World Without Sun is perhaps the most progressive documentary in Cousteau’s filmmaking career. Produced in 1964 it captures activities of six crew members living in Continental Shelf Station II at 10m depth for 30 days in Red Sea. The undersea colony was the forerunner of other human habitation experiments such as Biosphere2 or Mars500 and even the International Space Station ISS. It also inspired other film makers like James Cameron.
The film must be watched considering the context of its time with activities such as routine nicotine consumption even in an underwater habitat(!!).
Cousteau’s expedition was sponsored by a French petroleum company. Offshore oil drilling has benefited greatly from the saturation dive technology tested during this human experiment. The immediate success of the documentary helped Cousteau find other sponsors and from then on he shifted his interest towards nature conservation.
There were a few quite original scientific sampling methods employed in this documentary. Core samples taken from the coral reef enabled analysis of growth rings and formed the beginning of our understanding of past environment and climate.
They also did night time plankton sampling using a fine-mesh net dragged behind a diver operating an electric-powered scooter. Zooplanktons have a characteristic migration pattern called diel vertical migration. During the day zooplanktons escape from planktivorous fish by migrating to the bottom of the reef. They swim back to the surface at night time to feed on phytoplanktons. A dragnet enables sampling during this night time movement towards the surface.
Cousteau’s team were also quite successful in capturing ecological interactions around the reef. The attack of the predatory fish to their prey inside a transparent plexiglass trap clearly shows importance of camouflage and reef structures that serve as refuge against visual predators. Similarly the escape of scallops from voracious predatory starfish is interesting to watch. Mutualism between gobyfish and shrimp is among the species interactions that since then has become a textbook example.
One of the most remarkable observation is towards the very end of the documentary where an anglerfish species called frogfish is sighted during a deep dive with the submersible SP-350. There for a few minutes we are given a glimpse of this cryptic animal doing its characteristic walk. As a sit-and-wait predator frogfishes don’t swim much. Throughout their evolution most frogfish species have lost their swim bladder which maintain their buoyancy. This adaptation makes walking easier compared to swimming. A rare species of anglerfish Chaunacops coloratus which was thought to be extinct has been spotted alive by Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in August 2012.
Throughout the neolithic period humans domesticated plants and animals on land. However in the sea we are still primitive hunters and gatherers. We harvest what grows naturally and deplete resources without cultivating anything. Cousteau’s experimental work is quite futuristic by even today’s standards. As our planet warms the sea levels will continue to rise and shallow seas will cover large areas. Perhaps in near future Cousteau’s utopia of underwater habitation will become reality.