The Dauntless Captain Cousteau Races Against Time and Tide to Save a Watery Planet

It is an afternoon that might sour the grapes of even such a native of Bordeaux as Captain Jacques Cousteau. Water, water everywhere, but not enough sun over Montego Bay to justify an on-camera dive to the coral reefs directly beneath his famous ship Calypso.

And so the captain repairs with some irritation to the radio room, there to finger the pulse of his far-flung above-water world. First he checks in with the oceanographic museum he directs in Monaco—his primary home away from Calypso. Satellite contact through NASA is tested next, in anticipation of a joint experiment in submarine cartography which will be tried when the Calypso passes through the Bahamas en route to the Aegean later this month. (The Aegean expedition will explore ancient wrecks.) The captain radios the Westport, Conn. headquarters of the Cousteau Society, a nonprofit environmental organization he established this year, to dictate changes he has blue-penciled into a shooting script for an educational film-cassette series the society will distribute. Cousteau’s professional radio bark softens as he finally contacts his Los Angeles office: “Philippe?…Philippe? C’est toi, mon vieux?…” It is indeed Cousteau’s 35-year-old son who receives the call, and the captain listens while Philippe reports on an office-leasing arrangement which a real-estate rich member of the society has offered.

News of the token rent his organization need pay in Los Angeles brings sunshine to the captain’s weathered visage and, coincidentally, to the Jamaican heavens as well. “C’est bon!” Cousteau signs off, cheerfully, reverting to Maurice Chevalier English in mid-sentence. “Today I can make zee dive after all!”

As the Calypso moves gently in the swell, her white-haired skipper, thin as a marlinspike, scuttles down the companionways and ladders that lead to the afterdeck. There, below a steel mesh landing pad for a newly acquired helicopter, the diving team has observed the emerging sun; all are writhing into wet suits. Cousteau suits up impatiently—tanks, masks and flippers. A predive briefing is staged and filmed. The footage, with the other shots made on this expedition, will be winnowed down for a TV special on The Great Barrier Reef, to be aired this fall in the continuing series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, now entering its ninth season on ABC.

Trailed by his film crew and a borrowed American expert on coral reefs, Cousteau slides seal-like off the stern into the pellucid waters. Ahead of his amphibious entourage—often defying their skills at keeping camera and lights upon him—the captain enters a reef-ribbed cave to point out a living fossil, a species of sponge long believed extinct.

After half an hour of these explorations in the dazzling Caribbean depths, Cousteau resurfaces. Spluttering and exuberant, he flaps across the deck, strips off his gear and hoses it down with fresh water.

Cousteau’s dynamism is, at 65, very simply, unimaginable—his mental agility outstripping even his unimpaired physical stamina. More than 30 years ago, as he was first testing the Aqua-Lung with which he and co-inventor Emile Gagnan revolutionized man’s relationship to the sea, Cousteau equated the strain of deepwater dives with that of skyscraper steel work. In good weather, he still dives up to four times a day.

The son of a harbor engineer who helped design the port facilities at Le Havre and elsewhere, Jacques was born near the city of Bordeaux and schooled alternately in Paris and New York, where his father came to work. Then the young Cousteau went on to the French naval academy. After his graduation in 1932, he trained to become a naval aviator. He says today that a seriously crippling car accident during a leave in 1936 was the luckiest break of his life. Fit only for conventional sea duty, not flying, he survived the virtual decimation of his squadron during the grisly first months of World War II. After the fall of France, though protesting to his superiors that clandestine operations are “a school of lying, cheating and dishonor,” Cousteau nonetheless joined the Resistance and engaged in operations he feels he cannot safely discuss even today. As a cover for his activities, he was encouraged to do some diving. One momentous day in 1943 he slipped into the Mediterranean to test the underwater breathing apparatus he had conceived with the engineer Gagnan. There was to be no turning back.

At war’s end Cousteau obtained an interview in Paris with Admiral Pothuau, head of naval personnel, whom he sought to interest in his dream of equipping an expedition for oceano-graphic exploration. “He looked at his files and said, ‘You’ve been at sea for 21 years. It’s time to learn your job on land.’ ” Cousteau demurred. “The good Admiral Pothuau threw his cap at me and ordered me out of the office,” recalls Cousteau. The young visionary was obliged to take a leave of absence and acquire and convert the 145-foot minesweeper Calypso on his own initiative. He formally resigned from the French navy with the rank of captain in 1957 to devote himself to the study of the oceans. Today Calypso is quite as famous as Captain Nemo’s Nautilus and her master has been wreathed in honors ranging from his designation as Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor to an Oscar for his 1957 film The Silent World (based on his own best-selling book).

Not that he is without his detractors. Cousteau is sometimes pooh-poohed by somber toilers in marine laboratories for his global gallivanting and concessions to showmanship. But that is to misunderstand the captain even on his own terms. “I am not a scientist,” he is quick to point out, though his films and books are scientifically flawless. “I am an impresario of scientists, perhaps. I can speak their jargon, but more important I can make it accessible to the layman.” And who—least of all the professional oceanographer, who probably first encountered the undersea world in Cousteau-designed scuba gear—can doubt his enormous impact in bringing people to an awareness of the ocean’s importance.

After 20 years, how much longer can the fabulous aquanaut’s active career go on? Jacques-Yves Cousteau or “JYC” (pronounced “jeek” by his comrades) is, as a sexagenarian, billions of years younger than the planet’s well-springs. But what appalls Cousteau is the belief that marine life may be roughly coterminous with his own.

“If I live as long as my father,” he explains over civet de lapin in the Calypso’s mess later that night, “I fully expect to witness the first worldwide ecological catastrophe.” (The fact that Cousteau’s father lived to the ripe old age of 92 should bring solace only to an insurance salesman.) “In the late ’60s I first noticed that marine populations were down by as much as 30 percent among certain species. I predicted that harvest tonnage would continue to rise slightly, but only because of plunderously more effective technology. I was wrong,” he confesses. “Gross tonnage is already on the downslide, even though in the case of tuna, for example, the total catch includes a lot of junk fish suitable only for cat food.”

Cousteau’s premonition of doom entails much more than over-fished and oil-slicked seas. “When the pyramid of life collapses,” he explains, referring to the fragile food chain which links microscopic phytoplankton with larger marine life and ultimately with ourselves, “we collapse with it.” As the seas die, in Cousteau’s scenario, they rot, costing the planet its primary source of oxygen. “Life will be impossible within 50 miles of the coasts,” predicts Cousteau, whose ultimate apocalypse envisages hilltop colonies gasping for what little air they can suck from adjacent oxygen-producing forests.

Cousteau blames the crude imperatives of the profit motive and the refusal of nation-states to submit to resource-planning on a global level for making catastrophe “100 percent certain.” And though his faith in human resourcefulness keeps him confident that a shaky and diminished comeback is possible, a listener wonders why, in the face of such conviction, Cousteau even bothers to make an effort to warn his fellow humans of approaching doomsday. “Maybe nine out of 10 will die,” he explains. “But if we can save even 20 or 30 million…well, that’s something.”

Life aboard the Calypso mocks this gloomy vision. “He ees French like, me,” observes its chef, Alain Vincey, who toiled in the kitchens of New York’s renowned Lutèce restaurant until encountering Cousteau on a midtown street last spring and talking him into a berth aboard ship. “Of course, he loves his pastry and pâté.” Cousteau is an exacting patron. At one dinner he sank his knife into a round of brie so obstinate that he insisted—over the chef’s fervent denial—that it must be of American origin. The Caribbean air is admittedly too humid to raise a brioche de brochette. “But it’s wine all zee time,” adds Vincey, referring less to the captain’s temperate habits than to his crew’s prodigious thirst which is slaked three times a day with gallons of California’s Paisano red.

Mme. Cousteau—”Simone” to a select few—the captain’s wife for 38 years, has had enough of the wine and the talk and the cigars. She retires to the captain’s stateroom amidships and her phonograph. The conversation around the mess table begins to deteriorate into tales of shore leave adventures, though Cousteau remains at his seat swapping reminiscences with veterans of his 27-man crew, some of whom have sailed with him for over 20 years. Others are readying one of the motorized pontoon dinghies for a foray to the fleshpots of Montego Bay.

For a few aboard, the talk moves to the cool deck and grows more serious. The subject of Cousteau’s ultimate retirement is, to say the least, a touchy one among those who work for him or have admired his ocean-saving crusade through films, books and now the fast-growing Cousteau Society. It is generally assumed he will die with his boots—or rather his flippers—on. Philippe is obviously being groomed as heir apparent though even admirers of the films for which his son has taken special responsibility (he studied movie-making at MIT) recognize that Papa’s charismatic act will be a hard one to follow. With Cousteau’s only other scion, Jean Michel, an architect in Los Angeles, the future of Cousteau’s mission is clearly tied to the nonprofit society. Ultimately Cousteau would like to see it assume not only complete sponsorship for his projects (whose revenues would then be plowed back) but also for funding and coordinating independent ecological research. The society’s rolls have increased from an initial 40,000 last April to over 100,000 members paying annual dues of $15. However, the overall revenues, while impressive, still cover only part of the roughly $3 million needed to keep the captain’s operations afloat each year. The Calypso alone requires an outlay of $5,000 a day while on film-making expeditions.

The conversation is interrupted as the door to the captain’s stateroom opens and Mme. Cousteau comes out, smoking a cigarette and making occasional throaty contributions to the Yves Montand record she has left blaring inside. “My friends are all here. This is my home,” she observes of her life at sea. “What more could I ask?”

Cousteau and his shipmates are winding down their day under stars that bode well for tomorrow’s dives. A newly arrived cameraman makes the mistake of referring to the movie Jaws in the captain’s presence. “Quel désastre!” snorts Cousteau, spitting aside his cigar. “A decent person could not produce Jaws. It reverses everything I’m trying to do—pulling people out of the sea instead of bringing them to it.” His indignation swells. “In all the years, I have never been attacked by sharks; oh sure, once I had to bump one on the nose with my camera. It went away!”

“Alors,” replies Mme. Cousteau, with a smile. “You are too skinny to make a good meal.”

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