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Conch Habitat May 03, 2013 12.17.23
Image courtesy of Mission 31

Fabien Cousteau's Underwater Apartment

Grandson of Jacques Yves Cousteau is heading under the sea to teach us some subsurface lessons

All this month, we're tripping out with daily adventure stories. Iconic journeys, recent travels, sideways looks at out-there places and the sharpest of shots of the world’s underreported zones. Everest to Ibiza. Sahara to Big Sur. Under the sea to higher than God. Check back daily on

Taken from the October issue of Dazed & Confused:

Born into ocean-exploring royalty, Fabien Cousteau has dedicated his life to taking his family’s underwater legacy to unheard-of new depths – he spent time impersonating a great white in a shark submarine (dubbed “Troy”) inspired by his childhood memory of a Tintin book, and started the non-profit organisation Plant a Fish in 2010. His latest adventure, Mission 31, sees him pay tribute to Conshelf II, his famous grandfather Jacques-Yves’s 30-day underwater stint in 1963, by outstripping that period by one full day. The operation will take place 63ft below sea level off Key Largo, Florida, and will be live-streamed 24/7, with an Alice in Wonderland rotating roundtable of VIP guests that includes and Richard Branson. Prior to his November 12 diving date, the craziest Cousteau recounts nine key submariner moments.


Taking baby strokes

I started my diving career on my fourth birthday, when my parents found me at the bottom of the pool, buddy breathing with a family friend who was reading the newspaper! Having seen how excited I was about this, they decided to offer me a scuba set that was customised to my size – normally scuba diving starts at the age of 12, so this was a little unusual. I started going on real expeditions when I was seven, and have been getting into trouble ever since.


Lost in translation 

I ended up spending a week with the indigenous tribesmen of a village on the island of Wuvulu in Papua New Guinea. I remember speaking to kids of my age – they were about 7 or 8 – and they didn’t understand what I was saying in English, so I tried French but they still didn’t understand what I was saying. So then I started learning their pidgin English, and apparently within a week I was speaking pidgin English with the kids and my parents couldn’t understand what I was saying, which was pretty funny. We were only there for probably six weeks, but just being immersed in that culture and being able to trade thoughts and ideas was amazing.


Moonstruck in the Caribbean

There are several places that stand out in my mind as being special to me personally. Flower Garden Banks in the Gulf of Mexico is one. It’s one of the few places in the greater Caribbean that I’ve seen that was fairly pristine in terms of the coral reef. One of the things I love about being down there is coral spotting. It happens once a year on the full moon, around 9 or 9:30pm, and it lasts for about half an hour or so for two nights in a row. And what happens is that all the coral in that system all of a sudden gives off sperm and egg into the water.


The world’s most exclusive luxury apartment

Aquarius is the only undersea marine laboratory in the world. Our ‘apartment’ (laughs), our habitat is going to be located three atmospheres below the surface. It’s the limit of recreational scuba diving. My grandfather was the first one to build underwater habitats. He built them in the 1960s. They were called Conshelf I, II, and III. Fifty years ago this year, he brought 15 people down to live underwater for 30 days in Conshelf II.

It looks like an upside-down snowstorm. There’s no current and you can see it just releasing thousands and thousands of little packets of sperm and egg into the water. I’ve only experienced it twice.


How to avoid decompression sickness

If you try and go to the surface you can get decompression sickness, which can range from temporary paralysis all the way up to much, much worse, like death. We’re going to be treated for 15 days prior to splashdown so that we can train on what happens if you lose your mask or if you have a problem. We’ll have to swim back to the habitat and so we’re going to be put down there potentially disorientated – spun around without our masks underwater – then at 65ft the goal is to swim back to the habitat without a mask.


The legend of Jacques-Yves Cousteau

My grandfather was not only a public figure, loving to share his experiences with the world, but he also loved to share his knowledge with his grandkids. He was a treat to be around because he was always able to impassion me away and entrance me with these amazing stories of adventure, of discovery, of why we exist on this planet, why the oceans are 
so magical.


The pressures of deep-sea diving

When swimming and diving from an underwater base, we do something called saturation diving, which means that because we’re underwater at pressure depth, we’re able to go diving anywhere from six to nine hours in one day, which allows us to go much longer and deeper and farther than you could from the boat. The risk of suffering from decompression sickness is heightened the more you decompress your body. We have to limit the amount of times we surface when working in depths of high pressure. To avoid this risk when working underwater for long periods of time, some divers choose to saturate their tissues. Keeping your body saturated essentially means maintaining one constant pressure, something that can be achieved through staying in a pressurised underwater habitat.


Taking the A-list into the ocean

The list of people coming down to visit is very long. As well as and Richard Branson, there are ocean heroes such as Dr Sylvia Earle and Dr Mark Patterson and folks like my father, Jean-Michel Cousteau, and the green-fuelled driver Leilani Münter – she’s a race-car driver that drives on biofuel. And then actresses and models like Summer Rayne Oakes, and others. The list isn’t complete yet – we’re hoping to get more folks to come down too.


A matter of taste

I’ve visited this particular habitat before, but I’ve only stayed down there for an hour. The longest anyone’s ever stayed down in Aquarius has been 15 days; we’re going over two weeks longer than that.

Living underwater at that pressure for 31 days, your tastebuds go dull and you don’t taste food very much.

We’re going to be in a humid environment for 31 days, so the potential for annoyances like skin rashes and things like that is high. We’re also six people in a habitat the size of a school bus – 43ft long and 9ft wide – so it’s not a very big space. Thirty-one days is a very, very long time to be in confined quarters like that.