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Fabien Cousteau adds to family legacy of tackling an ocean of environmental issues

Fabien Cousteau reacts as he returns to the dock after 31 days undersea in the Aquarius Reef Base, Wednesday, July 2, 2014, in Islamorada, in the Florida Keys. Cousteau and his team of filmmakers and scientists dove June 1 to study the effects of climate change and pollution on a nearby coral reef.
Fabien Cousteau reacts as he returns to the dock after 31 days undersea in the Aquarius Reef Base, Wednesday, July 2, 2014, in Islamorada, in the Florida Keys. Cousteau and his team of filmmakers and scientists dove June 1 to study the effects of climate change and pollution on a nearby coral reef.
Published Nov. 2, 2014

In Fabien Cousteau's world, people will live, work and, of course, play under the sea. The grandson of the legendary ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau spent 31 days last summer hanging out in a marine laboratory 63 feet below the water's surface in the Florida Keys.

"It was one of my fantasies," said the 47-year-old aquanaut, a headliner at this week's Blue Ocean Festival in St. Petersburg. "I always want to go deeper, stay longer … that is where our future is, under the sea."

Born in Paris and raised aboard his grandfather's ships, Calypso and Alcyone, Cousteau learned how to scuba dive on his fourth birthday. His home is "a suitcase,'' he said, but most of the time you can find him in New York City, trying to convince politicians and movie stars to join him in the family business, saving the world's oceans.

"It is time we stopped arguing and start looking ahead," said Cousteau, who holds a degree in environmental economics from Boston University. "We need to adapt, diversify and begin looking at the 95 percent of the oceans that have yet to be explored."

Climate change could trigger changes in sea levels that will force us to look to the sea for food, minerals and energy. "We could build underwater cities that are completely self-sustaining," he said. "We have that technology."

But Cousteau realizes his calls may fall on deaf ears. That is why he hopes to rally the world's youth, drawing them into a world that few ever get to see.

"I really just want to share the thrill of undersea exploration," said Cousteau, who had regular Skype sessions with students while he was living and working aboard the Aquarius on the sea floor off Key Largo. "We need recruits. That is one thing my grandfather did so well — he got people involved."

The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, a TV series that debuted in 1968, helped kick-start the modern marine environmental movement, introducing a generation of Americans to the sport of scuba diving.

Fabien Cousteau is invested in his family's legacy, but he also hopes to apply his business savvy to nonprofits.

"I studied international business and marketing at NYU," he said. "If you want to make it work, you have to be able to show that good business decisions can also be good for the environment."

In June, Cousteau's "Mission 31" became the longest science expedition to take place in the Aquarius, operated by Florida International University. It is expected to lead to at least 10 published studies with his partners at FIU and Northeastern University. Mission 31 also paid homage to the 50th anniversary of his grandfather's participation in Continental Shelf Station Two, or Conshelf Two, one of the first attempts to live and work in an underwater habitat for humans.

Cousteau's Bonnet Rouge production team produced 31 videos documenting Mission 31, footage that he used in a documentary film. Cousteau will show portions of it at Blue Ocean Film Festival on Tuesday.

He's an experienced documentarian. As an "Explorer-at-Large" for National Geographic he worked on a TV special called Attack of the Mystery Shark that was based on the 1916 series of shark attacks in New Jersey that also inspired Peter Benchley's bestseller Jaws. Cousteau also produced the CBS documentary Mind of a Demon, which featured a point-of-view look from inside a 14-foot, 1,200-pound, lifelike shark submarine called Troy.

Cousteau and his sister, Celine, and their father, Jean-Michel, also worked on the PBS series Ocean Adventures, which was inspired by Jacques Cousteau's 1978 series of the same name.

"My only aim is to get people thinking about the future," said Fabien Cousteau, who in 2010 launched Plant a Fish, a nonprofit that aims to help communities restore local water ecosystems through "replanting" of key marine species. Learn more about it at fabiencousteau.org.

"We have so many problems, but we have solutions,'' he said. "It is time to stop standing by and get to work."

Contact Terry Tomalin at ttomalin@tampabay.com.