Monday, November 07, 2005

And the adventure continues with Cousteau and his shark submarine!

Fabien Cousteau is carrying on the family business with the aid of a submarine inspired by Tintin. Michael Park takes a plungeIt should come as no surprise that the inventor of a submarine that looks and moves like a great white shark is called Cousteau. For 60 years, this name has been synonymous with undersea adventure and award-winning documentaries.

The family patriarch and pioneer, Jacques Cousteau, died in 1997, but now his grandson is carrying on the family tradition. Fabien Cousteau, 37, has been involved in his family’s business since he was a boy, sailing regularly with his father and grandfather to remote archipelagos on grand adventures to film the silent, undersea world. Now an oceanographer and film-maker in his own right, he has just completed work on a project that he believes would have made his grandfather proud.

Inspired by the fictional comic character Tintin, Cousteau has devised and co-designed a submarine the size and shape of a great white shark. Encased within the shark, called Troy, Cousteau has for the first time been able to swim with great whites and film them without being confined within a submerged steel cage. “Steel cages have been done 1,001 times,” Cousteau says. “I wanted to film these sharks without any of the artificial stimuli that might affect their behaviour in unnatural ways.”

His inspiration is Tintin. “When I was a kid, I received a copy of the Tintin story on Red Rackham’s Treasure,” he says. “The premise of the book is basically a treasure hunt, but the idea in there was Tintin in a shark-shaped submarine, in which he goes swimming around with sharks and comes back relatively unscathed. I thought it was a really good idea.” Cousteau knew that getting great whites to believe that his creation was one of them would require it to do much more than just look like a shark.

“It needed to be completely silent-running and not emit any bubbles. It needed to be able to gape, so it could use its mouth for communication. It needed to be able to eye-roll, which is also a form of communication. It needed to be able to gill puff. And it needed to be able to swim just like a shark.” To help with all this, Cousteau contacted the Hollywood designer Eddie Paul, a family friend. “It was a really difficult challenge,” says Paul, who has built hi-tech vehicles for films, including Terminator 2, but never a submarine. “There were so many factors to take into consideration, and all had to be incorporated into one machine.”

Paul had built a robot shark for Fabien’s father in 1988, but it was attacked and destroyed by a large great white in the Pacific Ocean. “I didn’t want a shark attacking Troy and killing Fabien inside it,” he says. “We had to make it practically bullet-proof and yet still be able to function like a real shark.” The first design was for a 12ft shark, but in order to accommodate Cousteau, the re-breathing apparatus, video monitors and the hydraulic equipment and oxygen tanks needed to make Troy swim, the final length was closer to 14ft.

At a cost close to (pounds sterling) 150,000, Paul built the shark around a set of stainless-steel ribs with a flexible spine, and then devised a high-pressure pneumatic system to move the ribs from side to side and propel the shark through the water. Cousteau would use a joystick to control movement. The skin, made from a material called Skinflex (used mainly for prosthetic limbs), was painted to look like a great white. The Skinflex was stitched together along the top but sealed underneath with Velcro, allowing water to seep in and out. In case anything went wrong, Paul designed the head to be removable, but hinged it.

Finally, two monitors were placed inside the head so Cousteau could see where he was going. “Initially we had cameras looking out of the eye sockets,” Cousteau says, “but it was so disconcerting to try to make sense of those images that it just didn’t work.” After a year of trial and error in Paul’s Los Angeles workshop and many pool tests, Cousteau was ready to test Troy in open water. “It was a disaster,” he says of the first dive.

But Cousteau and his team of 10 persevered and, after hours of practice in shallow waters, they felt secure enough to take Troy to a place where great whites congregate. “There was definitely a bit of apprehension,” he says. “These are wild animals, so you can never assume anything, but I figured Troy looked good enough and we had worked on it long enough to at least try one dive with real sharks.”

He and his crew sailed to Guadalupe Island, a few hundred miles west of Mexico, where great whites gather to hunt elephant seals.After searching for a suitable area to launch, Cousteau donned his scuba gear, slid backwards into Troy, sealed the head and was lowered into an ocean full of ‘whites’. Initially, the sharks were wary of the mechanical interloper. “In the beginning, it was hard to get the sharks to come close to Troy,” Cousteau says.

“Sharks respect each other’s space, but I have no idea how to respect a great white’s space, so sometimes I would get close and they would just swim away. But then sometimes I would see one and notice that it was starting to swim with me.” Cousteau, who was often surrounded by as many as five great whites, was moved by the experience. “To be underwater among these sharks is an enormously humbling experience. They’re like 747s underwater. The largest one was nearly 18ft long.”

After a while, Cousteau became convinced that the sharks believed that Troy was one of their own. “One great white did gape and gill-puff at Troy,” he says. “It was trying to communicate with Troy. I thought this may be a weird, far-out idea, but it actually works.’’ He recently finished editing the resulting documentary, Mind of a Demon. He hopes that it will help people to understand great white sharks better and help dispel some of the myths that surround them. “For film-makers to deceive the public into thinking that great white sharks always attack everything is appalling,” he says.


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