A Life Subaquatic

by Peter Schiavelli

One of the more underwhelming questions in literature is asked early in Jules Verne’s 1870 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Professor Pierre Arronax, the protagonist and narrator, has just been abducted and taken aboard the Nautilus, the glittering behemoth of a submarine piloted by Captain Nemo. Arronax is sitting in the vessel’s dining room, ensconced in opulence (“high oaken sideboards” and “exquisite paintings”); he has been housed, underwater, in luxurious accommodations that suggested he was “in the Adelphi Hotel at Liverpool, or at the Grand Hotel in Paris”; and he has listened to his host describe, ingredient by ingredient, how each dish is prepared from the sea, how “the sea supplies all [his] wants” and his “exquisite stories.” At the end of all of this, the most incisive query the good Professor could muster was, “You like the sea, Captain?”

Verne, a French author, is known as much for the science in his works as the prose, and the idea of living underwater that was teased by the Nautilus—which happened to be a modest 230 feet long, with a drawing room bedecked by Renaissance masterpieces and a 12,000-volume, two-level library—has captured imaginations since its conception. (Or, in Nemo’s case, the idea of living underwater with the extravagance of a Victorian monarch.)


But it was another Frenchman, almost exactly one hundred years later, that took the first few steps toward making it a possibility, and his grandson is now working to make it a reality.

In 1963, Jacques-Yves Cousteau—the most famous ocean explorer of our time; aquanaut, conservationist, and documentarian; inventor of the Aqua-lung; and wearer of red knit caps—spent a then-record 30 days below the surface of the Red Sea, in a facility off the Sudanese coast referred to as Conshelf II. The name is short for Continental Shelf Station II, so called because its main cabin was located on the edge of a ridge, 30 feet down, with a separate, smaller cabin farther along, at a depth of 100ft. (He constructed a Conshelf I and III, as well: the former near Marseilles, the latter near Monaco.) The interior of the facility would never be confused with that of the Nautilus, but there was space enough for the six-man team to live, work, and play chess, as well as a detached garage to hold the two-seated submarine—the famous yellow “diving saucer”—in which they explored. And although Cousteau may not have had Titians on the walls, he had plenty of tobacco, and there is an undeniable elegance, upon emerging from the depths into the cabin, in being handed a cigarette with your towel, and having it lit before standing fully upright, or having a chance to consider wearing a shirt.

He memorialized the experience in the documentary World Without Sun, which later won him his second Academy Award for Feature Documentary. His calm, authoritative narration—seeped equal parts in knowledge, empathy, and wonder, with his French accent adding that bit of grace—was the aquatic forebear to Carl Sagan’s stargazing in Cosmos and David Attenborough’s terrestrial timbre in Planet Earth.

Now, Jacques’s grandson Fabien, an accomplished aquanaut himself—in 2014, he broke his grandfather’s record by spending 31 consecutive days underwater in the Aquarius, an underwater habitat off of the Florida Keys—has plans to evolve the Conshelf II experiment to a more Vernian scale. He calls the project Proteus, and he likens it to an underwater version of the International Space Station. It promises the world its first true underwater habitat.

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The Aquanaut

When I first met Fabien Cousteau, it was on a Google Hangout, and he was positioned in front of a large green sheet, presumably for the sake of a sharp virtual background, but he didn’t have one up for our interview. He has his grandfather’s chiseled features and toothy, waxing-crescent smile, but his hair is thicker, his face fuller, his jawline broader, and his nose less Roman. In 2002, People magazine named him “the world’s sexiest explorer.”

Energetic and playful, Cousteau seems to excite himself when he talks, bounding from message to anecdote to statistic with the enthusiasm of a hopscotching child. The first thing he did after I asked my opening question—on what it was like growing up a Cousteau—was tease me for “coming out with softballs.” (I was clearly Arronax to his Nemo.) Then he expounded on the experience for ten straight minutes. “In many ways,” he said, “I think this may sound trite, but it’s your typical family. And, at the same time, the best way to get together oftentimes was in the field. And by the field, I mean in the depths of the Amazon or in Papua New Guinea, or sometimes it was in the Mediterranean. Occasionally it was at home, but often times the best way to get together was somewhere else because most of the family’s on expedition.” For his fourth birthday, he learned to scuba dive. I told him we had different definitions of “typical.


Oceanography is a Cousteau family affair. Even the most truncated of lists of notable oceanautic Cousteaus would include not just Jacques, but Fabien’s father Jean-Michel, his sister Celine, uncle Phillippe-Pierre, and two cousins Phillippe-Pierre Jr. and Alexandra. But despite his upbringing and name—or, perhaps, because of them—Cousteau initially refused to go into what he calls “the family business.” A self-professed “terrible” student in school (though he still managed to earn a degree in Environmental Economics from Boston University), when he graduated, he took a run-of-the-mill internship for Seventh Generation before moving into sales for a friend’s retail company.

That did not last long. As any Corleone will tell you, the family business is a siren song. “Ultimately, the ocean was calling,” he said. “No offense to people who are passionate about the business world and accounting. I think that’s a very noble thing, but I felt like I was slipping into a coma. For me, adventure, exploration, storytelling: bringing that to the world—a world that will most likely never get a chance to experience it firsthand—I felt was much more valuable and much more fulfilling than what I was doing.” So he accepted a position with National Geographic as their Explorer-at-Large.

On June 1, 2014, Cousteau, along with six crew members, descended 62 feet into Aquarius, an underwater research base just off the Conch Reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It was the first day of “Mission 31,” a project devised by Cousteau that would keep him in Aquarius for a record 31 consecutive days. By this time, he was no longer working under the National Geographic banner and was instead planning and financing his projects independently.

“Mission 31 was an experiment on two levels,” he told me. “It was an experiment on a selfish level: looking at that platform and saying, ‘is this a platform that could be useful in today’s world, both for ocean exploration and, more importantly, to help solve some of the mysteries—as well as some of the problems—that we’re facing as a global society.’” I should note that this didn’t sound very selfish to me, but I stayed quiet and let him continue. “And on a second level, and this is just as important: can this be a unifying platform that brings in the world’s curiosity to the ocean, on more of an education, science, conservation level?”


Cousteau has an acute sense for the power of a narrative. He has spent much of his career in front of a camera. Early on, much of his work was with sharks, including documentaries like Attack of the Mystery Shark and Shark: Mind of a Demon, which was particularly notable because he spent much of it lying on his stomach in the belly of a shark-shaped submarine named Troy, maneuvering around a pack of great whites. (Cousteau was kind enough to give me advice for when I construct my own shark submarine. “Think hard about your buoyancy,” he said. “Troy was a 50/50 shot of whether you crashed at the bottom or skyrocketed to the surface, neither of which is good when you’re a diver inside because it’s a wet sub, especially in a shark feeding zone.”) He later spent four years working on a PBS series Ocean Adventures, with his father and sister.

“The adventure itself is oftentimes much more exciting than what you can conjure up in a boardroom,” he told me. “There’s a hunger out by the general public to understand, to know, to be on the adventure.”

One does not have to search far for his inspiration. His grandfather was, at heart, a storyteller, and his most impactful contribution was also his most intangible: making the world as fascinated by the sea as he was. Between Conshelf I (built in 1961) and Aquarius (built in 1986), more than thirty underwater habitats were constructed around the world. Many of them were small, no more than single-person tests, but heavy-hitters also entered the arena. The U.S. Navy developed three versions of what it called a Sealab; NASA helped fund three Tektite habitats, from which Dr. Sylvia Earle conducted experiments throughout the 1970s (including the first all-female saturation dive team); and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) launched 180 missions using its Hydrolab.

Attention, however, is fickle, and Cousteau also watched as people’s eyes began turning skyward. Where the eyes go, the money follows. Undersea expeditions were replaced by space exploration, visions of subaquatic living by dreams of colonizing Mars or terraforming Venus. In his 1984 State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan made quite clear the direction the United States was looking. “We can follow our dreams to distant stars,” he said, “living and working in space for peaceful, economic, and scientific gain. Tonight, I am directing NASA to develop a permanently manned space station and to do it within a decade.”

What he directed NASA to do became the $160 billion International Space Station (ISS). Aquarius, meanwhile, is the only underwater research lab still functional today.

The Great Unknown

The conus magus is a predatory sea snail roughly the size of your thumb. It’s very common in warmer, tropical environments, and its description in George Washington Tryon’s 1884 The Manual of Conchology makes it sound more like a dessert than a mollusk: “white, clouded with bluish ash, orange-brown, chestnut or chocolate, everywhere encircled by narrow chocolate interrupted lines…spire tessellated with chestnut or chocolate.” It feeds on small fish, stinging them with a conotoxin deadly enough to fell an adult human; its relative, the conus geographus, is known as the “cigarette snail” because, should you be stung, your time left on this earth would be enough for one smoke. In the 1980s, the conotoxin from the conus magus was synthesized into ziconotide, a pain relief drug that was FDA approved in 2004. Ziconotide is 1,000 times as powerful as morphine, with no evidence that its use leads to addiction or tolerance.

Halichondria okadai is a sea-sponge that in no way resembles a dessert. It has been synthesized into the anticancer drug eribulin, which received FDA approval to treat late-term breast cancer in 2011 and liposarcoma in 2016. Laminaria ochroleuca is a macroalgae that shows promise as a source for actinobacteria, which are used as, among others, antibacterials, antifungals, antivirals, anti-inflammatories, and anticancers. The list goes on. And those are just the ones we know.

The NOAA estimates that more than eighty percent of the ocean remains “unmapped, unobserved, and unexplored.” I would like to add “untapped” to that list. The ocean is the world’s largest biosphere; its living conditions range in temperature from basically freezing to over 600 degrees Fahrenheit, in pressure from one to over a thousand atmospheres, and in light from pitch black to dazzling sunshine. Its resultant microdiversity, the key element in pharmaceutical discovery, is unparalleled. Sea sponges alone account for over 5,000 new products and compounds every year.

One word I would not add to the list, however, is “untouched.” The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that a third of all fish stocks are overfished. Half of all coral reefs are gone, with the remaining half unlikely to see the year 2100. Plastic pollution kills more than 100,000 marine animals per year; at its current rate of growth, the plastic in the ocean will outweigh the fish by 2050. A 2006 study in Science is even more dire. According to its projections, between overfishing and habitat destruction, all fish and seafood populations will collapse by the year 2048.


The ocean is, by far, the world’s best climate change mitigator, but its effectiveness is dwindling. According to the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, oceans have absorbed 93% of the excess heat emitted from greenhouse gases and take in roughly a third of our annual carbon emissions. But this cannot last. In the last 100 years, they have warmed 1.5 degrees Celsius and have become 30% more acidic. Neglecting the oceans is a dangerous game.

Cousteau himself said it best. “We can’t make proper decisions if we don’t have the right information. In order for us to be an economically viable species—or a community that has a semblance of health—we must be able to caretake our oceanic ecosystem. It is our life support system.”

He went on. ““There’s an understanding that plant or animal, land or sea, there’s an intrinsic value to our lives. And, by default, that gives us an underlying understanding that in order for us to thrive, in order for us to give back to our future generations what we’ve taken for granted, we must take care of this ecosystem, this beautiful little planet, and more importantly, the ocean in a way that we take care of our own children.”

By the time they resurfaced, Cousteau and his Mission 31 team had accumulated, in 31 days, an amount of research that would have normally taken three years. Simply because they were actually living there. Mission 31, he told me, “anchored our understanding that undersea platforms, undersea habitats, marine laboratories, are the missing tools in the toolbox for oceanic exploration.”

The Final Frontier

When compared to a spectrum of terrestrial habitats, Aquarius would probably best be described as a hut. The entire facility is only four hundred square feet divided into three compartments, and it (somehow) sleeps six people. Proteus would be a compound.

The design is still mutable, but current plans have Proteus sprawling over 4000 square feet off the coast of Curacao, in the South Caribbean. There are wet and dry labs, a moon-pool for keeping a (hopefully yellow) submersible, room for a team of twelve, as well as a hydroponic garden, for growing fresh produce. (On the Aquarius, Cousteau had to subsist on salty, freeze-dried astronaut food—what he described as “torture for a French person.”) Being a Cousteau, he is also insistent that there be a state-of-the-art broadcasting room, in order to expose the world to the wonders of the deep. The plans were laid out with designer Yves Behar, founder and designer of Fuseproject, whom Cousteau met in a Helena meeting in 2018.

Proteus graphic 2

There is also the possibility of expansion. When designing “the ISS of the sea,” Cousteau looked at the real ISS, and the defining characteristic of the real ISS is its modularity. Finally made habitable in the year 2000—President Reagan’s timeline was a bit ambitious—the ISS started with just three modules; for the first two years, it was little more than a suspended hotel room. Since then, it has grown to 16. It has six sleeping quarters, two bathrooms, and a gym. It has housed 241 astronauts from 19 different countries and is roughly the size of a football field, endzones included. It can host eight different space craft simultaneously, and over three thousand experiments have been conducted in its microgravity laboratory.


Cousteau envisions something similar. “We need to build something that’s modern,” he said. “Something that leverages state of the art technologies, that is flexible and modular, that can cater to various types of research.” It seems relevant to note that Proteus was named for a Greek seagod, whom Homer called “the Old Man of the Sea,” that was most famous for being a shapechanger.

The combination of modularity and size allows for Proteus to be used in myriad ways. The research opportunities are the most obvious. The reason Mission 31 was able to produce three years’ worth of research in a month is because of the amount of time the crew was able to spend actually on the ocean floor. A typical underwater research venture is incredibly inefficient. Due to obvious environmental constraints, divers generally get less than two hours of “bottom time” per day, and data and samples must be transported—which risks contamination—to be analyzed after-the-fact at separate facilities.

An underwater habitat, however, streamlines the process. One of the reasons surface divers are so limited in bottom time is the dangers of changing pressures. When they descend into the water, they are entering an environment of increasingly high pressure. This causes gases—most notably nitrogen—to be dissolved in the body. This is normal and not in of itself dangerous. What becomes dangerous is the diver’s subsequent ascent, from high pressure to low, as those dissolved gases will bubble back out. When the process is slow, this happens safely in the lungs, but if done too quickly, the bubbles can appear almost anywhere in the body, including the blood stream and tissues. This is known as decompression sickness—or, colloquially, “the bends”—and its symptoms run the gamut from mildly annoying to fatal.

Living in an underwater, pressurized environment negates this possibility. By never changing depths—which a scuba diver obviously has to do in order to resurface—researchers based underwater are able to “saturation dive,” which means that their tissues all reach equilibrium in the new environment. Ten hours per day? Twelve? Bottom time is suddenly limited only by a person’s tank capacity, and her need to sleep. And, with on-site laboratories, the resulting data, samples, and experiments can be conducted and collected in real-time, without risk of corruption in transit. There are even preliminary plans for a central hub of data collection, allowing all Proteus-connected researchers and scientists to collaborate.

The idea behind these designs is to accelerate the process of discovery— be it a pharmaceutical company finding, testing, and analyzing new compounds, or an academic research team monitoring ocean salinity and the effects of climate change on species of coral— but Cousteau envisions the site being used for more than just hard science. NASA has been using underwater facilities for training their astronauts since the Gemini program in the 60’s. The Navy SEALs since their inception. Companies are always looking for ways to test products in extreme environments, both out of necessity (camera equipment, drones) and out of marketability. (Sportswear brand Adidas recently announced a partnership with the ISS National Lab. They will send their popular BOOST shoe sole material to be tested on the ISS in order to “understand what it takes to create truly out-of-this-world running technology.”) And Proteus is large enough to house a significant media crew, for purposes both entertaining and educational.


Jacques Cousteau’s three Conshelf facilities were supposed to be the first three parts of a 5-station project, the goal of which was essentially to investigate how best to plumb the ocean for resources. (The main funder of the project was an oil company.) This mission was aborted after Conshelf III, as Jacques, through his research, had gained a greater understanding of the importance, and necessity, of conservationism. He canceled the rest of the project and devoted his life to preservation. (Helena Member Robert Swan’s 2041 Foundation was named for a promise he made to Jacques in 1991: that he would keep Antarctica pristine for 50 years.)

If conservation was the primary environmental battlefield of Jacques’s era, climate change is the battlefield of Cousteau’s, and Cousteau will not make the same mistake his grandfather did. He envisions Proteus being powered by clean energy sources—the current plan is to use a hybrid approach of renewables. “Proteus came about in order to stand on the shoulders of past pioneers,” Cousteau said, “and bring in new technologies, new ways of thinking, new abilities.”


A Porthole to the Future

Perhaps the most controversial moment in Jacques’s World Without Sun occurs around the twelve-minute mark. We are in the cabin, at a table. It starts with just Jacques in his silver bodysuit, hood down, and one of his team, shirtless, with a pipe in his mouth. Another member is sitting in front of the camera, blocking the right edge. We see Jacques pull his hood up over his head and leave the table. The camera cuts to another pair, talking and eating. From there the camera begins retreating, and we realize that the entire crew is there—sans Jacques—all sitting around the same table, all shirtless, all talking, all eating. The feeling is warm, comfortable. But the camera keeps retreating. Suddenly, we’re outside the Conshelf, looking at the scene through a porthole. What was warm and engaging becomes detached and remote. We continue pulling away. The light from the porthole diminishes quickly. Soon, we’re too far away. The light is gone, swallowed by the depths, and the screen is black. It’s an arresting sequence, beautiful and unsettling—even more so, I’d imagine, for those watching when it was first released.

In an otherwise glowing review, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther took issue with it. He wrote: “It is reasonable and permissible that some of the scenes should have been shot in a studio, in an aquarium and in a tank, as they evidently were. This sort of simulation was understandably necessary to assure control. For instance, a shot in which the camera moves from the interior of the underwater house through a window and away from it was obviously made in the studio. Otherwise water would have poured through the window and flooded everything.”
Crowther, despite his obvious assurance, was wrong. The shot was real. Jacques proved it after the review came out. But such was the magic of Jacques. Nobody understood better than he what is perhaps the most integral element in storytelling: the how is just as important as the what.

My conversation with Cousteau lasted two hours. He spoke at length about the necessity of Proteus, the science and statistics. He knows all the figures. Throughout the conversation, he was animated and eager; it’s something for which he clearly cares deeply. But the most excited he got, the most I saw him smile, was when he would talk about the stories. The time he saw a shark chasing after a goliath grouper, or when he got caught in an upswell of plankton so thick it was like being in a snowstorm. When he 3D printed coral in the shape of Mickey Mouse to help kids in his Ocean Learning Center understand our reefs. Proteus is as much about sharing as it is about science.
I was reminded, while he was talking, of that spectacularly mild question posed in the lavish dining hall of the Nautilus, in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I was reminded of it because of Nemo’s answer.

“You like the sea, Captain?”

“Yes, I love it! The sea is everything…Its breath is pure and healthy. It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides. The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the `Living Infinite,’ as one of your poets has said…The sea is the vast reservoir of Nature…Ah! sir, live—live in the bosom of the waters!…There I am free!”