Fabien Cousteau in the Aquarius habitat

Grandson to challenge Costeau's underwater record

Jacques Cousteau’s grandson will attempt to beat his grandfather’s 30-day underwater living record in an underwater laboratory.

Fabien Cousteau plans to spend 31 days living and working in the Aquarius habitat, a cylindrical 13-metre laboratory on a patch of sand near some deep coral reefs about 9 miles south of Key Largo in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

If he succeeds he will beat the 30-day underwater living record set 50 years ago in the Red Sea by his scuba-pioneering grandfather, Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

"We're doing something unprecedented," said the 45-year-old who grew up on the decks of his grandfather's ships, Calypso and Alcyone.

"It's the risk of discovery, it's the curiosity, it's the adventure. It's going beyond that box that we always live in and are comfortable with, to learn something new."

While submerged, Cousteau and his five-person team plan to Skype with school children in classrooms around the world, make a 3D IMAX documentary, measure the effects of underwater living on their own bodies, count the fish and chart the pollution levels in the surrounding waters, experiment with coral-growing techniques and test the newest underwater motorcycles.

"It'll be a packed schedule," said the Paris-born Cousteau, who divides his time between France and New York. "This is a huge endeavour and we definitely need to take advantage as much as possible."

He and his Mission 31 team plan to take the plunge on September 30 and surface on Halloween.

The habitat is owned by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and run by Florida International University and NASA has used it to train astronauts for the isolation and weightlessness of space.

It is the last undersea laboratory still operating, "the best-kept secret in the oceans," Cousteau said, after dozens of others around the world have been mothballed due to high costs.

Aquarius is air-conditioned and has a shower, a bathroom and six bunks, and portholes that give the occupants a 24-hour view of the abundant marine life. The living space is at a depth of 15 to 18 meters, where the atmospheric pressure is roughly 2.5 to three times that at the surface.

Aquarius visitors use a technique known as "saturation diving."

Undersea pressure causes divers' bodies to absorb more nitrogen, oxygen and other inert gases than they would at sea level and when surfacing, they must ascend slowly and stop at regular intervals to allow the extra gases to dissipate, or risk the formation of potentially deadly bubbles in the blood and tissue, known as decompression sickness or "the bends."

But research has shown that once their bodies are saturated with the maximum amount of gas it is possible to absorb at a particular depth, the length of time it takes to safely decompress stays the same no matter how long they stay.

Aquarius residents can dive around outside for six to nine hours a day without decompressing, compared with a limit of about an hour for divers working from the surface, because they stay underwater.

"We get to see things in the way you would if you were immersed like a fish," Cousteau said.

When the mission ends, the pressure inside Aquarius will be slowly lowered until it equals that on the surface, allowing the divers to decompress inside the lab for 24 hours and then swim to the surface.

The previous longest stay at Aquarius was 18 days, and the mission won't be without risk. A diver working outside of Aquarius died in 2009 when his equipment malfunctioned. The adventure could be cut short if a hurricane hits near the Florida Keys.

The divers will live together in very tight quarters, regularly testing their oxygen levels, stress levels, blood pressure and other vital signs to measure the physical and emotional effects.

They'll sleep only five or six hours a night, and disconnect the Wifi for a half day once a week to have a little down-time.

"I'm planning on us making sure we don't get so exhausted, that we don't make silly mistakes which could be very, very costly down there," Cousteau said.

The team hopes to raise about $1.8m, which would cover the $15,000 daily rent for Aquarius plus the cost of the technology, audio-visual production, the daily education program and a mission control team to monitor and assist from the surface. Funding will come from a mix of private donations and corporate sponsorships, Cousteau said.

Throughout the month undersea, Cousteau will keep in touch with the world above in order to make the point that, "Social media connects many of us around the world but the oceans connect us all."

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