THERES SOMETHING ABOUT SWIMMING ON THE BOTTOM with a rebreather, trying to find the shore in the pitch dark, during the best time of night for sharks to feed and right near an elephant-seal rookery, that is not very comforting, says Fabien Cousteau, with impressive understatement.
He is telling me about the time his one-man shark-shaped submarine lost contact with its support boat off Guadalupe, Baja California, and how he decided to anchor it to the seabed and swim to shore - as you do.
There were many times that I got buzzed by an elephant seal that definitely jolted me, so the adrenaline was running. That was probably the longest short swim Ive ever had in my life,
he says.
Fabien is the grandson of world-famous oceanographer, TV icon and co-inventor of the aqualung Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and son of environmentalist diver Jean-Michel Cousteau, founder of the Ocean Futures Society.
Like his illustrious forebears, he works towards marine conservation and understanding. Now he has fulfilled a childhood dream by building a sub to take among great whites, his aim being to discover more about their lifestyle.
When my editor asked me if I would like to do an interview, I was expecting something easy to give me some experience, bearing in mind that the only interviews I had done to date involved being asked why I was suitable for a job.
Then he said: Youll be interviewing Fabien Cousteau. Cousteau - the one name synonymous with the underwater world, recognised all over the world by divers and non-divers alike. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end.
Plenty of research later, Im standing outside the Dorling Kindersley offices on Londons Strand checking my watch every 30 seconds, trying to be neither late nor early.
At exactly 2pm I push through the huge revolving glass doors and get checked over by security.
Why DK Fabien had recently put his name to its massive new Oceans encyclopaedia. In reception I see the man himself. He has arrived from the States via Paris minutes before, and probably walked past while I was busy with my watch. A PR woman whisks us off to an empty conference room, and from the small talk its obvious that Cousteau is going to be easy to get along with.
He talks animatedly, though seems hard-pressed when asked for memories of his legendary grandfather. The injection of knowledge and passion for the oceans from his parents and grandparents was merely a matter of growing up naturally with new discoveries and wonders, like any child, he says.
But he does remember buddy-breathing with a family friend at the bottom of a swimming pool at the age of four. I have the honour of saying Im the one who started diving the youngest in our family! he says.
He also recalls his father Jean-Michel lecturing aboard a cruise ship when he was about eight. Theres an ocean film showing in the theatre, can I go see it he asked his parents.
Learning that the film was Jaws, they said no. He sneaked in anyway.
I wasnt scared by the movie, but I was very puzzled by it, as it went against everything I had learned up until then, says Fabien.

FROM BOARDING SCHOOL IN THE USA, Fabien went to the University of Boston to study environmental economics - viable modern-day solutions to environmental problems. He laments what he sees as the lack of business sense in non-governmental organisations, however altruistic their intentions.
He worked in an art gallery as a graphic designer, then in marketing for eco-friendly product manufacturer Seventh Generation. He says this business experience helped him to overcome shyness and talk to executives on a level they would understand.
Fabiens passion for sharks and his business-driven environmental approach led to his first independent film production, Attacks of the Mystery Shark.
The hour-long show aired on National Geographic in 2002, exploring a series of fatal attacks off New Jersey in 1916 that were blamed on a great white.
He now works with two production companies. Natural Entertainment deals in TV series, small productions and eventually, he hopes, big-screen docs and IMAX films, while Deep Blue Productions was created for his ambitious Troy project for CBS, the Mind Of A Demon programme already aired in the USA.
Troy is a 4.2m shark submarine in which a single rebreather diver can lie at the controls. It was built for Fabien by engineering and animatronics expert Eddie Paul and his team.
Eddie had already built a primitive robo-shark for Jean-Michel Cousteau in 1989. This Hollywood backroom star was the creator of such memorable on-screen vehicles as the General Lee for the original Dukes of Hazzard TV show, and the cars from the films Grease and The Fast And The Furious. He even built robotic horses for The Mask of Zorro, and fully functioning promotional cars for the recent Pixar film Cars.

AS A CHILD, FABIEN HAD READ the childrens adventure book Red Rackhams Treasure, and its cover picture of Herges hero Tin Tin driving a shark submarine stuck in his mind. His fathers unsuccessful concept must also have influenced him, and Fabien says he was never certain that Troy would work.
Built to mimic a shark in every way, Troys skeleton of 5cm-thick stainless-steel ribs is covered with Skin Flex. ET was perhaps the most famous wearer of this elastic material, used by Hollywood as prosthetic skin. Mixed with polymers to give the exact look and texture of a great white, it was considered crucial if Troy was to be accepted by real sharks.
The sub has three cameras: two behind the shark eyes, one in the rear.
It moves like a real shark, too, using a closed-circuit pneumatic system that pushes air through a 120cu ft cylinder and, crucially, produces no engine noise or bubbles.
High-pressure air is pumped through a control stick to guide the sub left, right or forward. This in turn fuels two pistons that move the sharks tail back and forth in a fluid, realistic motion.
Fabien Cousteau contends that problems with Troy (or Sushi, as Eddie Pauls team dubbed the robo-shark) were inevitable. No fault of Eddies or anybody else, but the short research and development timeline and the season to be on site made it so that we took the under-tested prototype into real circumstances.
Buoyancy was a problem from the very start and never got sorted properly, he says.
The sub had never been tested other than in a freshwater pool, nor was it perfect then. There were many times it crashed to the bottom or sky-rocketed to the surface with no warning with me in it, as I was the only one to pilot it for over a hundred hours. Its part of the adventure and of testing the unknown.
The only way out if something did go wrong was the way you got in, says Fabien. The head is a hatch you have to push open from the inside and, of course, the further down you go, the higher the pressure gets.
Also apparently problematic were communications with the support boat. Fabien says the system adopted was not designed for underwater use and worked only about two-fifths of the time: Most of the time they didnt know where I was and I didnt know where they were. Hence that dodgy swim to shore.
Eddie Paul gave his version when I contacted him later. The shark is an incredible piece of engineering that was tested several times with absolute success in the presence of Fabien and his production crew, he told me. They were extremely happy with Sushi, to the point that they were eager to take the sub into deep waters for its intended use.
Yet due to the fact that no actual shark drama came about over months and months of filming, the storyline shifted to create drama with Fabien trapped in a malfunctioning shark/sub.
Clearly Troy had caused tension between builder and TV crew. How had the great whites reacted to the robot shark Any reaction was a good reaction, says Fabien, laughing. So what had he learnt about the sharks
Not that much yet, seems to be the answer. I never expected any specific results, just that we needed to go beyond the box and see if something of this sort could be viable.
There were two levels to the experiment - first the technological aspect and feasibility, and second reducing the intrusive nature of our presence under water.
Even if we had just succeeded in the daunting task of making a functioning swimming shark submarine observational platform, I would have deemed our expedition a success.
As you can imagine, the road was not easy to make this unique, first-of-its-kind prototype function properly in a real-world environment - but every success is 99% failure. After spending countless hours piloting it, we can say that it can be a viable platform for observation in a less intrusive way.
Whats more, it seems that some of the sharks we observed tended to react to Troy as they might do to another of their kind. One would need countless years on site to prove such a thing, but I got the feeling that they were more relaxed and going about their usual business, rather than being skittish or reacting to stimulae.
Sneaking in the back door of the shark world offers the opportunity to see them in a way not possible before. Given the circumstances, natural territorial behaviour, passive hunting, copulation and so on are just a few observational aspects that such stealth can afford.

I ASKED FABIEN WHAT HE THOUGHT about observing sharks from cages. It brings awareness to people who can afford to do it or want to do it, he says. The only thing I dont like is that were conditioning these animals to being used to people in cages coming in close and being fed.
I think it also conditions people the wrong way, because theyre seeing these animals from behind the bars, and I think thats something that in our deep psyche is detrimental.
It frustrates him that sharks, great whites in particular, have been given their bad reputation by people who dont appreciate that all marine animals are wild and potentially dangerous.
Dolphins are no exception, he says. People see them as cute and cuddly, but they can be very dangerous.
Sharks play an important role as the cleaners of the ocean, eating the sick and dead, but thats easily forgotten when were looking for something to identify with, even though they do exhibit certain traits such as personality, intelligence and cognition.
He doesnt believe the image of sharks can ever match that of whales and dolphins, but hopes, in time, for a healthy respect - and, ultimately, a kind of reverence.
So what else is Fabien doing to educate the public He has been heavily involved in renovating Governors Island in New York, with an Oceans Educational Institute built under his guidance that he hopes will impassion current and future generations.
He is spearheading another such institute in collaboration with the University of South Carolina, and hopes for the next to be somewhere in Europe.
He carries a National Marine Fish Card to make sure he doesnt eat anything non-sustainable, and makes a point of giving one to head chefs who, he says, are usually very thankful. Its an easier way to influence the world.
With DK he is working on a series of books for children aged 4-8, hoping to catch them at their most impressionable, and the PBS network will be showing his Underwater Treasures, two one-hour shows looking at US marine sanctuaries.
He is also working with his father and sister Celine on various typically Cousteau projects. They have been to the Amazon to see what has happened since Jacques was there 20 years ago, before heading to the Arctic and the Mississippi.
All three of us work with each other regularly - its very comforting to work with family, says Fabien. When someone isnt available, someone else can pick up from where they left off.
Does diving ever become more chore than pleasure I ask. No, if anything it pushes me to seek further and more. Its a wonderful detachment from the mundane world.


Fabien
Fabien with father Jean-Michel and sister Celine Cousteau
skeletal
skeletal Troy during the build by Eddie Paul
Troy
Troy the robo-shark is lowered from the mother ship
checking
checking the rebreather before the sharks head is swung into place.
Fabien
Fabien exits the shark sub.
Troy
Troy certainly looks the part.
Three
Three Cousteaus in action - Celine, Fabien and Jean-Michel.