Field Report: Fabien Cousteau
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Fabien Cousteau: The Belly of a Beast
A man and his shark-shaped submarine Text by Mary Anne Potts
TROJAN FISH: Fabien Cousteau with Troy, his Jaws-styled submarine
Explorer-filmmaker Fabien Cousteau, grandson of Jacques, recruited top Hollywood design engineer Eddie Paul to construct a 14-foot (4-meter), 1,200 pound (544 kilogram), shark-shaped submersible capable of fishlike locomotion. Its mission would be to observe and record shark behavior incognito, sans cages, divers, and chum. More than $100,000 later, they unveiled Troy, a convincing doppelgänger, though one that Cousteau, 38, jokes real great whites may consider "a retarded cousin from across the sea." The resulting documentary, tentatively titled Mind of a Demon (Deep Blue Productions), Cousteau's first solo project, investigates how sharks responded to Troy and freedivers off Baja California's Isla de Guadalupe. It's slated to air on CBS. While the closed-circuit pneumatic submersible is a technical feat, will Troy really help us better understand great whites? Adventure tracked Cousteau down on Georgia's Wassaw Island, the location for his next project, to find out.
We know sharks are territorial. How close did they let Troy get?
About seven to nine meters [23 to 29 feet], or about the length of an adult white shark, which makes sense since they are very respectful of spatial relationships.
Does that prove that they thought he was one of them?
I really hate to be definitive about that. How do we know what's going on in their minds? But I did witness behavior indicative of trying to communicate with Troy the way they do among themselves. They rolled their eyes, puffed their gills, changed directions—that was only with the sub present, not divers.
Is Troy able to respond?
Troy is relatively stoic. Even though he can swim and change direction, when other sharks try to communicate with him, he can't flinch or react like they do.
What's it like inside Troy?
Troy is a wet sub, so it's full of water. I wear full dive equipment and have air for about six-and-a-half hours. While navigating, I lay on my stomach, propped up on my elbows, with about 80 pounds [36 kilograms] of gear on my back. It's a tight space. Some say it's like a coffin, but I prefer to imagine it as a nice warm womb.
Were you concerned about being attacked while interacting?
It was always a consideration, so much so that engineer Eddie Paul built Troy like a Mack truck. If a shark bit Troy, it would take a hunk out of the Skin Flex covering [a flexible, castable rubber], but it wouldn't penetrate the two-inch [five-centimeter] stainless-steel ribs.
But Eddie Paul made a robotic shark for your father, Jean-Michel, which was attacked by a shark in 1989.
Yes, but they made that shark list to one side and twitch. They were also pumping chum through it to cause a reaction. A shark called Peaches first gave it a cautious nudge followed by a gentle bite. She was confused by the texture and swam away. But because of the chum, she kept coming back until [the robot] was completely destroyed.
Did you have any close calls?
One night I lost contact with the support boat near an elephant seal rookery right in what I call "White Shark Highway." I ended up anchoring Troy and swimming 70 meters [230 feet] in absolute darkness to Isla de Guadalupe. That was the fastest I've ever swam.
Did you capture any unique shark behavior on film?
We have amazing footage of one shark attacking another. A 15-foot [4.5-meter] female was on patrol around a dive boat where the operators were throwing chum into the water. Then a nine-foot [three-meter] female came up from the depths toward the bait. The larger shark charged her, tagging her in the gills. A full bite would have been a death blow. Instead she was just saying, "This is my territory."
Beyond showing that great whites can be initially fooled, what's the scientific value of this project?
We now have 170 hours of footage that scientists can analyze. We have no idea what all this behavior means. It's like a Chinese puzzle.
Where is Troy headed next?
Probably to a museum. I'm done with sharks for now. There are so many things I want to explore, like manta shrimp. They can't be kept in aquariums because they shatter the two-inch glass with their claws.
Photograph by Nico Danan
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