The Ocean Explorer who Lived 31 Days under water
What Fabien Cousteau
Fabien Cousteau is the new ambassador for Seiko Prospex. Fabien, a third-generation ocean explorer, started diving at a very young age. In 2014, he led the record-breaking research project Mission 31 during which Fabien and his team lived in an underwater habitat for 31 consecutive days.
What is the drive behind his unique and apparently daring projects? We talked with Fabien to find out.
Throughout history, the people who changed the world have been those who think outside the box and take action. Choosing to live for 31 days underwater is exactly the kind of thing which has earned Fabien the reputation for being an unconventional figure.
“Well, people question my mental condition for doing Mission 31,” he says with a laugh, “but in all seriousness, I think it takes a certain type of person to want to go into an extreme environment.”
Fabien was born in Paris, France in 1967. His grandfather is Jacques-Yves Cousteau, a renowned marine scientist and pioneer in ocean exploration, and his father is the marine explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau. Since diving for the first time on his fourth birthday, the fascination of the ocean—a treasure trove of mysteries and adventure—has never left him.
“I'm a child at heart. I have an insatiable curiosity,” Fabien says.
“Planet Earth's last frontier: it's the ocean. We’ve explored less than 5% of our ocean world to date in any capacity. So we have a lot left to discover, whether it's architeuthis, the giant squid, or some other creature, or some other phenomena underwater, or resources, or just the very underpinnings of what makes human beings possible. So for me, it's very exciting to have a mysterious place: an alien environment right here at our fingertips.”
“The ocean is
planet earth's last frontier”
The roles of an ocean explorer are to explore the Earth’s frontiers and to help deepen mankind’s understanding of the ocean. Fabien works on numerous projects that go beyond usual tasks for a researcher, from going on expeditions in various parts of the ocean, to raising awareness and educating communities around the world. Such activities have sometimes earned him the label of a maverick, which he takes in his stride, regarding it as a compliment and fueling his desire to take on unprecedented challenges.
A prime example of such “rule-breaking” activities is Mission 31. In this project, Fabien lived for 31 days in the world’s only undersea marine laboratory, located on the ocean floor 20 meters below the surface: a facility the size of a small school bus. It was virtually impossible to return to the surface during the project. Up until then, the longest mission that took place there had been for 17 days. It was an opportunity to set a new record by a huge margin, and also to surpass his grandfather’s record of living underwater for 30 days.
“It was an opportunity to test and see if the general public still wanted to hear about ocean exploration. It was an opportunity to honor my grandfather, who built the first underwater habitats,” he recalls. “I think breaking the record was the least important part of the project. Symbolically going one day longer than my grandfather’s team was really more a personal honor to give to the previous generations.”
In Mission 31, a total of 6 people including Fabien stayed underwater. Living together in a very small space, they went out into the water column three or four times a day to collect data. Their topics of interest ranged from climate change and seawater pollution to the interaction of species on coral reefs as apex predators are taken away. In those 31 days, the team managed to do over 3 years’ worth of scientific research and data gathering compared with researchers going from the surface down. They demonstrated the efficiency and the value of underwater habitats in marine research.
However, the project was not without problems. Seemingly trivial incidents on land may become life-threatening situations under the sea. When the air conditioner called the chiller broke, it became so unbearable that the mission nearly had to be discontinued. The temperature reached 42 degrees Celsius, with 100% humidity, and the condition seemed as if it were raining inside the habitat. While the members managed to overcome this crisis, they were forced to treat every unexpected incident underwater, because returning to the surface required a decompression procedure that took 24 hours. Going back immediately was not an option, even in the case someone broke a bone or fell ill.
“I felt really sad
when I had to end the mission
to come back up”
Another factor was the presence of cameras all around the habitat, which were monitored on land. This was a measure to secure safety during the underwater stay, but it also meant that the members were being constantly watched. When Fabien could not stop sneezing, he recalls how his concerned mother called through the Wi-Fi connection to ask if he was all right. Many people are likely to feel that an ordinary person would never manage to live for 31 days under this kind of pressure.
“I think it takes a certain type of person to want to go into an extreme environment. A challenging situation in a small space, with people you don't know, to work for 31 days. In one case, we had someone who was ready to leave after a week; in most cases, they were willing to finish the mission. In my case, I was almost depressed, shocked, felt really sad, when I had to end the mission to come back up. Because to me, the habitat and the neighborhood underwater became my place, became my residence, and I became very familiar with it and I would go on for another month easily. Did I miss my friends, my family? Of course. But the longer I was down there, the less I thought about the surface.”
“For me, exploring the ocean is
exploring the future”
After completing his 31-day mission, Fabien is ever more curious about the ocean world. He suggested some possibilities beyond Mission 31, to a future Mission 32 or 33...
“I love advancements in science and engineering, and in many ways we incorporate these things as much as possible in all facets of our lives, including ocean exploration. But there is still no substitute for having a first-hand account of a human being in a specific experience. Because as much as robots, technology and everything is advanced, it's no match for all the nuances that a human being can experience and absorb and bring back and share.”
“One of the fundamental philosophies of the Fabien Cousteau Ocean Learning Center, that my grandfather passed on to my father who passed it on to me, is: ‘People protect what they love, they love what they understand, and they understand what they are taught.’ I carry this fundamental belief with me, and keep deepening my knowledge of the ocean, so that I can share it with the world. I believe that this will in turn help protect our oceans, and thus our Earth, which in turn will protect the future of our children.”
So the maverick ocean explorer keeps diving—to fulfill his insatiable curiosity, and to help make a better future for mankind.
“I've always worn a diver's watch. I wear it now as a backup: it is something that I can always rely on, and even in modern-day diving—we use computers, we use modern technologies and everything else— I always like to have a diver's watch as my umbilical to safety. And a diver's watch can be very personal. It can be something that is very individual, something that expresses personality.”
“Prospex is something of a tool that is not only one that you can always count on, but one that you can choose for your individual taste, and you know that it will never let you down.”
“Yes, we're both hard-headed (laugh). Yes, I identify with the Prospex line because it is not only a symbol of commitment, it’s an symbol of dedication, of curiosity, of exploration, of evolution, of adaptation to the needs and one that is a symbol of striving to ever be better than already great.“
“I love [the brand message] ‘Discover Your Planet’ because to me it conjures up imagination, passion, maybe even a curiosity, to go and find what your Earth is.”
“I look forward to doing expeditions and conservation projects with Prospex, and perhaps together coming up with another idea for something completely new for the brand."
“I'm in awe of the dedication and passion that the Seiko aficionados have for the Seiko Prospex watches, [giving nicknames] such as the ‘turtle’, the ‘samurai’, the ‘tuna’ and so on. These to me are symbols of people who are really committed and understand the brand itself. There are several other watch lines within the Prospex brand that I think also deserve some nicknames!"
“I am excited to work with Prospex as their ambassador into the future, and I hope together we'll be able to make the world a better place.”