The Great Depths of a Dynasty: Cousteau Legacy Lives in ITV Mini Doc Mission Aquarius
By Nathan Savin Scott
Before Jules Verne wrote his seminal 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the great depths of our oceans have long fascinated the modern world. The ocean floor is a veritable alien landscape where mysterious creatures live, the barometric pressure is crushing, and light is scarce, if present at all.
It’s no mistake that the people who explore this terrain are called “aquanauts.” They operate in just as foreign of an environment as our astronauts do. It’s hard to discern which trip is more terrifying.
We’ve gotten to know a few of these courageous aquanauts in the special KoldCast TV mini series Mission Aquarius, the story about one team of these deep-sea explorers, led by Dr. Sylvia Earle, that went on a six-day expedition to the Aquarius Reef Base located in the Florida Keys National Marine sanctuary.
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Since 1993, Aquarius has been helping us study coral reefs, train astronauts for space, and conduct research on several species that may hold the key to the cure for cancer. With funding drying up, Dr. Earle filmed her team at Aquarius for what may very well have been their last mission.
Joining Dr. Earle was a group of dedicated divers and scientists, including a name we instantly associate with oceanic research: Fabien Cousteau, grandson of the legendary deep-sea explorer Jacques Cousteau. With Fabien aboard Aquarius continuing his grandfather’s legacy of exploring the world’s oceans, there is hope yet for actuating man’s curiosity of the great below.
The Original Aquanaut
In 1915, a little boy with an adventurous spirit dreamed of flying in Gironde, France. At 20, Jacques-Yves Cousteau joined the French Navy after school. The Navy allowed Cousteau to begin designing an early prototype of the Aqualung, the first self-contained breathing device for underwater dives. This aqualung is where the acronym SCUBA is derived from — “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus”.
Cousteau was committed to spreading his message about the wonders of the deep. In 1937 he married Simone Melchior and the two began making documentary films of their underwater excursions, whose never before seen images quickly caught fire around the world. They were showing people an entirely new universe on our very own planet, which they recorded from their private vessel, Calypso.
Jaques and Simone’s two sons were raised on the ship and became accomplished divers in their own right. The rough seas, however, proved a difficult place to nurture children. Arguments, infighting, and tragedy all marked the Cousteau family’s journey in the years following their success.
For a wonderful parody of the Cousteaus’ life on Calypso, look no further than perhaps what is Wes Anderson’s quirkiest film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which shows Bill Murray leading his family and friends on a worldwide ocean tour aboard the Belafonte. Harry Belafonte once recorded an album called Calypso, a subtle nod to the boat that inspired the ship in the film.
Fabien’s Family Values
Fabien Cousteau is the son of Jean-Michel, who is unfortunately remembered best for an ugly legal battle with Jacques after attempting to use the family name to brand a private resort. Fabien literally grew up in the water, learning to scuba dive at a young age, and eager to continue his grandfather’s legacy and restore harmony to the Cousteau name.
The Plant A Fish Foundation teaches children the importance of preserving our oceans all over the world.
Now in his 40s, Fabien wanted to join the expedition to Aquarius, in part to lend his name to the expedition, but mostly because he’s as fanatical about our deepest oceans as his grandfather was. When Fabien learned this could be the final mission to Aquarius, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. In addition to working with Dr. Earle, Fabien Cousteau is executive director of Plant A Fish, a nonprofit group that educates and activates communities on ocean restoration, launched in honor of Jacque’s 100th birthday.
A conversation with Fabien Cousteau and Dr. Silvia Earle streamed straight from the ocean floor
Dr. Sylvia Earle: Continuing the Legacy
Sylvia Earle is fashioning her own life aquatic. She is married to Graham Hawkes, a submarine engineer who has built some of the most advanced high depth submarines in the water today. Together, they have created their own underwater life, pushing each other to dive deeper, explore farther, and learn as much as they can through this momentous mission to Aquarius.
From interviews given by aquanauts, it becomes clear that there is a fraternity amongst them derived from their strong dedication to a cause. This singularity of purpose – to explore and restore our oceans – combined with shared experience, makes it clear why people who do this tend to be tight knit, and why so many families pass this profession on.
The incredible wonder of the ocean depths is hard to explain to people who haven’t experienced it, and once they’ve had a taste it’s harder to let go. In an interview with American Public Media, Dr. Earle describes her attraction to the deep below:
“I saw the flash and sparkle and glow of bioluminescent creatures. There were corals that just grow in a single stretch, no branches, like giant bedsprings from the ocean floor. And when I touched them, little rings of blue fire pulsed all the way down from where I touched to the base of these spiraling creatures.”
Deep-sea divers are not thrill seekers like skydivers or bungee jumpers. The rush is not about how deep you are—but rather the secret world you reveal that is masked by the incredible depth. The images Earle described were seen at 1,250 feet below, where little to no light permeates. She compares herself to biologists, even bird watchers. Dr. Earle wants to see nature, unfettered and pure. Fortunately or unfortunately, one of the last places to do that is the ocean floor.
The Future of the Deep
Raising awareness for Aquarius, and hopefully proving to the world that these expeditions need government funding, the public’s support, and warrant our interest to begin with, is no easy task. KoldCast TV’s documentary series Mission Aquarius is more than just informative and entertaining, it’s a tool to spread awareness of these needs.
The series allows us to reignite our passion for this planet’s unseen wonders and join a quest for the mysteries of the deep started by Jacques Cousteau over a century ago. Mission Aquarius utilizes high-definition underwater cameras, compelling scientific breakthroughs, and the unrelenting dedication of the aquanauts to bring these mysteries to light, and the ocean to life, in a way the forefather of ocean exploration could have only dreamed of.
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Nathan Savin Scott is a freelance writer who lives in Washington, DC. He has appeared in Newsweek, ESPN, Thought Catalog, and others.