Fabien Cousteau: Becoming A Shark – Part I

Fabien Cousteau is laughing; we have talked for the past 15 minutes about his new documentary and I realized that the tape recorder’s red light, the sign of liveliness for such a piece of… technology, is not on!

“Oh well we will start anew, don’t worry.” He said in a kind voice.

Fabien is the grandson of world renowned underwater cinematographer and Scuba co inventor Jacques Yves Cousteau, and son of well known Sea Explorer and environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau. I thought of titling this interview “Cousteau: The Next Generation” but decided it was too Hollywood. For a man who has been focusing on destroying (so to speak) the negative image of sharks that the motion picture industry created and has been cultivating in many movies for decades.  In his new documentary Fabien is using the same technology that Hollywood uses to prove to the general public that “Jaws” is not to be feared but instead to be protected and admired as a fantastic Apex predator. It is not the first time that Fabien is focusing on sharks. In 2002 he hosted a show on National Geographic TV “In Search Of the Mystery Shark” where he investigated the first recorded shark attack in U.S. History in 1916. I pushed the record button again and this time made sure the red light was there, this time we were on. 

Since it is your second or even third documentary on sharks, I would like to ask what is the inspiration that brought you to become such a fierce defender of this specific species?

Being born in this family, I was very privileged without really knowing it, to be able to discover extraordinary places on this planet while accompanied by great teachers of immeasurable worth. I was always told from a very young age, when I first started diving at 4 years old that sharks are just another animal worth revering and respecting. When I was 7 years old or so we were on a Princess Cruise where my father was lecturing and I had, against my parents’ wishes, snuck into the movie “Jaws”.  I had come out of there, not scared, not having nightmares, but very puzzled and full of confusion. Here was a movie portraying a great white shark eating boats , eating people doing all sorts of things  that I had grown up to that point knowing otherwise. Needless to say when I asked questions to my parents I got in trouble for having seen the movie! But then was I subsequently told that it was fantasy.

As time goes on and fast forwarding to now the “Year of the Shark” reinitiated the anger and the concern that I have against such misconceptions. The press covering the event was in my opinion fluffed up and overall inaccurate.  My biggest concerns obviously are for the well being of the shark in this case. The image that we all have of “Jaws” coming back to haunt us again to this day is in my view absolutely unacceptable.  Although I am all for fantasy, it has gotten to a point now where it is extremely detrimental to a specific species on this planet. Over 200 million sharks are being slaughtered every year.

So from what I heard Fabien Cousteau is about to become a Shark? Tell me more.

Fabien smiles and explains:  when I was a kid inspired by the comic strip “Tintin et le trésor de Rackam le rouge” I had decided I wanted to become a shark!

(Quick note for those of you not familiar with this famous European comic strip. In this episode , the Hero “Tintin” search the ocean floor for a treasure by the mean of a sub that looks like a shark)

I took the idea of childhood and made it real in the adult world. By melting together both the ecological perspective and conservation idea with my fantasy of always wanting to be “intermingled” and try to be as much of a shark as possible I decided to build a submarine that would look, move and potentially behave like a great white shark. It made for perfect sense to create an expedition to go study great white sharks up-close and personal.

 And beyond that, to study their cognition, their intelligence because that is the root of what our misconceptions are of the sharks targeting us as food. Drawing out this expedition I decided to focus on and study certain shark behaviors: the predatory behavior their feeding habits, their agonistic behavior which is basically their territoriality, and their hierarchy within themselves. Also their curious investigation which is when they come by and check you out or come and brush up against something to feel what it is, whether or not it might be a food source. And their combative behavior, their territoriality and “hunching of the back” signs that it is time to exit their area before they actually attack and become aggressive toward each other. It goes on from there to “social grabbing”, sexual behaviors and finally random encounters behavior.

How do you go about becoming a shark? What are the technical aspects of it?

The idea is to create a shark submarine.  And not just a sub that goes with sharks but a sub that looks, acts, moves, feels, and even is anatomically similar to an adult great white shark. We now have the shark semi built. It is 14 feet long with stainless steel ribbing to hold the structure of the “shark”. It has a material called “skin flex” on the outside which is usually used for animatronics such as dinosaurs or robotuna from MIT and even used in the movie ET! It is a really flexible rubber material that feels a lot like skin and we can modify it to feel like shark skin. It is flexible so when the propulsion system of the Shark sub is engaged it looks real!

The propulsion system is a closed circuit pneumatic system which dumps high pressure air through cylinders into an empty cylinder, which in turn powers the tail of the sub in a way that is really organic. So it will move exactly like a shark. And of course by being a closed circuit system no bubbles will come out. On the other hand it is a wet sub; I will be inside wearing a closed circuit rebreather and a dry suit.

I will use a joystick and LCD monitors to control both the sub and the high definitions camera located in the eyes of the shark sub. Last but not least I will have a full face mask with communication system relayed to the surface.

What was the technical inspiration?

Very good question and a really complicated one. Again we are dealing with something that has never been done before. The bases I started from were Eddy Paul’s shark that he built way back in 1987 for my grandfather’s and father’s expedition. It pioneered the idea in to use a pneumatic system to motor the shark sub. Comparatively, that shark was rather crude, made in two weeks. It was unmanned and tethered to a cage had an open circuit pneumatic system that gave off bubbles. As a matter of fact I can show you some pictures of it!

Fabien opened a notebook where he had some pictures of the Calypso back in the days. Fabien explained that after a few days of shooting the sharks had  accepted this rather interesting specimen as one of their school, the dive team on the Calypso “probably getting bored” decided to make the robotic shark act erratic and ” injured”. Consequently, a large female turned on the shark and gave it a “death blow” which is a bite to the gills. She came back for several more and completely destroyed the robotic shark.

Next Week: Fabien talks more about depth, sea trials and his dive team