Just like his grandfather Jacques Cousteau, who opened up the wonders of the oceans to a global audience, Fabien Cousteau is launching an ambitious initiative to further explore the hidden depths of the world that lies below.

Words Michel Cruz, Photography Courtesy of Proteus Ocean Group

Just like his grandfather Jacques Cousteau, who opened up the wonders of the oceans to a global audience, Fabien Cousteau is launching an ambitious initiative to further explore the hidden depths of the world that lies below.

Words Michel Cruz, Photography Courtesy of Proteus Ocean Group

Did you know that the oceans of planet earth are less explored by mankind than space? This means that we have ventured into the alien void more than we have submerged below the waves to discover what really lies below. You might find this hard to believe, given the many thousands of years of fishing and exploring that have gone on around the world, but such activities have been largely limited to the surface and have probed very little beyond.

In fact, for literally millennia, humans were limited to the upper reaches of these vast liquid worlds, able only to scratch the surface and wonder what the endless depths held. Pearl divers stretched the capacity of the human body, while even in classical times inventors experimented with diving suits tethered to long cables that provided a vital air supply, yet it wasn’t before Fabien’s grandfather, Jacques perfected the aqua lung that the modern underwater breathing apparatus was born, and exploration of the seas took on a deeper meaning.

Continuing A Family Tradition

Jacques Cousteau is known and revered the world over as one of the pioneers of marine exploration and the man who brought images and knowledge of the oceans and seas back to us. For most, it was a world almost as alien as space itself, and indeed, there are many similarities between the two types of exploration. Surrounded by a family of explorers, Fabien first dived into the Mediterranean Sea with a scuba tank strapped to his back at the age of four and joined one of the famous Cousteau explorations at the tender age of seven.

The name Cousteau is synonymous with ocean exploration and conservation, thanks to both Jacques and Fabien’s father Jean-Michel. He and his sister Céline have continued the family tradition of underwater fascination. “The love of the oceans is almost genetic with us, instilled from such a young age and nurtured throughout life,” says the modern pioneer of the seas, whose daring close-up study of shark species has made the world see these creatures in a new light.

Proteus Ocean Group

After over 40 years of exploration – Fabien sailed on his first official exploration at the age of 12 – he is honouring the memory of Jacques Cousteau by continuing the pioneering philosophy of his family, launching an oceanographic initiative bold enough to challenge space exploration itself. Besides the many activities of the Proteus Ocean Group, which include exploration, scientific research and conservation programmes, as well as educating people about the need to care for the seas, the new project functions as a spearhead.

“We collaborate with many worthy organisations such as From the Heart Tribe to spread information and knowledge, create communities involved with ocean and beach clean-ups, and develop technologies and indeed economic models that rejuvenate the environment and create sustainable products and businesses.” Vionic Shoes is a fine example of this, as it produces a range of attractive beach footwear made entirely from refuse collected on the beaches and offshore areas of developing countries.

“We are very conscious of the requirement to balance environmental and human needs, so any sustainable solution on the protection and recovery of the environment will have to also involve economic models that make that possible while also creating opportunities through technological development and new, more full-circle ways of doing things,” says Fabien. “Vionic’s use of beach and sea-based refuse as a raw material for its beautifully designed and made products is a perfect example of this, and the blueprint for how we will be able to clean our environment while evolving the way we make and consume products. This kind of investment in and development of the blue as well as the green economy is vital, but make no mistake, protecting the land, sea and sky is not optional, as its health is vital to our own existence and quality of life.”

The next dimension – exploring the ocean’s depths

To facilitate this process, we need to understand a lot more about the seas, and in particular their inner depths. “The sea is today less well-explored than space, less than 5% of it’s vast area of 3.4 billion km3 has been properly visited and researched, there is so much more to learn and to understand that will help us not only in terms of conservation and rejuvenation, but also in managing its resources better. For instance, besides food and other products, the world’s oceans produce 60% of our oxygen supply.”

For this reason, Fabien Cousteau plans to build a revolutionary underwater research centre that will serve as a permanent base for the next generations of aquanauts – the nautical equivalent of space’s astronauts. Modelled on the ISS (International Space Station), the first ProteusTM underwater station will be built off the island of Curaçao in the Caribbean to become the world’s leading maritime research tech hub and living complex, capable of housing teams of scientists and researchers for weeks and even months on end.

Built in a modular fashion, ProteusTM will contain a loading dock, compression chambers, a data centre, wet and dry laboratories, living and sleeping quarters, a renewable power plant, and a studio that will broadcast feeds across the world so that people can follow the progress live. “More elements can be added later, as required,” says the man who is driving the greatest development in ocean exploration ever, taking it to a level comparable with the likes of Nasa, Space X, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin.

We want to do for ocean research what they have done for space exploration, and with a similar focus on private sector initiative and investment.” Faced by decades of neglect by governments and international agencies, Cousteau and the Proteus Ocean Group aim to take the initiative and develop a facility that should have been around for some time now. “This is not crazy thinking, we began developing this way back in the 1960s but later stopped, never renewing early underwater labs such as Conshelf – built in 1962 – and Aquarius.”

Mission 31 – Deep Sea Living

From 1st June to 2nd July 2014, Fabien and five colleagues spent 31 consecutive days under water within the Aquarius submerged laboratory nine kilometres off Key Largo in Florida. Positioned 20 metres below the surface on the ocean floor, it has been hosting research teams for over 50 years and this cramped cabin is one of just three such facilities in the world. “What’s more, most date back 50 to 60 years, indicating the neglect of the past decades.”

The 31-day stay was the longest of its kind in history, and a valuable experiment that provided a great deal of insight into how the human body and mind might adapt to long periods of time spent under water. “With ProteusTM we plan to venture deeper down and have a station form which to launch diving teams and submersibles, eventually creating a network of them around the world that will greatly enhance our knowledge of the one environment that is the main support system on earth.”

Planned for completion in the next few years and presented recently at the Space and Underwater Tourism Universal Summit (SUTUS) in Marbella, ProteusTM will revolutionise our understanding of the seas in a process started by the legendary Jacques Cousteau and now continued by his grandson. “We’re opening a new era of Inner Space Exploration that is every bit as exciting as space travel and will uncover new knowledge of the world we already inhabit.”