Researchers ready for historic aquatic ‘Mission’

"Only when he can range wider, stay longer, go deeper, can man learn to uti­lize the incred­ible wealth of the sea."

In 1973, those words wel­comed viewers into the unprece­dented on-​​screen adven­ture of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Now, 40 years later, North­eastern researchers are teaming up with Cousteau’s grandson, Fabien, to reignite the famous oceanographer’s sin­gular vision.

In 1963, Jacques led the longest under­water sat­u­ra­tion dive by five of his “aqua­nauts.” They lived for 30 days in Cousteau’s new inven­tion, a home on the bottom of the ocean floor. The Con­ti­nental Shelf Sta­tion Two, or Con­shelf II, was sub­merged 10 meters below sea level off the coast of Sudan.

Aquarius, the last under­water research lab­o­ra­tory of its kind, has been sta­tioned below the Florida sea for more than 20 years. North­eastern pro­fessor Mark Pat­terson, who holds joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­ence and the Col­lege of Engi­neering, has vis­ited the vessel eight times. He explained that over the last two decades, it has become a part of the coral reef.

In spring 2014, Pat­terson and Brian Hel­muth, a pro­fessor of envi­ron­mental sci­ence and public policy, will be the lead sci­en­tists on an expe­di­tion with Fabien to go deeper (20 meters), stay longer (31 days), and range wider than ever before. The adven­ture has been dubbed Mission-​​31 in honor of the length of the under­water habitation.

This time the goal is focused not on learning how to uti­lize the sea’s wealth, but rather on con­serving it—an effort that aligns with Northeastern’s focus on use-​​inspired research to solve global chal­lenges in health, secu­rity, and sustainability.

Fabien Cousteau dis­cussed the upcoming Mission-​​31, an record-​​breaking under­water research mis­sion, to a packed audi­ence ear­lier this month. Photo by Brooks Canaday.


“We need to stop using the oceans as a uni­versal sewer and infi­nite resource,” Fabien told more than 100 stu­dents, fac­ulty, and staff who filled the Alumni Center last month. The event served as the second install­ment of the Burba Family Lec­ture, spon­sored by Stanley J. Burba, LA’61, and his wife, Janet.

Cousteau grew up on the decks of his grandfather’s ships, Calypso and Alcyone. He was diving by the age of four and ven­tured with some of the world’s leading marine researchers throughout his child­hood. Per­haps for this reason, he said, class­rooms rarely held his interest.

“The one thing that cap­tured my atten­tion was expe­ri­en­tial learning,” he said, and Mission-​​31 is the ulti­mate expe­ri­en­tial learning endeavor.

The aqua­naut team will use the marine habitat as their lab­o­ra­tory to mea­sure how corals respond to stress, how global change may be affecting plankton on the reefs, and whether sponges, the reef’s fil­tra­tion system, ever sleep. “Mission-​​31 is as close to living on a reef as you pos­sibly can,” Hel­muth said. “This is a new par­a­digm shift, to look at how we view our envi­ron­ment not as some­thing sep­a­rate but as part of us.”

The crew’s activ­i­ties will be broad­cast live to the world via on-​​board wire­less Internet and edu­ca­tional col­lab­o­ra­tions with Skype in the Class­room, Ustream, and Google Hang­outs will enable “top­side” stu­dents to become part of the adven­ture. North­eastern pro­fes­sors as well as grad­uate stu­dents will serve as instruc­tors to a world­wide audi­ence and many of the teaching ses­sions will address the sus­tain­ability of the oceans.

In the 1970s, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau gave hun­dreds of mil­lions of people the oppor­tu­nity to expe­ri­ence life under the ocean. New tech­nolo­gies will now allow Fabien and his team to take that mis­sion one “fin step” fur­ther, he said.


Related Faculty: Mark Patterson