Researchers ready for historic aquatic ‘Mission’

This story is part of an ongoing series highlighting Northeastern’s research efforts at Mission 31. Full coverage.

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.