Monday, October 03, 2005

Cousteau's grandson spends time in mechanical shark

DEEP beneath the waves a weird fish has swallowed the grandson of the late Captain Jacques Cousteau, the ocean explorer. Fabien Cousteau, 36, is these days to be found inside the belly of a submersible built in the shape of a great white shark.

It might seem a foolhardy enterprise, but Cousteau is using the robotic fish to get as close as possible to real great whites, the most ferocious killers of the sea, in the hope of filming them without disturbing their natural behaviour.

The “Trojan shark”, built from steel and plastic, is 14ft long and was created by a Hollywood prop expert at a cost of £115,000.

“The whole point,” says Cousteau, “is to fool them into thinking I am a shark.”

It is hardly the most comforting of environments in which to get cosy with the predatory fish. Cousteau’s diving contraption is covered with Skinflex, a malleable material mixed with glass beads and sand to simulate the texture of shark skin, right down to the ugly scars that commonly disfigure the biggest great whites.

The head swings open on hinges to allow Cousteau to enter the body. There he lies flat, holding a joystick in each hand to control speed, left and right movement and pitch — “just like a fighter plane”, he says.

The shark’s eyes are camera lenses and a third camera is positioned in a rubber “pilot fish” clamped, in another lifelike touch, to the underbelly of the submarine.

A “pneumatic propulsion system” invented by the American navy powers the shark’s tail. It enables it to move quietly and without creating bubbles.

“Bubbles make noise the sharks would feel and hear,” explains Cousteau. “It’s an artificial stimulus that could spook them or alter their behaviour in some way.”

Unsettling great whites is inadvisable. They have been blamed for three deaths this year and numerous attacks on swimmers and surfers. Some have been known to attack the metal cages used by divers. In the image popularised by the Steven Spielberg film Jaws, a great white is even thought capable of biting a small boat in half.

With the Trojan shark, Cousteau is protected by a stainless steel skeleton made from 2in thick ribs beneath the shark’s skin.

Perhaps because of their fearsome reputation, the great white remains little understood. Scientists have yet to establish where they breed, how long they live and how big they can grow. The largest on record is 21ft.

Cousteau’s device has enabled him to study the fish with unprecedented insight. Over the past few months he has been filming great whites from Mexico to Australia for American television. His findings contradict popular conceptions.

In fact, he says, “great white sharks do not go around chomping up boats”. Instead he claims they are “very timid creatures”.

Cousteau, who spent school holidays on expeditions with his grandfather aboard the Calypso, was partly inspired to build the shark by the cartoon character Tintin. In an adventure called Red Rackham’s Treasure, the boy detective takes to the deep in a shark-shaped submarine.

The diver was also mindful of his father, Jean-Michel, who experimented with a remote-controlled shark in 1989. A less-sophisticated device, it failed to pass muster in the shark world and was demolished in a few mouthfuls.

The new mechanical shark — called Troy but nicknamed Sushi by some of Cousteau’s crew — has proved more successful. Real sharks tend to accept the intruder as a dominant female, says Cousteau, even though they may be baffled by some of its features. The mouth can open and close but does not eat. And Troy, unlike real sharks, is odourless and incapable of great bursts of speed.
Nevertheless, its interactions with other sharks have been instructive. “We’ve got good information about boundaries and territoriality,” says Cousteau, whose family is still circling his grandfather’s legacy in a shark-like manner.

The undersea pioneer, who fused daring exploration with television documentary, is credited with helping to start the environmental movement by raising awareness of marine ecosystems.
He also enjoyed an adventurous private life, having two children with his mistress, apparently without his first wife knowing.

But since his death in 1997, the Cousteau Society run by his widow — his second wife, a former flight attendant — has been plagued by a dwindling membership and legal disputes with other family members over rights to the name.

Such is the bad blood in the family that a spokesman for the Cousteau Society would not even comment on the Troy expedition. The Calypso, meanwhile, remains rusting in the port of La Rochelle in western France.

With the help of Troy, Fabien, born in Paris but now living in New York, may become the most effective torchbearer of his grandfather’s mission.

He could not have better credentials: he began diving at the age of four when his grandfather designed a junior scuba outfit for him.

He was only six when he sneaked into a cinema to watch Jaws, which his parents had forbidden him to see.

He says he was horrified by the film because “it went against everything I’d ever been taught”.
That experience still underlies his desire to show audiences that sharks are not evil creatures but natural predators. He may yet change the popular perception of great whites, assuming Troy continues to perform as planned — and Cousteau does not end up inside the wrong shark.


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