A few months ago I happened to pick up a copy of Jacques Cousteau’s classic first book, The Silent World, less from a burning desire to read it than for the mysterious and evocative cover photo, and out of a sense of comradely solidarity with this pioneer submariner. It gathered dust on my bedside table for a while, as books often do, before the opportunity arose to read it, in this case during a week on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a place, appropriately enough, dominated by the edge of the Ocean.
What a book. I would be the first to admit that Cousteau is not the most talented writer — the prose is often pedestrian and the organization a bit clunky. But this is not a novel to be read for the art of its language. This is the real McCoy. It is a tale of exploration of a fabulous new world hitherto almost completely unknown. After reading The Silent World, I’m left with the powerful sense that Cousteau was an explorer in the classical mold, in the company of Columbus, Lewis and Clark, and the early astronauts.
It’s fashionable in some professional circles to dismiss Cousteau with a condescending wave. He was not a “real oceanographer”, they might say, and this is true enough. He had no formal training in marine biology, though he did have the naval Captain’s years of practical knowledge of the Sea. And he had some engineering background. Many passages in the book describe activities that the team undertook in the name of research to learn about animal behavior and diving physiology and so on, which seem quaintly sophomoric to us in the modern world where we’re accustomed to seeing the wonders of the universe in high-definition while we loaf on the living room sofa.
But that is part of the point. Cousteau was not an egghead product of the universities as many of us are know. There was essentially noone to teach him the skills and understanding that we take for granted today, either as marine biologists or sport divers. He was, to use the old cliche, a student in the school of hard knocks. He and his buddy Emil Gagnon invented underwater breathing, something that humans had been trying to figure out for literally thousands of years. That alone is enough to qualify him for heroic status.
But there’s more. The human stories behind the Cousteau saga are fascinating. The aqua-lung, as they called their creation, was cobbled together from scrounged parts while Cousteau and his homies were laying low in Nazi-annexed France during the war. They tested the thing out in a hidden cove to escape the attention of Italian occupation troops. They fed themselves in those lean times by spearing fish. Everything was trial and error, including terrifying dives to great depths, in caves, and such places where divers not infrequently passed out or lost their bearing from nitrogen narcosis. Some never came back.
After the war, as a naval officer, Cousteau was detailed to Marseilles to run “a collecting center for returning sailors in a commandeered castle.” He convinced his superiors that the aqua-lung had promise in a variety of naval applications and wheedled their permission to conduct a series of explorations. His buddy Taillez quit his job as a forest ranger, and a motley crew was assembled as the “Undersea Research Group.” Their activities included location and salvaging of wrecks, which led them eventually to the wrecks of cargo ships from classical times, the merchant marine of Greece, Phoenicia, Carthage, and Rome. The treasures they found had been sitting on the bottom of the Mediterranean since they sank two millennia ago, and offered unprecedented insights into the life of those times. Cousteau was, without a doubt, larger than life.
“I have recounted how the first goggles led us underwater in simple and irresistible curiosity, and how that impulse entangled us in diving physiology and engineering, which produced the compressed-air lung. Our dives are now animated by the challenge of oceanography. We have tried to find the entrance to the great hydrosphere because we feel that the sea age is soon to come.”
Reading these tales of high adventure half a century or more later inevitably brings the wistful sense, all too familiar nowadays, of what has been lost from the oceans, which were still comparatively virgin in the 1940s and 1950s when Cousteau first penetrated them. The descriptions of schools of gigantic fishes moving placidly among colorful reefs, which Cousteau and company were the first humans to see in their natural habitat, are almost nowhere to be found in the world oceans of today. But I am willing to bet that the situation would be far worse had the mysteries and beauty of the Ocean world not been brought to such wide popular attention by Cousteau’s lifelong passion.
What “professional” ocean scientist today can claim that kind of victory?