by Angela Herring

“How many fish have you seen so far?”

This ques­tion came from a young girl in a col­orful shirt at the Boston Museum of Sci­ence on Thursday. She stood in front of a packed audi­ence, but the person she was talking to sat 1,400 miles away and more than 60 feet beneath the sea.

While her inter­locutor, Fabien Cousteau, didn’t have a pre­cise number for her, he did have a pretty good answer: “It’s a fire­works dis­play of life down here,” he said, esti­mating that he has observed hun­dreds of species and tens of thou­sands of indi­vidual fish in the 25 days he’d so far spent living under­water off the coast of Miami at the Aquarius Reef Base, the world’s last oper­ating under­water research base.

The event was the second in a series of four in which Cousteau and a team of North­eastern sci­en­tists held live con­ver­sa­tions with audi­ence mem­bers in Boston. Each event also fea­tures in-​​person pre­sen­ta­tions high­lighting the var­ious research projects taking place during the mis­sion as well as hands-​​on exhibits such as live marine touch pools and zoo­plankton viewing stations.

The event series is one of sev­eral out­reach pro­grams asso­ci­ated with Mis­sion 31, a month­long under­water research expe­di­tion led by Cousteau, grandson of the leg­endary ocean explorer Jacques Yves Cousteau who cre­ated the first ocean floor habi­tats for humans.

This day was par­tic­u­larly spe­cial because Stephen W. Director, Northeastern’s provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs, also joined in on the fun. Director, an avid diver and under­water pho­tog­ra­pher, made the 45-​​minute journey from the seashore to Aquarius to see the action with his own eyes.

Brian Helmuth, a pro­fessor with joint appoint­ments in the Depart­ment of Marine and Envi­ron­mental Sci­ence and the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, also par­tic­i­pated in the con­ver­sa­tion from the bottom of the sea floor while North­eastern dive instructor and mis­sion aqua­naut Liz Bentley Magee pro­vided an up-​​close per­spec­tive of Conch Reef through her in-​​helmet camera as she swam around out­side the habitat.

Hel­muth noted that while the 31-​​day mis­sion is enabling some very high-​​level research with mean­ingful con­se­quences for urban coastal sus­tain­ability, the team is also having a lot of fun along the way. He is part of the sur­face team, which means he makes about three 45-​​minute dives a day to Aquarius, while the aqua­nauts live there full time. This allows the aqua­nauts’ bodies to sat­u­rate with nitrogen and elim­i­nates the need for the between-​​dive decom­pres­sion phases required of sur­face divers. The added time under­water will allow the research team accom­plish nearly 10 times as much data col­lec­tion than oth­er­wise possible.

“It’s also impor­tant to demon­strate how inter­dis­ci­pli­nary this is,” Director said. “It’s not just biol­o­gists, it’s not just engi­neers, it’s not just sci­en­tists. It really is a com­bi­na­tion of people, because solving these real world prob­lems requires an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary approach.”

The mission’s inter­dis­ci­pli­nary nature—a hall­mark of Northeastern’s emphasis on use-​​inspired research—also took the spot­light ear­lier in the day during a series of demon­stra­tions and dis­cus­sions back at the Boston Museum of Sci­ence. Loretta Fer­nandez, an assis­tant pro­fessor with joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Engi­neering and the Col­lege of Sci­ence, described her work mea­suring levels of oil con­t­a­m­i­na­tion on Conch Reef where Aquarius is sta­tioned. She spoke after Dan Distel, director of the Ocean Genome Legacy, who intro­duced atten­dees and the museum com­mu­nity to the world’s largest repos­i­tory of marine genetic infor­ma­tion, which lives at Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence Center in Nahant, Mass­a­chu­setts. Isaac West­field, a geol­o­gist and coral sci­en­tist based in assis­tant pro­fessor Justin Ries lab, dis­cussed the coral research that pro­fessor Mark Pat­terson and his team are doing at Aquarius and pro­vided an intro­duc­tion to the entire Mis­sion 31 project.

“The oceans are the most bio­log­i­cally diverse ecosystem on the planet,” West­field said. “So it’s very impor­tant that we save these sorts of envi­ron­ments or we lose a lot of the ani­mals that live there too.” The goal of Mis­sion 31, he explained, is to raise aware­ness of this incred­ibly impor­tant but increas­ingly threat­ened global resource.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on June 30, 2014