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Cousteau to Get Inside Shark’s Head

Times Staff Writer

Eddie Paul is so certain that great white sharks aren’t ruthless killers, he’s willing to bet Jacques Cousteau’s grandson’s life on it.

The industrial mechanic and Hollywood prop maker, responsible for the hot rods in the movie “Grease” and the blazing import cars in “The Fast and the Furious,” is building what he calls the world’s most realistic mechanical shark for Fabien Cousteau to climb into and study the animal’s behavior.

Cousteau, a New York antiques appraiser, wants to follow his famous grandfather’s marine biology footsteps and dispel some of the fears associated with sharks, Paul said.

To do it, Cousteau, 36, enlisted Paul, who had made a remote-controlled shark for his father, Jean-Michel Cousteau, in the 1980s. That one wasn’t nearly as sophisticated as the current contraption, which was showcased and fine-tuned Saturday at the Loyola Marymount University swimming pool.

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Discovery Channel plans to broadcast a two-part documentary on the project this summer.

“Sharks aren’t mindless eating machines,” said Mike Hoover, a filmmaker for the Discovery Channel. “They have no hands, so the only way to check things out is with their mouth. ... The problem is, they’re not warm and cuddly.”

The mechanical shark is believed to be the first to be controlled from the inside. Cousteau will be protected by a stainless steel skeleton and followed at all times by a mini-submarine.

The fins are made of bulletproof plastic. Its eyes are cameras that project the open ocean onto two waterproof screens in the head for Cousteau to see. The 14-foot, 700-pound replica will then be covered in a rubber-like skin detailed with scars.

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“Nobody has ever made a fish like this without using a propeller to move it,” said Paul, 55. “We’re using the tail. It’s basically going to move like a real shark would.”

The challenge is finding enough power to move at a realistic pace.

“It will take a quarter of a horsepower to move the speed of a shark, about 2 mph,” said Joe Valencic, a professor of marine science and technology for the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and Saddleback College. “A prime Olympic athlete can put down a maximum of one horsepower for 15 to 30 seconds.”

Paul is experimenting with hand and foot pedals. But air-powered pistons or electricity may be required to generate enough speed.

Once complete, the shark will test the waters off Catalina Island before heading off the coast of San Diego and Australia. If successful, it may change the way some people look at the species.

Paul said he’ll probably provoke a dramatic end to his creation, as he has done with his previous two models he has made while working with the younger Cousteau.

“The first one got eaten,” Paul said. “The second one: We got bored with it after the third day. So we pumped blood into the water. Then we weighted it to one side. As soon as it started swimming erratically, the sharks turned around and attacked. I think they thought it was injured, so it was like a mercy killing.”

The latest one, which is paid for by both Paul and the Discovery Channel, is nicknamed “Sushi 1.”

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“We’re almost positive it’s going to be attacked,” Paul said.


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