Undersea mission in Florida Keys concludes

Last modified: Tuesday, July 15, 2014
MIAMI — 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.

Last 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 news 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.