Diving in at the shark end

The grandson of the legendary marine explorer Jacques Cousteau is carrying on the family business - with the aid of a submarine inspired by Tintin. Michael Park gets in the swim
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The Independent Online

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 no less than 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, which is 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 - chum in the water, baiting them from a cage, being in scuba gear - that affect their behaviour in unnatural ways."

Cousteau had already made two shark documentaries when he was asked to produce a third. He was reluctant to commit to it unless he could film the sharks in a way that would produce genuinely revelatory footage. It was then that he remembered Tintin. "When I was a kid, I received a copy of the Tintin story 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. When I thought back on that, I thought it was a really good idea."

The journey from the picture in his Tintin book to a working submarine was a huge endeavour. 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. This time around, one of Paul's biggest considerations had to be safety. "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 - "the size of a young adult great white," Cousteau says.

As an extra safety precaution, Cousteau wanted Troy to be autonomous from the diver and, in order for it be flexible enough to move in the water, it would be a "wet sub" - it would flood with water when submerged, so the diver inside would need to wear a wetsuit and have an independent air supply.

At a cost close to £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 left to right movement and to lose air when he needed to control the buoyancy.

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.

Where to position and how to disguise the monitor's cameras proved more of a challenge. "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. So we put a camera on the head, disguised as a fish, and a tiny camera in the back of the dorsal fin - that way I could see forward and behind."

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. "It kept bobbing up and down, I couldn't get it to swim straight."

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 great 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 I saw was nearly 18ft long, but they are so graceful and so deceivingly calm, and very sure of themselves."

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.''

Only once did Cousteau feel he was in any danger - when one great white charged at Troy but veered off at the last second. "They definitely don't like being looked at," he says. "It takes away their element of surprise and makes them vulnerable."

Every day, for the next week, Cousteau took to the water in Troy and was satisfied that all the hard work had been worth it."We were definitely able to capture shark behaviour that has not been possible to see in the past," he says.

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 to 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. "The reason they have been able to live pretty much unchanged for 400 million years is that they are perfectly adapted to their environment and they are not stupid. In certain places - California, South Africa, Australia, Florida - there happen to be areas that are hot spots for where sharks live, and that are also areas where lots of people go surfing, water-skiing and diving. You have millions of people in those waters, and you have millions of sharks in those waters, and you have, worldwide, 70 to 80 incidents a year. If that's not a testament to sharks avoiding us, I don't know what is."

Cousteau is already developing new underwater projects. But he wishes his famous grandfather had lived long enough to see his shark submarine.

"He was a fascinating individual," Cousteau says. "Not only because he was so intelligent, but also because he was so passionate. I really think Troy would have made him smile."

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