Mission 31: An Aquanaut’s Journey

It had been a long day, and I fell face-first into my bunk, exhausted. As I started to close my eyes, the bunkroom suddenly lit up like an airport landing strip. Sitting straight up, I looked directly toward the source of the light to see a huge tarpon swim by the viewport window. With each pass its silvery body reflected the habitat’s bow light back into our bunkroom. This spectacle was amazing, and that window would become our team’s theater screen for many more unbelievable shows over the next several weeks.

That night was June 1, 2014 — my first night as a resident of the Aquarius Reef Base underwater laboratory. Starting that day, I was tucked away in my new aquatic home with scientists Andy Shantz, Adam Zenone, expedition leader Fabien Cousteau and our two habitat technicians, Mark “Otter” Hulsbeck and Ryan LaPete. We had just completed two weeks of intensive dive training, and I was looking forward to finally starting my job as one of two aquanaut documentary shooters saturating with Mission 31.

Diver emerges from an underwater base
Fabien Cousteau emerges from Aquarius Reef Base during a working dive in the course of his 31-day saturation at 63 feet.

The Aquarius Habitat

Located some nine miles off the coast of Key Largo, Fla., in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Aquarius is a complex underwater structure that sits at a depth of 63 feet. The structure is tethered to a life-support buoy on the surface; a team of highly trained Florida International University (FIU) scientists, including professional divers and engineers, operate the habitat from a command center in Islamorada, Fla. Aquarius is the only remaining underwater laboratory in the world, and it is dedicated to helping scientists study the ocean and its inhabitants for extended periods.

Resident aquanauts can spend days or even weeks underwater using an advanced diving technique called saturation diving. One of the benefits of saturation diving is that an aquanaut from Aquarius can remain at depth outside the habitat for extended periods with a reduced risk of decompression sickness. This is because the diver has already absorbed the maximum amount of nitrogen for that depth. In fact, if a diver were to stay at the same depth as the habitat, then he could dive indefinitely because the dive would not — at least in theory — involve any decompression.

Saturation diving requires special training and preparation, so each member of our team had to pass a battery of medical exams, challenging swim tests, checkout dives and hardhat training to qualify as an aquanaut for Mission 31. We also participated in classroom instruction that covered everything from how to use the gazebo — a small external structure containing survival necessities to be used in case of emergency — to how to use the restroom.

Mission 31

Cousteau created Mission 31 as a tribute to his late grandfather, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who spent 30 days underwater in the Continental Shelf Station Two underwater habitat in the Red Sea in 1963. Mission 31 derives its name from Fabien Cousteau’s goal of having a team of aquanauts live underwater for 31 days — one day longer than his grandfather’s team did 51 years ago.

Our time underwater was busy: We had 4:30 a.m. wake-up calls for early-morning science experiments; we hosted VIP visitors from the surface; and we received daily deliveries from U.S. Navy divers, who used water-tight pressure pots to transfer food and other supplies to the habitat.

An entire topside team was dedicated to our personal welfare and safety. Led by Roger Garcia and Tom Potts, FIU employees monitored the mission 24 hours a day, keeping track of our oxygen and carbon-dioxide levels, power usage, food reserves and medical needs.

Memorable Experiences

During my time as an aquanaut, I became very fond of late-afternoon diving. With unlimited air and up to nine hours of bottom time, I often planned my dives to coincide with twilight, taking advantage of better water clarity to view the transitioning animals coming up from the deep. I must admit, however, that I also relished the opportunity to dive alone (while tethered to the habitat) after all the visitors had returned to Islamorada.

Three men cram together in a tight space to take a selfie
Three divers explore sunken columns

I spent several late evenings with Cousteau using our Light and Motion lights and filming fish, invertebrates and even corals that exhibited fluorescent properties (see “Seeing the Reef in a New Light” in Advanced Diving). On one spectacular evening, Shantz, Zenone and I encountered swarming plankton, dozens of reef squid, aggressive barracuda and even a loggerhead turtle all within an arm’s reach of the habitat. Some of these evening shoots can be viewed on the Mission 31 YouTube channel.

These night dives were truly remarkable, but so were the late-night shows that occurred while we were snug in our bunks. On several occasions we watched a goliath grouper that we named Sylvia (in honor of aquanaut Sylvia Earle) feeding right outside our window. She would often hang within inches of the glass and dart after small fish with amazing speed.

On one particular evening we all watched in astonishment as Sylvia attacked a pushy barracuda that had been invading her turf. In all my years of diving, I had never documented a grouper attacking a barracuda.


Employing the tools of the 21st century to take a page out of his grandfather’s documentary past, Cousteau used the Internet to educate the public about Mission 31 and the ocean. Engaging students and followers via Skype, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and traditional media, Cousteau and our team reached hundreds of millions of people across the globe with blogs, videos and even underwater selfies. Along the way our production team produced 31 videos documenting not only life inside Aquarius but also stories that were taking place on shore. Some of my favorite videos were produced with our partners Nokia, Doxa, Backscatter, and Light and Motion.

Mission 31 scientists from FIU and Northeastern University collected enough data to publish at least 10 scientific studies during the 31 days of saturation. Cousteau and our team participated in 70 Skype sessions with schools, universities, camps and the media. Mission 31 was both a personal and professional journey for me, and it will remain one of the greatest adventures of my life.

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© Alert Diver — Q4 201 Fall 2014