Space Exploration can wait. Oceans can’t.

Aquanaut and Environmental Advocate

Fabien Cousteau

Fabien Cousteau is an Aquanaut, Oceanographic Explorer, Environmental Advocate, Founder of the Fabien Cousteau Ocean Learning Center, an innovator and an old friend. We had a talk about some of the amazing things he’s up to these days and how the oceans are not just the lifeblood of our world, but potentially incredible laboratories of transformative actions, discoveries and innovations.

When looking at the world today—especially when we think about technology and innovation—we see all these billionaire ‘tech bro’ leader-types who want to play with rockets and fly into space. Everyone these days seems to be obsessed with the idea of going into space, yet there’s still so little understanding about our oceans. Why do you think we’re so fascinated with ‘going up’ rather than with delving ‘into the depths?’ How can we spark the same kind of fascination towards exploring and understanding the value of our oceans?

I think the people who want to go into space want to escape the mess we’ve created here. Escaping the mess is one thing, but on a greater level—that’s just not going to happen. You don’t deal with a mess by just running away from it and pretending it doesn’t exist.

Shedding the facetiousness for a second, space exploration has always been a human curiosity—ever since we were living in caves. It’s always very enticing to look up and see those shiny little objects—those little diamonds in the sky—and wonder what on earth could be out there. But that’s the operative word, isn’t it? What on earth?

Anyone seriously into space exploration is most concerned with finding one thing: water. As far as our current technology can reach, we know that water is a very uncommon element. It’s also the main reason our little oasis in space is so special. Allow me to point out the irony of this contradiction: as we’re seeking out other planets with water on them, we’ve explored less than 5% of our ocean world to date. As far as exploration is concerned in this respect, we should be looking down—instead, we’re looking up.

We have a lot left to learn about our planet, most especially under that blue veneer. I truly believe that as we further explore our oceans, we will be better prepared to explore our outer space. Both have glaringly big similarities and parallels in the world of extreme environments. Arguably, the ocean environment is even more extreme than many of the environments (or aspects of an environment) that you would face in space. You’re dealing with things like multiple pressures and nitrogen narcosis—all sorts of things that affect a human being’s body in some fundamental way that may not even be applicable in space exploration. Yet, you’re also dealing with weightlessness and all sorts of things that would be a great anecdote for space colonization—if one were to fathom ocean colonization.

This is certainly not a new concept—when the ‘space race’ first started, there was also a lot of interest in ocean exploration. As a matter of fact, in the early 1960s, my grandfather was responsible for building some of the first underwater habitats.

There’s a lot left to be discovered in today’s world, as we look beyond terrestrial exploration into the more extreme environment—be it up or down. There’s a lot left to explore, and the only limits are imagination and technological innovation. And the latter is certainly a factor that has been hampering ocean exploration.

There’s a lot left to be discovered in today’s world, as we look beyond terrestrial exploration into the more extreme environment—be it up or down.

Let’s go back to the topic of extreme environments. When you did Mission 31, so much of that—the isolation, the confined environment—reminded me of a space exploration, perhaps something like an ‘inner’ space. Can you talk a little bit about your experiences of ocean exploration—what you accomplished there, what you were trying to move forward in that regard?

That’s a great example of extreme environment living. Mission 31 was very interesting on several levels. For starters, one of the limitations we were faced with, unfortunately, was that we were based out of a very antiquated underwater habitat—because it was (and continues to be) the only one in existence. Actually, it’s no longer currently functioning; but at the time it was the only choice we had.

You broke it?

Yeah. Well, the hurricane broke it, but we certainly challenged it beyond its limits. To give some background: the habitat consisted of 600 square feet of internal space. But, then you had to cram in all the technology needed for life support, for communications, for sleeping quarters, for the galley. Then, of course, you also had to fit the aquanaut deployment area, called a wet port, where you ingress and egress from the habitat in your full scuba gear or hard hat with air supply and everything else. And of course, let’s not forget about all the scientific equipment and related accessories.

So, it’s certainly a cozy environment for six people to be crammed into. And it’s really built for a weeklong deployment, not 31 days. Despite all that—and despite the fact the technology itself should have been updated many, many years prior—we were able to do over three years’ worth of scientific research in 31 days. This included preliminary physiological and psychological experiments, as well as judging perimeters and the surrounding conditions for extreme environment living. It was quite interesting on that level; and I could easily fathom this being a fantastic platform that could be applied to pushing longer, further, and deeper into space exploration. Or, it could at least be used as potential training for space exploration, or interspace exploration—which could take us farther than the 5% we’ve explored to date.

When it comes to exploring areas that are out of the habitat, one thing you gain in ocean exploration is the luxury of time. That’s something everyone is always battling when scuba-diving or in conducting scientific experiments that involve having to come down from the surface. It’s something that’s even a challenge for those who are in a submarine, or even deploying an ROV. This is all part of the general highlights of a platform such as a habitat that allow for us to do things that we simply can’t do anywhere else.

Despite all this, if you look at the investment in technology and technological innovation for space exploration as opposed to ocean exploration, space exploration gets a mindblowing 100 times more than ocean exploration, which is pretty phenomenal. That’s a real head-scratcher for me—considering all the similarities, all the insights that we have to gain from ocean exploration. And by that, I mean countless things from biochemistry to biomechanics, to just understanding climate change better, to cures for cancer… The list really goes on and on. Natural resources; renewable energies, and so on and so forth. Why are we not exploring the ocean further and more intensively—so that we can not only learn more about our planet and live in a more symbiotic relationship with it, but also as a means to help better prepare those who do want to go and explore the limits of outer space?

I know you especially work a lot with young people. How do you foster engagement? What seems to be working with the Ocean Learning Center?

Certainly, I would hope that for those who have never thought of, imagined, or been inherently curious of the alien world that is the ocean—allowing them a peek through the keyhole of the proverbial front door would spark a curiosity and a desire to learn more, to open that door and step in. When it comes to the Ocean Learning Center, the topic itself is so amazing, so that’s a great start. In my production company, we work on creating captivating audiovisuals as tools to impassion and empower people into doing better for the environment just by fostering understanding. In essence, it all falls into the guiding philosophy I grew up with, and something that my grandfather always said: “People protect what they love, they love what they understand, and they understand what they are taught.”

Now, all of this is just rhetoric. To say that if you give someone an experience—a personal experience, a personal understanding of a foreign environment, topic, creature, what have you—then they’ll have a deepened and much more integral connection with that subject matter. The hope is that deepened connection will breed a love and a desire to protect how rare, unusual, unique, and valuable that particular subject is.

For me, the subject is the environment—which includes, of course, our aquatic planet, as well as the surrounding issue of conservation. The beauty of this is that by and large, when you expose someone who’s never really thought about the ocean on a deeper level, they discover how weird and wonderful and strange and just full of wonders it is. The more you can really envelop them in an understanding, the more you’ll foster in them a desire and a hope to search for ways to better protect our life support system. Because, at the end of the day, the ocean is why we exist. Imagine our planet without the ocean. We’d just be a round, lifeless rock, floating in space—just like all the others. The only thing that makes us different is water. That aquatic ecosystem. Every other breath that you or I take is thanks to the ocean. Every aspect of our lives—the weather, food, everything—is thanks to the fact that we have an ocean ecosystem that allows for those things to happen and to cater to our existence.

When it comes to exploring areas that are out of the habitat, one thing you gain in ocean exploration is the luxury of time.

Historically, oceans were always seen as a testbed of innovation. With disciplines like mathematics, exploration, mining technologies, and transport and navigation—we seem to be in a new wave of technologies relying on the ocean. These include some things that could be harmful, like desalination, and other new technologies that work in harmony with the sea, like wave energy, deep sea wind, and even biotech. What kinds of ocean technologies are exciting to you?

Thanks to today’s technology—by comparison to what was available in my grandfather’s time—we’re much better able to communicate with the world. Because of that, we’re also better able to engage people in some of the fun and curiosities and concerns that we have about our aquatic ecosystem. So, I believe a lot of the traction we’re getting these days is thanks to folks being able to connect. With that said, it also breeds a double-edged sword; there’s a lot of white noise out there drowning out the more poignant information and interesting stories. At the end of the day, however, all this creates to more opportunities to engage people in various ways.

There are some amazing technological innovations underway—but not nearly enough, because there’s not nearly enough funding. You named off a few that are energy-generating, but they’re all on a case-by-case basis. And let’s bear in mind that most of the energy we’re talking about is peak energy; the problem with peak energy is that you need a storage medium for off-peak times (which happen to be a lot of the time), whether it’s wind or solar or what have you. Or even wave energy. Wave energy, in some places, is fairly constant—but it’s certainly not constantly reliable.

Having said all that, some technologies that have been by and large ignored—despite their technological innovation, as well as their pragmatic nature—are things like Ocean Thermal Energy, which has been around since 1930, they just haven’t been getting any traction. In some cases, the forces behind traditional fuels (what I call ‘dark fuels’) and energy systems are focused on eliminating the competition (or potential competition). In other cases, it’s a matter of the world just liking the convenience—at least in the past—and the price of traditional fuels.

Now that we’re in a new era and a new world, all these different kinds of innovations that you mentioned are certainly a result of us changing our bad habits, and leveraging what nature gives us as a way to meet our world’s current energy needs. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do that in a way that is scaled, without having to impact the environment in a significant sense, and while still allowing for companies to live and thrive in a world where an economic infrastructure is the driving force.

It’s certainly exciting. I can’t wait to see where these different technologies will take us—from being in beta or 1.0 versions to much more evolved and in ways that allow us to provide—not only the things we need, but some of the things that we are seeking. And hopefully, this will all unfold in  a way that’s much more balanced with our life support system, all the while, of course, allowing us to live our daily lives—marine biologists or not.

We’re seeing a rise in innovative efforts to heal the oceans, given how much we’ve exploited them in the past. You had your Plant A Fish initiative; there’s also an effort to send pollution-capturing technologies out to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Can you speak a little bit more about these ocean-healing initiatives?

With Plant A Fish, we found we were limited by scale, so the initiative got absorbed into the Ocean Learning Center programs as a way to enable scaling up. And that’s what we’re very excited about, because the increased interest gives me hope that people are paying more and more attention to our aquatic planet. The technologies and interests that are out there are certainly gaining prevalence. However, in terms of my desires, they’re not nearly as prevalent as they should be at this stage. We have a lot of progress to make, but it’s really interesting to see a lot of ideas coming out from all corners of the world to try and clean up our act, so to speak.

By that, I mean we’ve used our planet as an endless resource and a garbage can for countless years. And for a while, it worked, because we were a smaller community. But, now that our population has grown—and continues to grow in leaps and bounds—the pressure is increasing. When you’re talking about things like dumping over a million pounds of plastic in our ocean every hour of every day, that’s a huge impact we’re having on this planet. And although I applaud the folks who are building machines that can (or at least hope to) clean up the mess we’ve created out there, and all the plastic we dumped out there—the solution in my mind still relies on education and on the love that is needed in order to stop the problem at its source.

The fact remains: all we’re doing right now with this new technology is cleaning up other people’s garbage. And although that’s absolutely necessary in order to clean up our ecosystem so that we can have a clean place to live—unless we clean up our act in the first place, as a global community—we won’t actually solve the problem. We’re only encouraging people to keep up their bad habits—because now, all of a sudden, people start thinking, “Oh, other people are taking care of the problem. I can keep going on and living my life the way I am, and trashing the place, and eating unsustainably, and leaving the lights on, and leaving the water running…” And so on and so forth. And our bad habits are what got us here in the first place, each and every one of us. I have them, you have them, everybody has them. If we can start there—if we can start working at eliminating or at least minimizing the source problem, as well as cleaning up the repercussions—then we’ve got a formula that works. Only by attacking the problem from both sides can we catch up to the decades upon decades and decades of abuse that our life support system has caused.

We also have to remember we’re in a closed loop system. The planet is a closed loop system, with a couple of exceptions, like receiving energy from the sun and occasionally a few tidbits from the universe sending it our way. But by and large, we are a closed loop system, so garbage in, garbage out. And we need to be able to stop dumping things in that ecosystem. I’ll give you a very brief example.

Right now, people, whether they know it or not, when they’re eating sea life, they’re now eating their own garbage—and that includes plastics or PBDEs from the plastics, radiation, DDT, and so on and so forth. And most people don’t know that. The stuff that people typically love to spray all over their lawn to kill weeds—that stuff ends up in the ocean. That stuff doesn’t break down. Those chemical compositions are known carcinogens that have sent people to the hospital and killed people from cancer. I’m talking about hundreds and thousands of people. Yet we don’t talk about that. We’re quite literally poisoning ourselves by poisoning our ecosystem, and that’s just one example of many that we’ve managed to accumulate over decades of our life support system.

So, we really, really need to understand that although technological innovation is fantastic and is very useful if used in the right ways, we need to also change ourselves into a much more conscious being, someone or a community that is much more conducive to understanding that in order for us to live and thrive, in order for us to be healthy, our planet needs to be healthy.

If we can start there—if we can start working at eliminating or at least minimizing the source problem, as well as cleaning up the repercussions—then we’ve got a formula that works.

And that’s a nice segue, actually, because my next question was about us, our role in this, and in your case, about you and your role as an innovator—whether it be Mission 31, or the robotic shark you did, which was the subject of your documentary ‘Mind of a Demon.’ All of these are really creative takes on subjects that have been in existence for a long time. How do you come about generating new ideas, and then in developing these ideas out to make them into something?

Oh, that’s funny. It’s usually a three o’clock in the morning brain fart. When you’re sleeping and your circadian rhythms are in full swing, that’s usually when the most beta stuff happens. If anyone can remember their dreams, you know that your dreams are completely whacked out and completely off the deep end. But the essence of those dreams, where you can do pretty much everything and you can think pretty much anything, is really kind of the creative energy that bears some of these ideas.

I was brought up in a family where the word ‘impossible’ was a four letter word—it didn’t exist. It’s an excuse for many people in the world just to do nothing, right? Or to hide behind excuses. I’ve seen people create miracles when they’ve put themselves to task and when they decide they want to do something. And we’ve done some amazing things, if we don’t take the word ‘impossible’ into account.

What that said, Mind of a Demon and Mission 31 and a lot of the other crazy ideas I’ve had are just a product of thinking outside the box and saying, let’s not focus on what’s not possible, but rather let’s focus on what can be, what should be. Why dwell on making yourself or giving yourself parameters and walls, instead of looking at the future—and looking at discovery and possibilities as a wide-open field in a three-dimensional or even four-dimensional way.

I mean, life is exciting. This planet is so unique. We are so lucky to be here, to be intelligent beings, to be creative, to use our neural networks to really create things that haven’t even been imagined yet. And that’s what’s going to bring us to a point of solution-building, a point of equilibrium as far as our planet is concerned and our living on this planet, and a possibility of going down to the depths of our ocean to the limits of the universe. It’s the only way we’ll be able to do it, if we don’t make excuses and look at life as infinite possibilities.

What’s your next adventure? What’s the next thing on the docket?

Oh, the next adventure is the one I’m not telling anyone about. You’ll have to wait until the press release comes out! But I do have a couple of adventures I’m on right now that haven’t been announced yet. One of them involves working with my father and my sister, and we’re on a whole new quest, which is fantastic. Being able to work together with family is always wonderful.

Beyond that, we also have some other fantastic endeavors. I’m working with the WWF on a co-production highlighting some hopeful stories out there in the world from folks who are in some of the farthest reaches of the planet that are actually working to not only protect our coral reefs, but they’re also doing it in a way that is beneficial to themselves and to their community. They’re finding new solutions to work with the environment, as well as providing for themselves and their families. It’s really wonderful. It’s called Ocean Witness, and there’s a website out there for that if you’re interested in reading more.

We’re really excited to highlight not only urgent stories and stories of stress and strife in the world, but more importantly, what people are doing about it and where this is coming from. Hopefully, that will encourage other people to think a little bit beyond their immediate environment, and really think about what they can do as individuals and as communities in their own ecosystems so that they can have hope for a better future. Hopefully, they can see that all the things they’ve taken for granted their entire lives, they’ll be able to give back to their children for them to enjoy.

In my production company, we work on creating captivating audiovisuals as tools to impassion and empower people into doing better for the environment just by fostering understanding.

Now that you’re working with your dad and your sister, do you have any regrets going into the family business?

No, not a single one—difficult as it may be. People think oh, yeah, family business, so of course you’ll all just mesh and it’ll be easy. But let’s not underestimate how difficult it is. Not necessarily just to work with family—I mean there are pros and cons to working with family, as a lot of people know—but more importantly, it’s a double-edged sword.

My grandfather was a pioneer. He’s a very unique person. He was one that really made his mark on the world and allowed for hundreds of millions of people to fall in love with the ocean. Most of the things that we do today, that we take for granted in ocean exploration and documentary filmmaking, were pioneering efforts by my grandfather, his team, and his cohort. Everything from the simple breath that you take on scuba-diving to a Gopro (another underwater camera). All those things were pioneered back in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. People like my grandfather, his team, folks at MIT, and other places around the world—they created those things, they weren’t already in existence in those times.

My point is, it’s certainly not easy to be compared because inevitably people, human beings, have a tendency to compare to such a legendary pioneer. With that said, I’m very thankful that I grew up in a family, an era, and in a world that gave me the gift of knowledge and places and things that most people will never get a chance to do. It’s what made me ‘me,’ and it’s what gives me my drive and my philosophy and my hope that we can, together, all row in the same proverbial direction for a better future. I mean, at the end of the day, it all comes back to what my grandfather said, which is people protect what they love. And I’ve fallen in love with the ocean world.

I think it’s great that you have that. Having that sort of ‘North Star’—that ‘thing’ that just makes sense to a person—can change everything in someone’s life. I think along with any and all of the pressure you might have gotten, you were also given that lovely gift of a North Star—something to really appreciate and love and cherish. Even if you went in a different direction, that would still always be there for you.

And if you’re a surfer or a sailor, you obviously have a love for the ocean as well, so I’m sure you feel it in your veins. It’s a magical place that we live on, this planet Earth. And that’s the thing. At the end of the day, we need to start living, knowing, understanding, and living with the planet rather than on the planet. Because the planet will go on without us. It’s up to us to choose whether we want to be there in the long-term or not.

George Carlin used to have the joke that man was basically just the surface nuisance; we’re just fleas—the planet doesn’t need us. And it doesn’t. It all exists very simply, with or without us. That’s all the more reason for us to care for it.

We really should never be so arrogant as to think that we control anything. We are just visitors on this planet, and our invitation can very easily be revoked.

As the first grandson of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Fabien spent his early years aboard his famous grandfather’s ships, Calypso and Alcyone; and learning how to scuba dive on his fourth birthday. He is well known for his study of sharks and from 2000-2002, Fabien was an Explorer-at-Large for National Geographic and collaborated on a TV special aimed at changing public conceptions about sharks called, “Attack of the Mystery Shark,”. Then in 2003-2006, he produced the documentary, “Mind of a Demon,” that aired on CBS. With the help of a large crew, Fabien created a 14-foot, 1,200-pound, lifelike shark submarine called “Troy” that enabled him to immerse himself inside the shark world, providing viewers with a rare view of the mysterious and often misunderstood creatures. For the next four years (2006-2010), Fabien was part of a multi-hour series for PBS called, “Ocean Adventures” with his father, Jean-Michel Cousteau, and sister, Céline. Inspired by his grandfather’s famous 1978 PBS series, “The Cousteau Odyssey”. In the following years, and as a member of multiple cause-driven and charitable boards Fabien has been working with local communities and children worldwide to help restore local water ecosystems. In June 2014, Fabien and his team of aquanauts embarked on Mission 31, the longest science expedition to take place at Aquarius, the world’s only underwater marine laboratory located in Florida. Fabien’s Mission 31 broke new ground in ocean exploration and honored the 50th anniversary of his grandfather’s original underwater living experiment (Conshelf Two) by going deeper, longer and further, while broadcasting each moment live on multiple channels exposing the world to the adventure, drama and mystique of what lies beneath.

Early in 2016 he founded the Fabien Cousteau Ocean Learning Center (“OLC”) to fulfill his dream of creating a vehicle to make a positive change in the world. Currently he is working on multiple projects and dedicates much of his time to the exciting programs and initiatives of the OLC. He is routinely seen on network television, such as the Oprah Winfrey Show, Gayle King, and NBC’s Today Show as well as appearing on ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, CNN, France 2, NPR, MSNBC and many more.

Keep up with Fabien on LinkedIn , Twitter, and Instagram.

Illustration by Mateusz Kolek