London Scuba Blogs
This week's entry features scuba pioneer Jacques-Yves Cousteau.
In 1971 he was the subject of Valiant's "Who is it?" cover feature. I'm sure I don't need to tell regular Art of Diving readers that this is the work of Mike Western.
This Time cover by Boris Artzybasheff is from 1960.
I'd like to thank Phil Rushton over at the Comics UK Forum for this marvelous 1967 Eagle cover which shows the intrepid captain's novel way of dealing with an inquisitive shark. Phil thinks the artist might be Alex Oliphant.
Google used the following logo to mark the 100th anniversary of Cousteau's birth.
This cutaway illustration of Cousteau's underwater habitat Conshelf Three is from a 1968 issue of the magazine Tell Me Why.
Finally, we have two recent children's books about Cousteau.
Manfish is by Jennifer Berne with illustrations by Eric Puybaret.
The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau is written and illustrated by Dan Yaccarino.
World Without Sun (Le Monde Sans Soleil) is an Oscar winning 1964 film directed by Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Like The Silent World, it took the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary. All the action takes place entirely beneath the surface.
The film tells the story of Continental Shelf Station II, or Conshelf II, an experimental underwater habitat located at Sha’ab Rumi in the Sudanese Red Sea. Partly funded by the French petrochemical industry, the idea was to test the use of a base station to aid in underwater working and exploration. The main structure was at 10m alongside a hanger for the Diving Saucer, Cousteau’s two-man submarine. The Deep Cabin was located at 30m with some Shark Cages at 50m. A group of “Oceanauts” would spend 30 days living and working underwater, with some spending time in the Deep Cabin. The station relied on surface support ships for air, power and water. These also provided food although a chef was part of the underwater crew. Cousteau stays behind the camera for much of the film although we do get to see him in action in the Diving Saucer and wearing one of the silver wetsuits reserved for the Oceanauts (the support divers have to make do with all black outfits).
The film opens with the Diving Saucer returning to the station and Cousteau and Albert Falco swimming to the main structure. Cousteau handily draws a diagram showing the layout of the station. The crew all seem to like their cigarettes and there’s even a pipe smoker amongst them. I wonder how they would have coped if the experiment was taking place today? On his return from a week in the Deep Cabin, the pipe smoker barely has his reg out before he lights up. The crew also have a parrot to keep them company, transporting him down to the station in a pressure cooker!
As with The Silent World, some of the interaction with the marine life can make uncomfortable viewing. One sequence shows the divers bagging up specimens only to see them attacked by some of the larger fish. A real frenzy ensues when they go after the fish in plastic drums and boxes. One enterprising moray eel is able to get inside the drum and grabs one of the specimens.
Ultimately, the experiment didn’t lead to the kind of future Cousteau envisaged and, after Conshelf III in the Mediterranean, he abandoned the idea as he moved more towards marine conservation . The film has some memorable footage – the station itself, especially at night; the Diving Saucer exploring the depths and finding a sea bed crawling with crabs – but, despite the nature of the experiment, I felt it lacked the ground-breaking feel of The Silent World. It’s still makes interesting viewing and I must admit to wishing I had an all-silver set of diving gear. Oh to be an Oceanaut!
The 1967 Eagle Annual contained a four page photo feature about the film which is reproduced below along with the cover.
Among my Christmas presents this year were DVDs of the Jacques Cousteau films The Silent World and World Without Sun. I immediately thought, “Aha! I can write about them for the London Scuba blog.” So, here’s my review of The Silent World (Le Monde du Silence).
Aboard his famous ship Calypso, Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau and his crew explored the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. One of the first underwater documentaries to be made in colour, co-directors Cousteau and a young Louis Malle shot some 15 miles of film over a two year period, with only 10% of the footage making the final cut. We’re positively spoilt these days, with beautifully shot programmes about the underwater world a regular feature of our TV schedules, so it’s perhaps hard for a modern audience to appreciate just how ground-breaking this film must have seemed in 1956.
Modern audiences might also find certain aspects of the film disturbing, although it’s not necessarily fair to judge the behaviour of the past by today’s standards. In later years Cousteau became firmly linked with marine conservation and environmental concerns, but in this film he and his crew show, at times, a blatant disregard for the well-being of the marine life they encounter. I wonder how many of the audience in 1956 were disturbed by scenes of divers riding turtles and, while ashore, treating giant tortoises as playthings. In his narration Cousteau talks of their endeavours being all about scientific research but, thankfully, science has moved on from dynamiting reefs to conduct a census of the dead fish left behind. I like to think that much of the behaviour shown stemmed from naivety more than anything else and we still have much to thank Cousteau for.
The film opens with flare-wielding divers descending down a reef wall and we see them at work with their unwieldy cameras and lights. One of the first things you notice is the difference in the diving equipment. The divers are, of course, using the twin-hose, single-stage regulator invented by Cousteau and Emile Gagnan, the Aqua-Lung, but it’s connected to an unusual set-up of three cylinders. There appears to be some kind of manifold system in place and I think one cylinder acted as a reserve. The cylinders lack even a simple backpack and these were the days before even the ABLJ was in use, let alone the BCD or Wings of today. For much of the film the divers eschew wet-suits and simply dive in their swimming trunks. Unfortunately they spend much of their time on the surface dressed (or should I say undressed?) the same way! Mention is made of nitrogen narcosis and the dangers of decompression sickness but the divers seem to spend a lot of their whizzing up and down without a care in the world. We do see one poor chap, having missed his deco stops due to being narked, complaining of a pain in his knee and having to endure three hours in the ship’s one-man decompression chamber. The rest of the crew show their concern by rushing off to lunch and eating all the lobsters he’d helped catch! A certain amount of staging may have gone on here although it's certainly clear that these guys were no actors!
One of the highlights of the film is the ship’s encounter with a large pod of dolphins (the narration calls them porpoises but they look like dolphins to me). Racing alongside and in front of Calypso, they seem to be having a whale of a time (sorry!), showing off their acrobatic skills. There’s also some nice underwater footage thanks to the observation windows in the bow of the ship. All in all it’s a lovely sequence that’s a joy to watch. Sadly, the same can’t be said of their encounter with some sperm whales. A juvenile goes under the ship and is badly hurt by the propellers. The subsequent fate of the whale is unpleasantly graphic and it’s hard to understand how the film was given a U certificate in British cinemas. Worse is to follow as the crew take their revenge on the Oceanic Whitetip sharks that came to feed on the whale’s carcass. The only justification given is the flimsy statement that “all sailors hate sharks.” This is one portion of the film I can see myself skipping on future viewings.
More likely to appeal to modern divers, especially the British perhaps, is the discovery and exploration of the SS Thistlegorm. Having dived the wreck many times since 1998, I found it both fascinating and depressing to see the ship less than 15 years after her sinking. At this point in time the mast is still in place and more of the bridge survives. The bow railings are intact, yet to succumb to hundreds of badly moored dive boats, and the winches are covered in coral. The ship’s bell is shown although it was subsequently removed by Cousteau, along with the Captain’s safe and a motorbike. Whatever else he may have removed remains the subject of speculation to this day. The motorbikes all have their handlebars, tank badges and other bits and pieces in place, a far cry from the looted remains of today. Of course the wreck would have deteriorated even without all the thoughtless divers that have plundered her over the years, but how marvellous it would be to be able to appreciate her the way she was then. Sadly, this film is as close as we can get to it now.
The final section of the film, on an unnamed “lost coral reef”, features more of the crew interacting with the marine life but in a generally more positive way, particularly the large grouper nicknamed Ulysses who seems quite a character. Having encouraged him by feeding though, it does seem a little unfair when they later put him "in jail" for being a nuisance. What's a fish to do?!
The Silent World remains a fascinating look at an earlier period of underwater exploration and, despite its more controversial moments, deserves its place in the history of diving. If you haven’t got a copy on your shelves already, I heartily recommend you buy a copy.