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TEDGlobal 2014

Fabien Cousteau: What I learned from spending 31 days underwater

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In 1963, Jacques Cousteau lived for 30 days in an underwater laboratory positioned on the floor of the Red Sea, and set a world record in the process. This summer, his grandson Fabien Cousteau broke that record. Cousteau the younger lived for 31 days aboard the Aquarius, an underwater research laboratory nine miles off the coast of Florida. In a charming talk he brings his wondrous adventure to life.

- Ocean explorer and environmentalist
Fabien Cousteau spent 31 days underwater to research how climate change and pollution are affecting the oceans. Full bio

I have a confession to make.
00:13
I am addicted to adventure,
00:16
and as a young boy,
00:19
I would rather look outside the window
00:21
at the birds in the trees and the sky
00:24
than looking at that two-dimensional
00:27
chalky blackboard where time stands still
00:29
and even sometimes dies.
00:33
My teachers thought there was something wrong
00:35
with me because I wasn't paying attention in class.
00:37
They didn't find anything
specifically wrong with me,
00:41
other than being slightly
dyslexic because I'm a lefty.
00:43
But they didn't test for curiosity.
00:47
Curiosity, to me,
00:51
is about our connection
00:54
with the world, with the universe.
00:56
It's about seeing what's
around that next coral head
00:59
or what's around that next tree,
01:01
and learning more not only about our environment
01:03
but about ourselves.
01:05
Now, my dream of dreams,
01:07
I want to go explore the oceans of Mars,
01:09
but until we can go there,
01:13
I think the oceans still hold
01:15
quite a few secrets.
01:19
As a matter of fact,
01:20
if you take our planet as the oasis in space that it is
01:22
and dissect it into a living space,
01:25
the ocean represents over 3.4 billion
01:29
cubic kilometers of volume, within which
01:32
we've explored less than five percent.
01:35
And I look at this, and I go, well,
01:39
there are tools to go
deeper, longer and further:
01:42
submarines, ROVs, even Scuba diving.
01:45
But if we're going to explore the final frontier
01:50
on this planet, we need to live there.
01:53
We need to build a log cabin, if you will,
01:56
at the bottom of the sea.
01:59
And so there was a great curiosity in my soul
02:02
when I went to go visit a TED [Prize winner]
02:05
by the name of Dr. Sylvia Earle.
02:08
Maybe you've heard of her.
02:09
Two years ago, she was staked out
02:11
at the last undersea marine laboratory
02:14
to try and save it,
02:17
to try and petition
02:19
for us not to scrap it
02:21
and bring it back on land.
02:23
We've only had about a dozen or so
02:25
scientific labs at the bottom of the sea.
02:27
There's only one left in the world:
02:29
it's nine miles offshore
02:31
and 65 feet down.
02:33
It's called Aquarius.
02:35
Aquarius, in some fashion,
02:37
is a dinosaur,
02:39
an ancient robot chained to the bottom,
02:41
this Leviathan.
02:43
In other ways, it's a legacy.
02:47
And so with that visit, I realized
that my time is short
02:49
if I wanted to experience
02:52
what it was like to become an aquanaut.
02:54
When we swam towards this after many
02:59
moons of torture and two years of preparation,
03:02
this habitat waiting to invite us
03:04
was like a new home.
03:09
And the point of going down to
03:12
and living at this habitat was not to stay inside.
03:15
It wasn't about living at something
the size of a school bus.
03:18
It was about giving us the luxury of time
03:21
outside to wander, to explore,
03:24
to understand more about this oceanic final frontier.
03:27
We had megafauna come and visit us.
03:31
This spotted eagle ray is a fairly
common sight in the oceans.
03:34
But why this is so important,
03:37
why this picture is up,
03:40
is because this particular animal
brought his friends around,
03:41
and instead of being the
pelagic animals that they were,
03:45
they started getting curious about us,
03:48
these new strangers that were
moving into the neighborhood,
03:49
doing things with plankton.
03:53
We were studying all sorts of animals and critters,
03:56
and they got closer and closer to us,
03:58
and because of the luxury of time,
04:01
these animals, these residents of the coral reef,
04:03
were starting to get used to us,
04:05
and these pelagics that
normal travel through stopped.
04:07
This particular animal actually circled
04:10
for 31 full days during our mission.
04:13
So mission 31 wasn't so much
04:17
about breaking records.
04:19
It was about that human-ocean connection.
04:21
Because of the luxury of time, we were able
04:26
to study animals such as sharks and grouper
04:28
in aggregations that we've never seen before.
04:32
It's like seeing dogs and
cats behaving well together.
04:34
Even being able to commune with animals
04:38
that are much larger than us,
04:40
such as this endangered goliath grouper
04:41
who only still resides in the Florida Keys.
04:44
Of course, just like any neighbor,
04:47
after a while, if they get tired,
04:50
the goliath grouper barks at us,
04:52
and this bark is so powerful
04:54
that it actually stuns its prey before it aspirates it all
04:56
within a split second.
04:58
For us, it's just telling us to go back
05:00
into the habitat and leave them alone.
05:02
Now, this wasn't just about adventure.
05:06
There was actually a serious note to it.
05:10
We did a lot of science, and again,
because of the luxury of time,
05:11
we were able to do over three years of science
05:15
in 31 days.
05:17
In this particular case, we were using a PAM,
05:20
or, let me just see if I can get this straight,
05:22
a Pulse Amplitude Modulated Fluorometer.
05:24
And our scientists from FIU, MIT,
05:28
and from Northeastern
05:31
were able to get a gauge for what coral reefs do
05:33
when we're not around.
05:36
The Pulse Amplitude Modulated
Fluorometer, or PAM,
05:38
gauges the fluorescence of corals
05:40
as it pertains to pollutants in the water
05:43
as well as climate change-related issues.
05:45
We used all sorts of other cutting-edge tools,
05:49
such as this sonde, or what I like to call
05:52
the sponge proctologist, whereby the sonde
05:54
itself tests for metabolism rates
06:01
in what in this particular case is a barrel sponge,
06:03
or the redwoods of the [ocean].
06:06
And this gives us a much better gauge
06:09
of what's happening underwater
06:10
with regard to climate change-related issues,
06:12
and how the dynamics of that
06:15
affect us here on land.
06:17
And finally, we looked at predator-prey behavior.
06:20
And predator-prey behavior is an interesting thing,
06:22
because as we take away some of the predators
06:24
on these coral reefs around the world,
06:27
the prey, or the forage fish, act very differently.
06:29
What we realized is
06:32
not only do they stop taking care of the reef,
06:34
darting in, grabbing a little bit of algae
06:37
and going back into their homes,
06:39
they start spreading out and disappearing
06:41
from those particular coral reefs.
06:43
Well, within that 31 days,
06:45
we were able to generate over 10 scientific papers
06:47
on each one of these topics.
06:50
But the point of adventure is not only to learn,
06:53
it's to be able to share that
knowledge with the world,
06:58
and with that, thanks to a
couple of engineers at MIT,
07:00
we were able to use a prototype
camera called the Edgertronic
07:04
to capture slow-motion video,
07:07
up to 20,000 frames per second
07:10
in a little box
07:13
that's worth 3,000 dollars.
07:15
It's available to every one of us.
07:16
And that particular camera gives us an insight
07:18
into what fairly common animals do
07:21
but we can't even see it in the blink of an eye.
07:24
Let me show you a quick video
07:26
of what this camera does.
07:28
You can see the silky bubble come out
07:30
of our hard hats.
07:33
It gives us an insight
07:35
into some of the animals that we were sitting
07:38
right next to for 31 days
07:40
and never normally would have paid attention to,
07:42
such as hermit crabs.
07:45
Now, using a cutting-edge piece of technology
07:47
that's not really meant for the oceans
07:50
is not always easy.
07:52
We sometimes had to put the camera upside down,
07:54
cordon it back to the lab,
07:56
and actually man the trigger
07:59
from the lab itself.
08:02
But what this gives us
08:04
is the foresight to look at and analyze
08:06
in scientific and engineering terms
08:09
some of the most amazing behavior
08:12
that the human eye just can't pick up,
08:15
such as this manta shrimp
08:16
trying to catch its prey,
08:19
within about .3 seconds.
08:21
That punch is as strong as a .22 caliber bullet,
08:27
and if you ever try to catch a bullet
08:30
in mid-flight with your eye, impossible.
08:31
But now we can see things
08:35
such as these Christmas tree worms
08:36
pulling in and fanning out
08:39
in a way that the eye just can't capture,
08:42
or in this case,
08:45
a fish throwing up grains of sand.
08:47
This is an actual sailfin goby,
08:54
and if you look at it in real time,
08:56
it actually doesn't even show its fanning motion
08:59
because it's so quick.
09:02
One of the most precious gifts
that we had underwater
09:05
is that we had WiFi,
09:07
and for 31 days straight we were able to connect
09:09
with the world in real time
from the bottom of the sea
09:12
and share all of these experiences.
09:14
Quite literally right there
09:16
I am Skyping in the classroom
09:18
with one of the six continents
09:19
and some of the 70,000
students that we connected
09:21
every single day to some of these experiences.
09:24
As a matter of fact, I'm showing a picture that I took
09:27
with my smartphone from underwater
09:29
of a goliath grouper laying on the bottom.
09:31
We had never seen that before.
09:34
And I dream of the day
09:39
that we have underwater cities,
09:41
and maybe, just maybe, if we push the boundaries
09:43
of adventure and knowledge,
09:46
and we share that knowledge with others out there,
09:48
we can solve all sorts of problems.
09:51
My grandfather used to say,
09:54
"People protect what they love."
09:56
My father, "How can people protect
09:59
what they don't understand?"
10:01
And I've thought about this my whole life.
10:06
Nothing is impossible.
10:10
We need to dream, we need to be creative,
10:14
and we all need to have an adventure
10:17
in order to create miracles in the darkest of times.
10:19
And whether it's about climate change
10:23
or eradicating poverty
10:25
or giving back to future generations
10:28
what we've taken for granted,
10:29
it's about adventure.
10:32
And who knows, maybe
there will be underwater cities,
10:34
and maybe some of you
10:37
will become the future aquanauts.
10:38
Thank you very much.
10:40
(Applause)
10:42

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About the speaker:

Fabien Cousteau - Ocean explorer and environmentalist
Fabien Cousteau spent 31 days underwater to research how climate change and pollution are affecting the oceans.

Why you should listen
For 31 days, from June 1 to July 2, 2014, Fabien Cousteau and a team of scientists and filmmakers lived and worked 20 meters below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, at the Acquarius underwater science lab 9 miles off the coast of Florida. The intent of Mission31: study the life of and on the coral reef -- and the effects of climate change, acidification, and pollution, in particular by plastic debris and oil spills. But it was also a study of the scientists themselves spending extended time underwater. By stayigng down continuously, they collected the equivalent of several years of scientific data in just a month.

50 years ago Fabien Cousteau's grandfather, the legendary ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, led a similar -- but shorter by one day -- expedition under the surface of the Red Sea. Since, we have explored only a very small portion of the oceans, less than 5 percent.
More profile about the speaker
Fabien Cousteau | Speaker | TED.com