A chance meeting between Newtown’s “diver doctor” David Charash, MD, and famed third-generation oceanographer Fabian Cousteau during a symposium at Norwalk’s Maritime Aquarium last February has bloomed into a friendship that most recently prompted an invitation to Cousteau’s laboratory — 60 feet below the surface of the Caribbean.
Dr Charash is medical director for wound care and hyperbaric medicine for the Western Connecticut Health Network and Danbury Hospital. He also organizes and hosts one of the nation’s most prestigious annual dive medicine conferences in Danbury.
Following their meeting in Norwalk, Dr Charash invited Mr Cousteau to keynote the 2014 dive medicine conference in early April. During both his Norwalk and Danbury visits, Dr Charash and other attendees learned about Mr Cousteau’s planned Mission 31.
That scientific project aimed at embedding the oceanographer for 31 days aboard the Aquarius Reef Base, a bus-sized underwater laboratory testing new technologies and conducting research on the effects of climate change on corals, sponges, and other sea life.
Fabian Cousteau’s Mission 31 was intended to surpass his grandfather Jacques Cousteau’s famous 30-day stay aboard the Continental Ice Shelf Station Two (Conshelf Two) in 1963. During that underwater mission, Jacques Cousteau experimented with living in a habitat located 30 feet (10 meters) beneath the Red Sea, off the coast of Sudan.
While Dr Charash listened to Mr Cousteau imagining what it might be like living for an extended period in an underwater residence, he did not anticipate the invitation to join Mission 31 for a brief stay. So when that invitation came, Dr Charash looked at his packed schedule and regretfully declined.
“I had my daughter’s graduation and a conference on my schedule the week Fabian wanted me to try and visit,” Dr Charash told The Newtown Bee shortly after his return. “But after I thought about it, I realized as both an avid diver and someone who writes, lectures about, and practices dive medicine, it was something I couldn’t pass up.”
So he arranged to fly from the conference he was attending in the Midwest to Miami, and then drove down to Islamorada in the keys where he boarded a Florida International University (FIU) dive boat and headed out about nine miles to the Aquarius.
“We had about ten divers on the boat, including retired Navy divers who work for the mission, as well as university students, who were also trained divers acting as our assistants,” Dr Charash said.
Since the US Navy decided to phase out its use of the Aquarius, the facility has been taken over by a consortium of educational institutions including FIU, Northeastern University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
As an invited VIP diver to Mission 31, Dr Charash was escorted to the underwater lab by a mission safety officer and one of the students, who also helped deliver fresh dry clothes, towels, mail, and supplies to the Aquarius.
After descending to the site, Dr Charash surfaced inside a transition area known as a “wet porch” where he quickly removed his diving equipment and showered to remove any bacteria or microscopic debris that could infiltrate the lab.
“They actually wrap you in a towel and follow you around with a mop to be certain you are completely dry and not dripping any moisture inside the lab,” Dr Charash explained. “Any moisture or humidity fosters the growth and spread of bacteria, which could affect the entire crew and mission.”
After a brief “safety tour” of the 400-square-foot Aquarius, the Newtown visitor sat down at the “kitchen table” with Mr Cousteau, watching colorful fish swimming inches away through a large porthole beside the table.
“It was quite surreal being there talking with Fabian and having these beautiful fish watching us from outside — now it was the humans who were the ones inside the fish tank,” Dr Charash observed. “We were being filmed at all times, so we spent a few minutes discussing the medical aspects of saturation diving.”
Dr Charash said that divers like Mr Cousteau and other commercial and scientific divers who spend lengthy amounts of time underwater become saturated with nitrogen. While it alleviates the need for these divers to frequently surface to decompress, it creates other physical adjustments the divers need to accommodate during stays that could stretch 15, 30, and even 60 days deep under the surface.
Passion For Preservation
Dr Charash shares Mr Cousteau’s passion for ocean preservation, and he was excited to learn more about how the embedded “aquanaut” was using Aquarius to expand his knowledge about the effects of pollution on ocean life.
“The Aquarius and Mission 31 are great tools to illustrate the need to explore our oceans further — less than five percent of our oceans have been explored,” Dr Charash said. “Thanks to Florida International University taking this station over from the government, we still have a place to conduct experiments and test scientific technology that could help preserve our oceans.”
He also shared one of the staple treats available in the constricted lab — peanut M&Ms.
“When you’re in that underwater environment the nitrogen saturation kills, temporarily disables, your taste buds, so one of the only things you can taste is chocolate. The peanut M&Ms give the crew something they can taste, as well as the tactual crunch of the peanuts, so there is a full bowl on the kitchen table at all times,” he said.
Thanks to Mr Cousteau’s willingness and the current communications technology aboard the Aquarius, the oceanographer spent much of his time during Mission 31 interacting with peers as well as students of all ages around the world via Skype broadcasts, where he promoted his cause.
While Dr Charash knew he would be spending some time inside Aquarius, he did not learn until he arrived on site that he would be welcomed to take a second dive to tour the exterior of the underwater lab site, during which he shot some stunning digital video images.
But the thing Dr Charash will treasure most about his trip to Aquarius was the opportunity to bond further with the renowned oceanographer.
“Everybody who gets to visit or work on Mission 31 is so happy to be there,” Dr. Charash said. “But for me, it was having the chance to work again with Fabian. He is as genuine and nice a person as anyone I’ve ever met.
“He said the original intent of my visit may have been rooted in my medical profession and my dive medicine practice, but once I got down there, Fabian told me he just wanted me, as a fellow diver, to see how beautiful it is to live on the ocean floor,” Dr Charash recalled. “It was just a thrill for me to be there and share that once-in-a-lifetime experience.”