31 days underwater: a TED Prize winner dives deep to visit Fabien Cousteau as he aims to beat his grandfather’s record

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Ocean explorer Sylvia Earle descended 63-feet beneath the ocean’s surface to visit Fabien Cousteau during Mission 31, a month long ocean research expedition taking place this month. Photo: Kip Evans

Sylvia Earle is always on a mission. She launched the ocean conservation campaign Mission Blue in 2010 after winning the TED Prize, determined to establish protected marine “hope spots” around the world. And last weekend, the deep sea explorer descended 63-feet beneath the ocean’s surface to visit Fabien Cousteau on his Mission 31.

The seasoned aquanaut and National Geographic explorer-in-residence was clad in her wetsuit aboard the Aquarius, the world’s only underwater marine lab stationed near Key Largo, Florida, where it will reside for the month of June. She was there to see Fabien Cousteau, grandson of legendary underwater explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and a team of five researchers with Mission 31. This month-long operation will study how climate change and pollution harm ocean life, as well as document the effects of living underwater long-term—which can take its toll, especially when given the cramped quarters and days passing without any real sunlight.

The project was inspired by one of Jacques Cousteau’s ocean expeditions some 50 years ago, when he and a team of researchers lived for a record 30 days in an ocean lab known as Conshelf II at the bottom of the Red Sea, off the coast of Sudan. With Mission 31, Fabien Cousteau hopes to honor his grandfather’s legacy while beating his record by one day. His team will live underwater for 31 days.

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Mission 31 is concerned with what humans are doing to the oceans. The month-long operation will study how climate change and pollution harm ocean life. Photo: Kip Evans

A typical Aquarius mission lasts up to 10 days and, while naval missions have spent more time submerged, this will be the longest stay for a film crew underwater, and the longest anyone has inhabited the lab without interruption. The project also marks the first opportunity for fans to follow an underwater Cousteau expedition in real time. Thanks to Internet connectivity inside the Aquarius, Fabien Cousteau is able to post to Instagram, tweet and hold Skype classroom sessions. He is also streaming live video of the mission, inside and out.

Mission 31 is concerned with what humans are doing to the oceans—precisely the thing that keeps Earle up at night. Over more than four decades, she has led 50 expeditions worldwide, clocking more than 6,000 hours underwater, earning the nickname “Her Deepness” in the process. She has seen first-hand what is happening to the oceans. “We have the power to protect the wild ocean in ways that will restore the health, and, in so doing, secure hope for humankind,” she says in her TED Talk. “Health to the ocean means health for us.”

Fabien Cousteau, of course, is a kindred sea spirit. “It is thanks to the health of our oceans in general that we exist,” he said. “Whatever we do to the oceans we do to ourselves.”

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Fabien Cousteau, Jean-Michel Cousteau and Sylvia Earle aboard the Aquarius, the world’s only underwater marine lab. Photo: Kip Evans

Watch Sylvia Earle’s TED Prize wish»

Watch Mission 31 live »

Read more about Fabien Cousteau’s Mission 31»

Check out our TED Ocean playlist »