July 1st, 2014 by Sandy Dechert
On July 2, 2014, ocean scientists who have spent the last 31 days living in an ocean-floor habitat 63 feet underwater will decompress and return to the surface. They’ve been down there on “Mission 31” intensively studying ocean acidification and climate change, pollution from plastics, and overconsumption of ocean resources and the related decline in biodiversity.
“We’re basically using the ocean as a garbage can.”
So says Fabien Cousteau, grandson of legendary underwater explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who has led the expedition. Normally upbeat, he deplores the degradation of the seas by human activities. Liz Magee, a team member and a research diver with Northeastern University, explains what Mission 31 is trying to do about it. For example:
“There are beautiful giant sponges right outside the habitat. Some could be thousands of years old. Some call them redwoods of the reef. And we’re setting up sensors inside them to measure such variables as oxygen and temperature, so we’ll be able to understand what happens with rising acidity of the water and its impacts on the sponges. It will also help us better understand the activity of these sponges.”
As well as its investigative role, Mission 31 also celebrates half a century since Conshelf II, the 30-day Red Sea living experiment in 1963 that Jacques Cousteau held and filmed for an Oscar-winning documentary, World Without Sun. The 2014 dive is one day longer and 30 feet deeper. Decompression from full blood nitrogen saturation at this depth takes about 18 and a half hours. Without decompressing, divers can contract the painful or fatal “bends.” Living at saturation has allowed Cousteau’s team to dive as long as needed or as long as they want, up to nine hours.
PlanetSave covered the beginning of the Mission 31 dive at the end of May. We thought resurfacing also merited some attention. Here’s one of the most spectacular products of grandson Cousteau’s underwater sojourn at Aquarius Reef Base, operated by Florida International University nine miles off the coast of Key Largo, Florida. In the video, one of 32 released to date, two of the Mission 31 saturation divers—Adam Zenone and Andy Shantz—document a fascinating night dive in their backyard below the sea. They call the expedition an “Inner Spacewalk.” Kip Evans handled the camera.
Cousteau has said the team wants to reach 331 million people around the world, double that number if possible. The effort will give the huge majority of people who do not usually think about it intimate knowledge of how all our livelihoods and our lives depend on the sea.
“We hope to continue the synergy that we’re starting to see around ocean protection. It’s critical so our children will be able to enjoy the ocean. When I first had the idea for the mission, I didn’t know if we would pull it off, but my grandfather used to say only the crazy ideas succeed.”
As well as making the film, Cousteau’s aquanauts have conducted more than 50 educational chat sessions on Skype with people in the United States, Canada, Australia, Kenya, and the Czech Republic. Among these were four live conversations Angela Herring described yesterday from Northeastern University in her article “Live from the seafloor, it’s Mission 31!” The talks took place between the research team at the habitat and Northeastern University scientists and audience members in Boston, who also accessed hands-on exhibits like live marine touch pools and zooplankton viewing.
Marine biologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle, Greg Stone of Conservation International, Cousteau’s father Jean-Michel, famed marine muralist Wyland, actors Ian Somerhalder and Adrian Grenier, and retired NASA astronaut Clay Anderson have all taken short dives to visit the habitat and its occupants.
A team of 36 people at the surface, both scientists and support staff, worked with the divers. Blogs and a constant live video stream covered the entire experiment 24/7. “My mom saw me blow my nose, and she emailed to ask if I had a cold,” Cousteau confided. On television, Hari Sreenivasan of PBS Newshour streamed a conversation with Cousteau in a Google + hangout live from the habitat on June 28, 2014.
Tropical Storm Arthur, the first named storm of the 2014 Atlantic hurricane season, has just passed the Keys and is expected to cause heavy rains in southeast Florida of 2 to 4 inches today through Wednesday, according to Weather Underground. Thursday might be a safer time for the divers to surface. The tropical depression is expected to stay just offshore and strengthen as it heads up the East Coast, becoming a hurricane near the Carolinas. Follow the holiday storm at the Hurricane Harbor blog.
In other recent ocean news, President Obama announced plans last month for enlarging the Remote Islands Marine National Monument in the Pacific. Dr. Sylvia Earle calls such protected areas “hope spots.” Cousteau considers them important locations that have come to need protection in a big way. He sees their preservation as “rebuilding the natural bank account.”
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