You might think space is the final frontier, but there’s an entire alien world beneath the sea. Exploring the deepest abysses even looks a lot like exploring outer space. So, we set up some time with Fabien Cousteau, aquanaut, Jacques Cousteau’s grandson, and arguably the ocean’s biggest fan, to chat about what it’s like. Cousteau organized a 31-day mission underwater to the Aquarius lab back in 2014.
Once again, without any specific reason, we tried to embarrass him (and somehow only embarrassed ourselves). Below is a lightly edited and condensed version of the interview
Rae Paoletta: What is the most underrated sea creature?
Fabien Cousteau: Having just come back from Greece, I would say it’s octopus. It’s very appreciated on the plate but not appreciated in the water. [The Greeks] were asking me why I wasn’t eating octopus, and I said because it’s my favorite invertebrate, not for eating, but for studying and to revere because they’re unbelievably intelligent.
In terms of the general topic globally speaking, I would say phytoplankton, which is not one species but a cumulation of species. I don’t think people really connect with the smallest of the food chain in general, whether it’s on land or in the ocean. Phytoplankton is the most under appreciated colony or group of organisms and people don’t even think of it.
Ryan F. Mandelbaum: What’s the weirdest smell underwater?
FC: One of the funny things about being at pressure depth, and having your body be part of that, is that there are physiological changes that happen. You lose most of your sense of taste, including your sense of smell. Unfortunately not enough, because there are several things you can smell. One is the head (Editor’s note: that’s the toilet). The head was in the middle of [the Aquarius] lab... It’s hard to get away from that.
The second one, we had a care package come down from loving friends that sent us the most stinky cheese they could think of (Editor’s note: it was limberger and Époisses) and we didn’t know that until it got unwrapped at Aquarius. That pierced the barrier of our nasal limitations... It was one of those slow motion videos where you see the canister open, the person reaching in, and I’m on the other side of the habitat looking over realizing what’s happening. I’m diving towards the person going, “nooooooo!!!”
But the number one thing that was [most] assaulting to our sense of smell, despite our limited capacity is the wetsuits. The female wetsuits were the stinkiest things during the mission. Sorry to point to that but the smell of the urine of the women was very strong. The wetsuits are the one thing we left behind that we never wanted to smell again. (Editor’s note: Cousteau did not comment on the stench of his own wetsuit).
RP: How long can you hold your breath for?
FC: You mean during the cheese episode?
RP: With or without the cheese.
FC: With the cheese, not long enough. But for Mission 31 (Editor’s note: this is the 31-day underwater mission Cousteau organized), there was training where we had to be able to swim unassisted underwater without a mask from point a to point b. That was maybe 40 seconds to 55 seconds. For me, I’ve been free dive training in the past and on average static in a pool, 3 minutes 57 seconds.
RFM: So what was the weirdest part about living underwater?
FC: There are several things. There was a sense of well-being down there. There’s no scientific proof for or against, but you’re living at 3 atmospheres of pressure on a 24/7 basis. That gives you a little bit of nitrogen narcosis effect. That sense of wellbeing and relaxation is certainly a side effect and also something you have to be really careful of.
The most disturbing thing for me on a daily level is that we still felt the surface swell in our ears, even though we were at the bottom at 67 feet. That took some getting used to, even after several weeks. That and the constant noise. My grandfather coined “the silent world,” but it’s the opposite. With the snapping shrimp all over the hull, it was one of the loudest places I’ve been. I guess there was also the slightly out-of-body experience of sitting at the dinner table and having giant megafauna looking in while you’re eating—spotted eagle rays, groupers and sharks, things like that. That was cool and weird at the same time.
RP: What can we learn about space from being underwater?
FB: Right now we have an opportunity to use an extreme environment to simulate most of the challenges that astronauts are or will be facing in the future, especially with regards to colonizing other planets. On this planet there’s no greater extreme environment to test technology, especially energy-based technology, than underwater. From lithium batteries, to camera equipment, to the physiological challenges of being under extreme conditions 24/7. There are dissimilarities as well—the atmospheric differences, the gravity, but you can reenact weightlessness underwater. And I think that the advances in technology for space exploration and engineering can certainly benefit ocean exploration. As those two move forward in parallel, there’s a huge symbiotic relationship to be leveraged for both.
RFM: So what are some of the challenges that come out of being down there?
FC: Even something as simple as human waste is a fascinating one. As far as ocean exploration, we are already in a closed loop system—we’re in an organic environment that is ready to receive that kind of waste. It’s less problematic than it would be in space. In space you have to take absolutely everything that you will ever need. That includes the waste systems and recycling that waste. Underwater you can do several things. You can process that waste and when it has been neutralized, you can release it back into the environment. You can store that waste and bring back on land to an appropriate facility. Or, because we were eating for the most part food that can be processed by our bodies and extracted for our bodies that’s ok for the environment, you can let loose in the ecosystem. You wouldn’t want to do that in a city, but six people in an entire ocean, that’s a little less of a problem.
Let’s put it this way. The cardinal sin as a team member in an underwater habitat is to pass gas. You will get kicked off the team if you do that. Not only are they close quarters, but it’s a recycled air.
RP: Wow, that’s really rough. Have you ever had a dangerous encounter underwater? Have you ever had to swim away from a fish or something?
FC: The most dangerous animal I’ve ever encountered underwater is man. Time and time again I’ve seen that to be true. I’d much rather swim with great whites or whales or even box jellies than people. But there are always challenges. Coming nose-to-nose with a caiman, anaconda, or piranha in the Amazon river is fairly routine. [Similarly], going diving with white sharks and finding 7 or 8 around you is something to be expected. So, yes, there are dangerous spots, when you’re in a situation that you don’t think you should be in anymore, or when the animal has changed behavior or gotten in a bad mood. Then you go to plan b, which is exit gracefully.
RFM: I seem to remember a story of one of your colleagues being bitten while using the bathroom?
FC: Going back to the poop discussion, you can go to the “gazebo” (Editor’s note: this was a structure outside the lab with some survival equipment) and by doing so you’ve got your privacy from the humans inside the habitat but the fish get very excited about your presence. Now they know it’s feeding time. There have been injuries by fish that are overexcited. Unfortunately for one of the female aquanauts it was in a sensitive place. Sure, there are places where animals brush up against you. I’ve had hickeys from nurse sharks and my girlfriend thought I was cheating on her, but those usually end up being good memories in the long run.
Nurse sharks don’t have teeth. The way they eat is by sucking up their food or prey. If a piece of shellfish or fish is close to your body, the sharks suck up right on your arm or leg or whatever. That will give you a hickey. They have a lot of power when they did that. I cold have made up a much kinkier story but that’s what happened.
RFM: Hm... so what’s the weirdest ways that animals do it underwater?
FC: You can find every way to do it underwater. Everything from pleasuring yourself, meaning asexual reproduction, to orgies. Look at the way sharks reproduce, it’s a violent, S+M type of orgy. You look at a reef shark ready to bread, male sharks will latch onto her with their mouths and try to inseminate her with their two penises. Multiple male sharks try to do that at the same time. There’s even a jellyfish, the immortal jelly that never dies. It grows from a baby, bigger and older, and when it gets scared, it pops, become a single-celled organism, and grows from that. There’s some really weird, far-out alien ways to reproduce out there.
RP: What did you think about The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou?
FC: We knew The Life Aquatic was coming out for a few months and asked if they needed input. Unfortuantely we got a polite “thanks but no thanks.” I enjoyed it for what it was, and understood fully that it was a parody. There are a few things that made me go “huh?” None of us ever carried a gun. But the storyline was funny and I love Bill Murray.
RFM: And did you like SpongeBob?
I commend the marine biologist who created SpongeBob. Having a five year old at home I think it’s a little crass and crude. It’s more of an adult comedy. I’m a sailor myself so I’m pretty crass but I wouldn’t expose it to my child. I can’t remember a specific episode but I could name most of the characters. I know that they did a spoof off my grandfather at one point but I’ve never seen it.
RFM: Okay, so are you more of a SpongeBob, a Squidward, a Sandy, a Mr. Krabs...
FC: I’m a realistic optimist, which I don’t think fits any of those characters. If anything I prefer SpongeBob’s attitude to a lot of the other’s, I guess. I don’t like the flighty nature but when you’re a dreamer that’s part of it. Squidward is cultured but he’s kind of krabby, no pun intended.
RP: What’s the best or silliest sea animal?
FC: The Dumbo Octopus is so gangly. That or the frog fish shows that nature has a sense of humor. And who could hate a sea cucumber? It looks like a poop on the bottom of the sea, but when it comes out, it looks like this big alien creature. I find sharks fascinating because they’re so sleek. And who doesn’t love a manatee. They’re these squishy, ugly things—you just want to hug them.
RFM: How do you think you’re continuing your grandfather’s legacy?
FC: The philosophy of my grandfather I’m continuing is not only the legacy of ocean exploration, but the message of how important oceans are to our daily lives. There’s the mantra of the Ocean Learning Center which stemmed from what my grandfather told me as a child: people protect what they love, love what they understand and understand what they’re taught. As explorers, innovators, people who have the opportunity to have an unusual life or different life, we have no right to keep it to ourselves.
RFM: And is the ocean good?
FC: I think the ocean’s in deep trouble. We have not addressed most of the issues in any significant ways, except we’ve made a bit of progress on marine protected areas, creating these sanctuaries where we can give an opportunity for biodiversity to reestablish itself. At the end of the day, be it through a comedic vehicle or a factual vehicle or any combination thereof, we hope to inspire people to laugh, love and live a more symbiotic relationship with the ocean.