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July 18, 2014

“In order to film a fish, you must become a fish”

Following his record-breaking Mission 31 expedition in partnership with Lumia, Fabien Cousteau talks to Conversations about life below and back on land. What he and his team discovered was nothing short of remarkable…

LP: Great to speak to you, Fabien. I hear you’ve just re-surfaced, de-pressurised and are now re-acquainting yourself with being a land mammal.


FC: Thanks! There’s been so much interest in Mission 31 since I’ve got back up, as well as during the phenomenal time we had down there. Being underwater for 31 days, but still being connected with the world, was a whole new experience for me.


I would get a random text message, or Twitter questions day or night asking me; what I was doing, why I was eating that particular bit of food, or what was it that I was doing in the lab. It was interesting to say the least.


I’ve been on expeditions since I was a child, but this is the first time we’ve allowed ourselves, and been able to, connect with the world in real-time.


However, it was certainly strange to have people watching 24/7 and for them to see what we were doing all of the time (with some exceptions!).


Photo Credit: Kip Evans


LP: It sounds like the Big Brother house…


FC: Yeah, a bit. I’m just glad we didn’t have sound!


LP: So, was having contact with the outside world what made this research project different than others?


FC: That was one of the aspects, for sure. The fact that we were underwater for 31 days was quite epic in itself – it was the longest-running, privately funded saturation dive in history – but as far as Aquarius [the underwater base] was concerned, it was the longest mission ever run out of that habitat.


For my family, it was symbolic that we stayed one day longer than my grandfather, to mark the next step in ocean exploration.

Photo Credit: Kip Evans


LP: Was the mission made easier by the fact that you had smartphones and tablets with you?


FC: It was quite an asset to be able to communicate on a regular basis with our surface crew. But to be able to conduct live video sessions with classrooms from around the world was both incredible and invaluable. We spoke to all seven continents, including Antarctica, during Mission 31.

Photo Credit: Rick Scott for Florida


LP: That’s fascinating. So, did you use your Lumia devices to do this?


FC: Absolutely. Using our Lumia 1020s, Lumia 1520 tablets, and the on-board WiFi, we were able to communicate through Skype. What was also amazing, however, was being able to share underwater footage.


We had a custom underwater housing built by Watershot, for our Lumia 1020s. On every daily excursion we took amazing photos and videos that we could then share for the world to see and experience.


What’s also remarkable is that, for the first time, we were using devices that are available to the general public.

Photo Credit: Marc Ostrick


LP: The underwater housing looked a remarkable piece of kit. Can readers buy it?


FC: Absolutely. Watershot is selling a limited amount on its website. They’re way overbuilt for the average person but, that said, it allows you to take your Lumia 1020 down to 100 meters. I’d be hard-pressed to see anyone destroy their phone with this housing!

Photo Credit: Marc Ostrick


LP: So, one of your aims with Mission 31 was to see what effect climate change and pollution are having on a coral reef? Did you achieve that?


FC: I think so. Global change is a difficult subject for many people to wrap their heads around, simply because it’s so nebulous. Its timeline is also very long – we’re talking decades – so it’s only something we can see the results of after a given amount of time.


However, by spending a prolonged amount of time underwater, we were able to register visuals that could show the effects of climate change, specifically on coral reefs.


We were also able to do a lot of hard science, which isn’t always sexy, but the results are interesting.


One of my scientists said it best when he said they were able to do more than three years of science in 31 days. They collected more than 30 times the amount of data that they’d normally be able to do from the surface.

Photo Credit: Kip Evans

LP: Were there any surprises while you were down there?


JC: Absolutely. Every day we found interesting things out there, such as new aspects of a species or phenomenal acts of behavior. As time went on we learned to live with the reef and the life there learned to accept our presence.


One amazing display of predator/prey behavior happened right in front of us, which we subsequently posted online (see below). A fairly large barracuda swam in front of a goliath grouper, which was feeding on a permit fish. The grouper, which usually feeds off of small fish, decided to attack and bite the barracuda. We don’t think anyone has witnessed that, before.


LP: So, what’s next for you and the project?


FC: I’m certainly looking forward to more saturation-diving projects, but right now we’re working on the official documentary. Secondly, we’re setting up a travelling Mission 31 exhibit to visit museums around the world to be able to share our work.


Thirdly, we’re opening up an ocean-learning center in Florida to be able to continue the outreach of Mission 31, purely because it was so successful and well received by the public and school children. We have a lot more to do!


Photo Credit: Carrie Vonderhaar


LP: Even though you’re back on land, it sounds like you’d go back in an instant…
FC: It was such a unique opportunity and I feel very privileged to have been able to be part of Mission 31. There are so many great tools for ocean exploration but we’ve learned so much about the advantages of being immersed in the natural habitat for an extended period.


Just to be living on the frontier allows us to push beyond our traditional boundaries.


My grandfather (Jacques Cousteau) said it in very simple terms: “In order to film a fish, you must become a fish.”

Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Cousteau



To explore the videos, tweets, shareable science and much more from the Mission 31 exploration, visit the Mission Control Hub.








Lead photo credit: Kip Evans