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Wednesday, June 19, 2013
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Cousteau seeks to break grandfather's record

KEY LARGO -- Tides appear to be turning for an underwater laboratory off Key Largo that was almost shuttered last year.

Filmmaker and oceanographic explorer Fabien Cousteau announced last week he will undertake a multimillion-dollar venture this fall -- dubbed "Mission 31" -- to spend 31 days at NOAA's Aquarius Reef Base.

Cousteau's effort comes 50 years after his grandfather, the late world-renown undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, spent 30 days in Conshelf Two on the floor of the Red Sea off Sudan.

Researchers using Aquarius have rarely spent more than two weeks underwater.

Before Florida International University took over operation of Aquarius in January, effectively forestalling its closure, the world's only undersea research station was run by the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, which abandoned it due to budget cuts.

The base, located near Conch Reef about 6 miles offshore, is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and has a life expectancy of about 10 to 15 more years.

The cost to use the Aquarius for Cousteau's mission, which is slated to begin Oct. 1, is about $10,000 per day plus another $70,000 for topside operations. As for Cousteau's other expenses, including his filmmaking and personal crew, the tab will likely be triple what he is paying FIU.

For the university and Aquarius, Cousteau's venture should garner world-wide publicity and, with that, the prospects of more financial support to keep the base operating.

Cousteau plans to have an IMAX movie of his mission ready for the big screen by the end of 2014. Along with Cousteau, cinematographer D.J. Roller will spend the full 31 days in the school bus-size laboratory. Four other scientists and engineers will rotate through during the month.

"We need our engineers to be at the top of their game," Cousteau said of the rotation.

During their stay, Cousteau and his crew will conduct climate change science, undergo physiological and psychological testing and perform technology-based experiments with underwater motorcycles, robots and high-tech diving helmets

Plans to stream the misssion online are underway. Cousteau is also arranging to speak with astronauts in the International Space Station while he is underwater.

"We will compare and discuss our surroundings," he said.

Many of NASA's astronauts have trained at Aquarius because its conditions simulate the zero gravity of outer space.

The mission will give Cousteau's crew a chance to become aquanauts, a name given to divers who spend more than 24 hours at depth. The crew must perform saturation diving to prepare for the Oct. 1 splashdown.

"We have a lot of work to do," Cousteau said, regarding the three and half months left before the project begins. "This is a costly endeavor."

To spend a month at a depth of over 60 feet underwater, Cousteau will have to push his mental stamina to the limit. Spending six to nine hours in the water every day will likely help with that, he said.

Chess and playing cards are among the games the group will take with them to help exercise their minds.

"We hope we can turn the cameras off for a little while, but we have a job to do," he said.

During Mission 31, Jim Fourqurean, the FIU professor overseeing the Aquarius project, and a team of scientists will be at Aquarius' new topside headquarters at mile marker 85, bayside, along Snake Creek, where five boats and a trailer-sized decompression chamber are based.

FIU currently has a one-year $120,000 lease on the property and has spent $50,000 on improvements there. The facility is not expected to be operational until late next month. Before Cousteau's October trip, Fourqurean said one unrelated mission to Aquarius will take place. Details on that trip have not been finalized by FIU.

All projects at the laboratory must be education- and researched-based, Fourqurean said.

Cousteau says the significance of his grandfather's Conshelf Two mission five decades ago is not fully understood by many outside the dive community. During the 1963 exploration, the elder Cousteau, among other achievements, became one of the first divers to breathe helium-enriched oxygen instead of the normal nitrogen and oxygen mixture.

"He was a pioneer," Cousteau said of his grandfather, who died in 1997. "He would've loved that we can take people on a mission in real time and share it with the world."

Like his famous grandfather's feat, Cousteau says 31 days under the sea could be a record that endures.

"This isn't something that's going to be done again for a long, long time," he said.

Cousteau said he wishes his grandfather were alive to witness Mission 31.

"He would have enjoyed this," he said.

jgore@keysnews.com

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