission, the one featuring Somerhald has received the most views: nearly 130,000. The next most watched video so far has received 13,000-plus views, and that was the “shark watches grouper attack barracuda” video.

But Cousteau and his crew also did their part, participating in 70 Skype in the Classroom sessions, connecting with students in the United States, Canada, England and Luxembourg in one week. And he became a regular on Google+ Hangouts, participating with Sir Richard Branson, The Weather Channel, WLRN and the U.S. White House “We the Geek” series — created to share the future of science, technology and innovation in the country.

Cousteau also spent a lot of time in the water, helping with the many science projects led by Florida International University, which operates Aquarius, and Northeastern University.

During the first half, FIU graduate student Adam Zenone and FIU Ph.D. candidate Andy Shantz worked on a project to study the relationship between predators, which are dwindling in numbers due to overfishing, and their mostly herbivore prey. This relationship affects the health of coral, the main building blocks of the reef.

To do so, they set up four stations with delicious sea grass for the herbivore prey such as parrotfish and damsel fish that eat the algae off the coral. If algae takes over, corals can die or be more susceptible to disease. In two of the stations, Zenone said, they added “decoy” groupers. They looked so real that when they hung them at Aquarius during a trial in November, people watching a live video of the wet porch “freaked out” that all the grouper were being killed.

They set up GoPro cameras to visually monitor the stations, as well as deploying hydro-acoustic imaging sonars to measure how closely prey approached the sea grass and the size of the prey. This type of sonar allows them to get behavioral information at night without the use of lights, which could alter behavior of the animals.

The FIU duo believes that the lack of predators may mean that the herbivores are willing to venture farther away from the reef to find the most nutritious food. “If a predator is around, they might not risk it and just eat what is at the base of the coral, where there is protection from the predators,” Shantz said.

“It’s like the wolves in Yellowstone and how they shaped the riverbanks,” Zenone added. “Landscapes of fear are created. We set out to study that.”

Now they have about 12 terrabytes of information to analyze which, with the help of graduate students, could still take a year or more.

During the second half, Northeastern University worked on several science projects and the aquanauts collected DNA from 12 species of sponges to send to the Ocean Genome Legacy, a nonprofit with a mission to explore, preserve and protect the genetic biodiversity of the oceans.

And aquanaut Grace Young, who just graduated from MIT, used the pioneering Edgertronic high-speed video camera for the first time under water to capture never-before-seen slow-motion images of a manta shrimp eating a goby and a Christmas tree worm retreating into its shell.

“We were shooting at like 2,000 frames per second, so it was really special what we could see,” Young said.

In footage of corals trying to eat plankton as it flowed by, Young said she found herself “rooting for the plankton.”

During the 16 hours of decompression, Cousteau and the other aquanauts watched his grandfather’s Oscar-winning documentary, A World Without Sun, which was made from that groundbreaking Conshelf II mission.

“I hadn’t seen it in many, many years,” he said. “But I see a lot of things that we did that were very similar that he had done 50 years ago.”

But he also saw plenty of new things that his grandfather would surely have marveled at. He, too, hopes to put all the footage collected into a documentary. Now, he just needs to find the money to produce it. Some things never change.

WATCH: Fabien Cousteau chats with WLRN and the Herald's Cammy Clark about scientific missions via Google Hangout

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