Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, July 9, 2014
Cousteau wraps up 'Mission 31' exploration

ISLAMORADA -- Fabien Cousteau didn't miss the sun.

"In order to film a fish, you must become a fish," he said.

The 46-year-old water explorer surfaced last Wednesday morning after spending 31 days at Aquarius Reef Laboratory off Conch Reef, but says he wanted to stay longer.

"I started getting nervous we didn't have enough time," he said of his group's research.

The exploration, dubbed Mission 31, brought Florida Keys ocean life to classrooms around the globe through video chats and other online media.

Cousteau's effort comes 51 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. The elder Cousteau, known for his popular television series and books, spent 30 days underwater.

Fabien Cousteau had plenty of guests while at Aquarius, including marine life artist Wyland, and he was interviewed by multiple national media outlets.

While underwater, the group rarely had time for social hour or games. Cousteau watched his grandfather's Academy Award-winning documentary, "World Without Sun," about the Conshelf Two mission and reviewed the parallels of living underwater. The group also was able to watch a few World Cup matches being streamed online, and Cousteau simulated a bicycle kick while on one of his dives.

Leaving the laboratory was bittersweet for Cousteau.

"Who knew I would be making friends with a goliath grouper? Who knew I would be making friends with a pork fish?" he asked. "It was a bit of a heart tug."

While inside the laboratory, Cousteau held question-and-answer sessions with many children from all backgrounds. The question he was asked that gives the most hope for the future was, "What can I do?"

The mission, though, wasn't just about setting a record. Scientists from Florida International University and Northeastern collected data that will lead to 10 published scientific studies, Cousteau said.

"We looked at human impacts on coral reefs and overfishing," said FIU researcher Adam Shantz, who accompanied Cousteau for the first half of the mission.

Also aboard with Shantz was fellow FIU graduate student Ryan LaPete, who researched nutrient pollution and its impact, which required dives before sunrise, during the day and after sunset.

"I was really impressed by the amount of work we were able to accomplish," Cousteau said.

Grace Young, a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, videoed plankton and manta shrimp using prototype slow-motion technology.

"I want to go back," she said a few hours after surfacing. "I would go back right now."

The sheer amount of information collected will take time to process.

"It's a double-edged sword," Cousteau said. "Now that we have collected so much, it's going to take weeks, months and years to get through."

The mission provided a marketing boost for FIU, which took over management of the NOAA-owned undersea lab last year.

"This was a great launching pad," said Mike Heithaus, interim dean of FIU's College of Arts and Sciences.

FIU was able to capitalize on the international exposure gained by having a well-known figure who attracts press attention.

"Now, some students who didn't want to come to FIU may rethink where they're going," he said.

FIU will continue its outreach with additional missions, including two NASA training trips scheduled for this year.

As for what's next for Cousteau, he says he has projects to get to all over the world. But if there is a Mission 32, he doesn't plan on taking the lead.

However, if there is someone up for the challenge, Cousteau said, "Go for it."

jgore@keysnews.com

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