Explorer, Eco-Warrior, Spy: The Battles of Jacques Cousteau


Source: thedailybeast.com

One of the world’s great adventurers—and a Resistance spy—Jacques Cousteau warned me 25 years ago that humans were reaching the point of no return on environmental destruction.

PARIS, May 27, 1993—After a long conversation about Antarctica, a continent he felt he had saved, and before the raspberries, which he anticipated with the greedy enthusiasm of a child, one summer Sunday afternoon in 1991 at the Brasserie Lorraine on the Place des Ternes, looking out on Paris streets that were warm and green and pulsing with life, Jacques-Yves Cousteau talked about the death of his wife Simone a few months before. “For me it was terrible,” he said. His face was flushed and the lower lids of his eyes were red. At that moment he looked, uneasily, his 81 years. Flakes of dandruff speckled the eyeglasses he used to read the menu. “For her the good thing was, I spent the last three days with her.”


Finishing the last of the Bordeaux, he went on. “The night she died, we had a very joyful dinner.” Simone was a tiny woman, tough and reserved, who had spent most of the last 40 years at sea on the research vessel Calypso. She was known to the crew as “La Bergère,” the shepherdess, and she devoted herself to the ship she called “my best friend,” to its missions, its men and their Captain. “She is like a purser and a priest,” Cousteau liked to say. But in her seventy-first year she looked as if beneath her leather skin there were bones of excruciating fragility.  For most of the four months annually when she was not on the boat, she was in the Cousteaus’ little apartment in Monaco. She did not like Paris. Often alone, she left the radio and television turned on all the time to keep her company.

That night, however, her sister-in-law was there—and Cousteau. Simone was “gay, alert, joking,” he remembered. They stayed up late drinking and talking before finally going to bed in their room overlooking the sea.

“At five o’clock in the morning she asked me to help her to the toilet. And I did. And”—he hesitated an instant—”she died in my arms.”

“I knew she was not well, but I had no idea what was wrong with her,” said Cousteau.  He told the doctor he thought “she was drinking too much red wine.” But the doctor, who had known the Cousteaus since the early 1950s, and was the only physician Simone trusted, said, “Jacques, it was either wine or morphine.”

The old explorer did not understand. Wine or morphine?

For the last five years, the doctor explained, Simone had had “a generalized cancer.”  She had to have something to kill the pain.

“She made the doctor promise not to tell me,” Cousteau said, “so as not to disturb my work.”

We ate the berries in silence.

Other patrons of the restaurant glanced our way occasionally. Obviously they recognized the “Commandant,” as he is called in France. They were furtively inquisitive, but no people repress their curiosity with more neurotic intensity than the Parisian bourgeoisie. They allowed Cousteau his privacy and his secrets.


The rest of us think we know this old man of the sea because, of course, we grew up with him.  From countless hours of television we’ve learned his accent and the cadences of his speech and, in a general sort of way, we know how he changed the world. Can you remember a time when there were no scuba divers? When our vision of the ocean went no deeper than the keel of a glass-bottom boat? That’s the way it was before Cousteau. He invented the Aqua-Lung. He used it to explore oceans, rivers, caves in every corner the planet. And in the 50 years since World War II his films, which always featured his face and his voice, had two remarkable effects.

First, they conveyed a wondrous excitement about nature and—what is rare—a sense of  good-natured intimacy with it. The spectacle beneath the seas was wildly alien when it was first revealed in the 1940s, but through Cousteau it became suddenly and marvelously accessible. He and the members of his team seemed as fascinated as four-year-olds by just about everything they come across, whether sharks of Senegal or a skua sitting on its nest in Antarctica. Secondly, these scores of television programs, broadcast and rebroadcast and translated into dozens of languages, eventually made Cousteau himself the environmentalist emeritus of the global village. “He’s a teacher,” as Vice President Albert Gore said a couple of years ago. “He enables others to see the world and their relationship to it in a new way.”

In the last 15 years Cousteau has embraced the role of a visionary, even a revolutionary, preaching mainly to the young. As one generation would lose its fascination with him and move on from the world of true adventure to the duties of adulthood, the next generation would discover his undersea world, sometimes at odd hours, often in reruns, and be mesmerized. There is no place he is not known. One biographer claims there are surveys that show Cousteau ranks second only to the Pope as the most familiar face on the planet. But that may banalize the captain’s fame, so peculiar and universal, so grandfatherly and benign is his image.

Which is one reason the story about Simone’s death was so particularly disturbing. Cousteau told it with plain candor, as if he was puzzled by what it meant. It’s not surprising for a genius to be filled with oblivious self-fascination. In France, at least since Diderot, the enlightened have rationalized comfortably the toll that the truly brilliant take on those close at hand. (“He is a tree which has stunted some others growing near by and smothered plants growing at its feet, but it has raised its head to the heavens and its branches have spread far and wide,” as the philosophe would have it.)  Still, ego alone did not quite explain what Cousteau was saying. There was something on his mind that was missing from his account, and reflecting further I wondered about Simone’s motives.

The Diving Saucer Of Commander Cousteau. Côte d'Azur, Marseilles- July 23, 1959- The first attempts at the diving saucer designed by Commander Jacques-Yves Cousteau: he sat before the plans of the saucer, smoking a cigarette in his office. - JACK GAROFALO / PARIS MATCH VIA GETTY
The Diving Saucer Of Commander Cousteau. Côte d'Azur, Marseilles- July 23, 1959- The first attempts at the diving saucer designed by Commander Jacques-Yves Cousteau: he sat before the plans of the saucer, smoking a cigarette in his office. - JACK GAROFALO / PARIS MATCH VIA GETTY

Under The Sea

Before I met Cousteau for the first time five years ago, I retrieved from a long-unopened packing box my yellowing copy of The Silent World, a Scholastic Book Services edition decaying now with a smell of cheap pulp that brings back the perfervid daydreams of junior high study halls. It was first published in 1953 and about some parts of Cousteau’s first 40 years—the discoveries, the excitement—there is no better account. During and after World War II, Cousteau and Simone and their buddies were experimenting in an utterly new environment, using themselves as laboratory rats. They tinkered and investigated, mixing science with pleasure, trial with error, almost at play as they became, in Cousteau’s word, “menfish.”

Before the war a few crude devices had been developed to help divers move around freely without the aid of metal helmets, pressure suits and tubes tying them to compressors on the surface. But none was very effective. Simply inhaling bottled air wouldn’t work. The problem for a diver was to have an air supply that entered his lungs at the same pressure as the surrounding water, which increased dramatically the deeper he went. To do this manually was difficult, dangerous and impractical. What was needed was a valve—a regulator, as it came to be called—that would respond automatically to the pressure around it. Cousteau and an engineer named Émile Gagnan invented just such a device, and it proved as vital to exploration under the sea as the compass was to exploration on the surface.

On the morning in 1943 when Cousteau ran a first full underwater test of the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, Simone floated on the surface of the Mediterranean with mask and snorkel, literally watching over him. If anything went wrong, she was his link to the known world and survival. “I looked up and saw the surface shining like a defective mirror. In the center of  the looking glass was the trim silhouette of Simone, reduced to a doll. I waved. The doll waved at me.” Cousteau tried out the mechanism from every angle, floating vertically, inverted, planing through the water at different depths. It worked perfectly, and Cousteau was in a living dream, flying without wings in slow motion among strange beings. Then he paused to explore a little cave and bring up lobsters for himself and his wife in “occupied, ill-fed France.”

There was something almost matter of fact about making history in those days. “The gadgets that I happen to have invented would have been invented anyway,” he said. “They were invented because they fit into our adventure.” And there was always, in the broadest sense, an epicurean aspect to Cousteau’s explorations: a sensual delight in his discoveries that runs parallel to, and sometimes overcomes, his scientific observations. The bland note-takers of academia occasionally criticize Cousteau’s methodologies and sniff at his lack of formal credentials. Many see him as a voyeur intruding on their world of carefully filed facts. But Cousteau knew “the power of beauty,” as one of France’s most prominent researchers put it, and in his prose that mingled “Outdoor Life” adventure with elegant description, he perfectly conveyed his fascinations in his book The Silent World.

Consider his descriptions of the way color changes as the light fades beneath the surface of the sea. The naval research team he commanded in the late 1940s used color charts and scientific gadgets to measure the changes in hue at different depths as water filters away the spectrum of the sun. But it was an accidental scene in the middle of an undersea hunt that he used to tell the story. His friend and long-time colleague Frederic Dumas had speared a large fish about 20 fathoms down, and the damn thing wouldn’t die. As Cousteau watched,  “Dumas hauled in the last feet of cord, and got a grip on the harpoon shaft. He flashed his belt dagger and plunged it into the heart of the big fish. A thick puff of blood stained the water. … The blood was green. Stupefied by the sight, I swam close and stared at the mortal stream pumping from the heart. It was the color of emeralds. … Flourishing his astounding trophy on the harpoon, Didi led the way to the surface. At 55 feet the blood turned dark brown. At 20 feet it was pink. On the surface it flowed red.”

In the summer of 1947, Cousteau and his team began experimenting with the effects of nitrogen narcosis or “rapture of the depths,” and his accounts of those trials, most of which he inflicted on himself, reveal a great deal more about the man than about the molecules and capillaries that were his scientific concern. Cousteau and his colleagues knew from earlier descents that as they went deeper the risks of hallucination and disorientation grew dramatically. They breathed compressed air, which includes nitrogen as well as oxygen, and the actual volume of gas they were inhaling increased the lower down they went. A man 100 feet below the surface was breathing air four times denser than at sea level. The nitrogen built up in  the brain, and eventually began to alter its functions.

Often the condition struck suddenly, filling a diver with giddy euphoria, and different people were hit by the sensation at different depths. The effect was dangerous, not least, because it was so seductive. “I am personally quite receptive to nitrogen rapture. I like it and fear it like doom,” wrote Cousteau. “It destroys the instinct of life.”  But he kept going back for more, and the chapter of The Silent World that deals with his record-setting dives of the time is as much an exploration of hallucination as Aldous Huxley’s contemporaneous “Doors of Perception,” where mescaline and LSD were the mediums.

“At 200 feet I tasted the metallic flavor of compressed nitrogen and was instantaneously and severely struck with rapture. … My mind was jammed with conceited thoughts and antic joy. I struggled to fix my brain on reality, to attempt to name the color of the sea about me. A contest took place between navy blue, aquamarine and Prussian blue. The debate would not resolve. The sole fact I could grasp was that there was no roof and no floor in the blue room.” Cousteau reached 297 feet that day, a record for the time. Fifty fathoms deep, “in my bisected brain the satisfaction was balanced by satirical self-contempt.”

The fun stopped only a few months later when Maurice Fargues, a longtime member of Cousteau’s team, lost his mind, his air hose and his life somewhere around 400 feet.

Simone was almost always there in those days, whether floating like a guardian angel on the shimmering surface during Cousteau’s first aqualung dives, or waiting helpless near the entrance of a cave in the Vaucluse, wondering if her husband had died in his descent to the source of a mysterious spring.

Inevitably their children, too, were drawn into the undersea world by a father anxious to share his experiences with everyone around him. “During the summer of Liberation I came home from Paris with two miniature aqualungs for my sons, Jean-Michel, then seven, and Philippe, five. The older boy was learning to swim but the younger had only been wading. I was confident that they would take to diving, since one does not need to be a swimmer to go down with the apparatus.” But the excited infants, from the moment they first caught a glimpse of the undersea world, couldn’t stop chattering, giggling, and choking on water. “I gave another lecture on the theme that the sea was a silent world and that little boys were advised to shut up when visiting it. It took several dives before they learned to hold their volleys of chatter until they had surfaced. Then I took them deeper. They did not hesitate to catch octopi with their hands. On seaside picnics Jean-Michel would go down 30 feet with a kitchen fork and fetch succulent sea urchins. Their mother dives too, but without the same enthusiasm. For reasons of their own, women are suspicious of diving and frown on their menfolk going down.”


“Diving Was My Cover”

More than 40 years after those days of picnics by the sea, Simone was in the VIP lounge of Charles De Gaulle airport, where Jacques had gone to receive her on her return from yet another voyage aboard Calypso.  “People ask me if I follow my husband,” she said with a tired smile.  “I say, ‘No, he follows me.'”  With her was a fluffy white dog, incorrigible on land and, one would suppose, insufferable at sea. But it seemed to keep her amused and on her lap it kept her warm. I asked her to sign my crumbling copy of The Silent World. All she wrote, in letters reminiscent of the Phoenician script on Calypso’s logo, was “S. Cousteau.” Her husband’s inscription on the same page, in clean, bold handwriting, reads to one “who has the courage to share my schedule … for a few days!”

Even in his early eighties Cousteau’s energy appears limitless, and he always seems a little puzzled by those around him who were not blessed with such vitality. He appears unaware of the toll his boundless enthusiasms might take on others. His schedule is relentlessly kinetic.  As I’ve tried to plumb his ideas and his personality we’ve wound up talking in Paris restaurants, in his Monaco apartment and driving along the Cote d’Azur; in Washington hotels while he lobbied Congress, and in his little office off the Faubourg Saint-Honoré. We’ve communicated by fax and by satellite phone.

One morning a call came from the Calypso. Cousteau was off Palawan Island in the Philippines. If I could make it to the Paris airport by 3 p.m. there was a plane to Manila. He’d send a helicopter to pick me up and we could spend the week on the boat. “It is one of the very most beautiful places in the world,” he shouted over the Inmarsat line. “I have been diving in several caves … All of these islands are like Gruyère cheese … We have explored and filmed a river four kilometers inland … It’s like paradise.”  Foolishly, because of other commitments I didn’t go, and I never have been on the Calypso, never have seen the old man in the sea. But, then, he spends less time there now.

Since 1989 Cousteau has helped save Antarctica, explored the Danube and the Mekong, starred at the Earth Summit in Rio and become an “immortal” of the Académie française.  Grandiose projects were begun. Some continue, like his efforts to foster the teaching of  “ecotechnique” at the world’s universities. Some crumbled. Attempts to build Disneyesque amusements foundered in bankruptcy and acrimony.

In December 1990, Simone died and in June of 1991, as it happens just a few days after our lunch at the Brasserie Lorraine, Cousteau remarried Francine Triplet, a woman in her 40s, and introduced to the world their two young children, Diane and Pierre-Yves. Cousteau’s older surviving son and long-time heir apparent, 56-year-old Jean-Michel, has since gone off to pursue other interests, starting the break-up of a non-profit empire he and his father have built over the course of 20 years.  “It has not damaged our affection,” Jacques told me this spring. “There is nothing else to say but Jean-Michel is gone.” This is not all that Jean-Michel has to say.  But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. The old man of the sea is full of secrets, and there are some basic ones to be learned near the surface before we move deeper.

“The drive when I was young was curiosity,” Cousteau explained one morning in Monaco in 1990. “I was curious to see what was under the keel of our boats, even when I was very, very young, even under small boats.” We were up in his study, which is poised like a widow’s walk on top of the little apartment block where he officially resides, with a glassed-in terrace looking down on the jumble of Mediterranean buildings that is Monaco. Watching the scribbled impressions going into my notebook, Cousteau amended: “The important date was 1920, when I dived in Vermont.”

He was 10 years old then and living in the United States, on New York’s Upper West Side near the corner of 95th and Broadway. His father, Daniel Cousteau, seems to have had talents valued by parvenu Americans anxious for a patina of French sophistication, and he spent his entire career working between Paris and Manhattan as the private secretary of first one, then another American millionaire. Jacques learned to play stickball and speak English in New York, and in the summer he was shipped off to camp near a lake in Vermont. He was easily bored, obviously headstrong, and apparently a bit of a disciplinary problem. When part of the program turned out to be horseback riding in the hills, Jacques refused to go. “I don’t like mountains. I don’t like horses.” The German headmaster ordered him, as punishment, to retrieve some branches from the bottom of the lake.  No mask. No fins. No ocean. But by Cousteau’s reckoning, his undersea adventures had begun.

Cousteau’s adolescence was spent mostly in France and traveling around Europe. He changed schools frequently and was never very diligent about study, but he was anxious to create. He tried poetry and painting. (On the wall in the aerie above his Monaco apartment there is one of his teenage oils: a moody depiction of Jesus which he called “Disappointed Christ.” The most interesting thing about the painting is that it is still on his walls and, for Cousteau, it still has a message. “How could He not be disappointed,” says the captain.) But most of Cousteau’s teenage creativity went into making home movies. Other people kept their journals on paper, he kept his on film. Using friends as actors he produced little melodramas. Most often he played the villain himself.

At the age of 20, Cousteau enlisted in the French navy. He had thought about being a professional movie maker. He considered a career in medicine. But the navy offered a chance to keep traveling, to see the world, as it were, and explore at other people’s expense (as he would continue to do for the rest of his life). All the while he kept filming. Aboard the training ship Jeanne d’Arc he circumnavigated the globe: Bali, Japan, even Hollywood. By the time he was 24, Cousteau was serving in China and when he got an extended leave, he went back home overland, through the Soviet Union. Cousteau made his way by train through the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution from the Pacific port of Vladivostok to Moscow, where the smattering of Russian he had studied in Shanghai helped him shake the secret police.  “During 10 days I was free—loose—with a lot of rubles,” he recalls. “So I had a great time.” After that he made his way to Tbilisi and Yerevan in the Caucasus. From there to Ukraine and Poland, then back home to France. Among the mementoes in his apartment is a photograph of the young officer before leaving Shanghai. A pencil-thin moustache only accentuates the unformed freshness of his face.

Cousteau’s ambition was to make his career as a naval aviator. The dreamlike experience of flight always enthralled him. But on a brief leave after several months of flight school in 1936 he was trying to drive all night from one corner of France to another to meet some friends when he crashed his car on a dark country road. It was two o’clock in the morning. Nobody was around and for several hours, until he made his way to a farmhouse, he thought that he was going to die. As he described the scene years later he remembered looking at the stars and thinking, “My God, I’ve seen a lot of things in my life.” Jacques Cousteau was twenty-six.

The convalescence was long and painful and only after months of therapy was the young officer able to regain the use of both his arms. By then his career as a pilot was over. But it was precisely at this time that he was introduced to another naval officer, slightly his senior, named Philippe Tailliez. Both were fascinated by the idea of diving and spearfishing, and Tailliez, in turn, introduced Cousteau to another young enthusiast named Frederic Dumas. The three became constant diving companions, building their fame together for the next 20 years.

It was also during this period that Cousteau met Simone Melchior. In 1936 she was seventeen. While Cousteau came from a bourgeois family in Bordeaux, in Simone Melchior’s background there was money, prestige and, as she said, “seawater in my blood.” She was from three generation of admirals. Her grandfathers and uncles had all held the rank, and her father was a director of Air Liquide, one of the world’s leading producers of bottled gases for industrial purposes. It was one of her father’s employes, Emile Gagnan, who co-invented the aqualung with Cousteau, and the company still holds the patent. When she was eighteen years old, Simone and Jacques were married. They had just begun to establish their lives together when the Second World War began.


The Silent World and the movies and books and articles that followed it during the 1950s in Life or National Geographic give the impression that as war was building in Europe and Paris folded before the Nazi threat, as French Jews were being deported to the death camps by their French Catholic neighbors and the fate of millions of people hung in the balance, Cousteau and his companions somehow managed to spend all their time exploring under water, far from the cruelties of conquest and collaboration.  Maybe this notion was comforting in the years just after the conflict was over. To discover a dreamlike world under the sea was, for Cousteau’s audience as much as for him, a respite from all the traumas that went before. But Cousteau was deeply and painfully involved in the the dramas of Vichy France.  His only brother, Pierre-Antoine, was one of the country’s most infamous Nazi collaborators. Jacques-Yves was a spy who worked with the Resistance.

Cousteau looks back on his espionage activities, as so much else in his life, with a mixture of satisfaction balanced by satirical self-contempt. In the early days of the conflict, before Paris fell, he was at sea on a mission to track the German pocket battleship Graf Spee in South America. “When I came back from these stupid military actions I was designated for the secret service in Marseilles” and at first “refused to do that dirty job.” For a man styling himself an officer and a gentleman it seemed an affair of  “lies and vice.” But his commander made it an order and once Cousteau was caught up in historic events, he confessed, “I enjoyed it a lot.”

As the Germans progressively occupied France, first exacting concessions from the Vichy government, then encroaching on ever more territory with their Italian allies, Cousteau took part in scuttling the French fleet at Toulon to keep it out of Nazi hands. His most well documented exploit was on land, when he slipped into an Italian military post and photographed critical documents helpful in breaking the Axis codes. As he figured it, he had “about one chance out of ten to come out” of that mission.  For these exploits Cousteau won two Croix de guerres and the Legion d’honneur.

His experiments with the aqualung obviously put him in a position to gather further intelligence in and around the sea. But it was only recently, one morning in Monaco, that he admitted “during that last part of the war diving was my cover.” For obvious reasons it was not wise for a man roaming the world in a scientific research vessel to advertise the fact he had been a spy.

Pierre-Antoine made his career as a journalist while Jacques-Yves was working his way up the ranks in the Navy.  Writing in the popular journal “Je suis partout,” Pierre preached conciliation with the Germans as the war with Hitler approached and, once France had been defeated, he counseled collaboration. Indeed, on any day in the streets of occupied Paris the French could read tracts signed by Pierre Cousteau that were openly sympathetic to the Nazis, implacably hostile to the Allies and the Jews: a people “with a taste for perversion, for swindling, for verbal onanism,” as Pierre put it. He was a hate-mongerer par excellence in a country that was, to its enduring shame, viscerally anti-Semitic.

To this day the French hate to be reminded about the days of Vichy, but every so often a journalist muckraking through Cousteau’s past will delve into the history of Pierre-Antoine. The most recent was Bernard Violet, who devotes much of the biography he published earlier this year to a diligent search for ways in which the actions of the older brother might reflect on the younger. Violet managed to contact far-flung members of the family, pored through the pages of “Je suis partout” and the transcripts of later court proceedings, sifted through such private correspondence as he could obtain and finally discovered that Cousteau’s first public triumph with an underwater film was a showing of “Par dix-huit metres de fond,” a spearfishing tale with Dumas as protagonist, shown in occupied Paris during a Nazi-approved festival for documentaries. Violet suggests that, aided by Pierre’s contacts, Jacques dived and filmed with the authorization of the occupiers. But Violet offers no evidence that Jacques Cousteau shared Pierre’s anti-semitic views or any of his other scurrilous opinions. Jacques was loyal to his brother, not to his politics.

After the war Pierre-Antoine Cousteau was captured by the Allies and sentenced to death for collaboration. Despite the obvious risk to his naval career, Jacques-Yves attended the trial, testified on his brother’s behalf, and tried to bolster his courage once the sentence was handed down. “You have to live. And the hope that we have, you have to share in it!” he wrote the day after the decision.  Eventually Pierre’s sentence was commuted to life in prison, and after nearly a decade behind bars, Pierre was released in 1956. Bitter and broken, he died two years later of cancer.

Throughout their youth, Pierre had been the more brilliant of the two brothers. But when he emerged from jail it was Jacques the world knew. The Silent World had been an international best seller. The film based on the book, co-directed with young Louis Malle, had won a Palme d’or at Cannes and an Oscar in Hollywood. As Jacques’ fame grew, the story of Pierre slipped into obscurity, and then out of sight.

When Cousteau talks about those times today he sounds weary, but he is frank. “My brother was persuaded that we should collaborate with the Germans,” he said one afternoon. “He was persuaded of that before the war and he did not change his mind during the war. I did not agree with him. We fought like dogs about these things together. Very gentle but very serious. And when I was in the Resistance and he was a journalist writing in favor of the Germans we still met and discussed”—Cousteau searched for a moment for the right word—”like brothers, but with radically different opinions. He was a very brilliant, very sympathetic, very warm person. Full of irony. And finally, what happened? We do collaborate with the Germans. After all those things…

“I was a military officer. I was serving my country. My country decided to fight. I was fighting. Bon. And I may have had other opinions”—Cousteau shrugged—”but I did not. “


The Science of Joy

In the study in Monaco, on the wall above the fax machine that spewed out a constant stream of legal papers and proposals for a long-planned exploration of the Yangtze, there hung a portrait of Simone painted by Jacques in the 1950s. She had a kerchief tied around her hair and her expression was skeptical. Cousteau’s technical skills as a portraitist, whether of Christ or of his wife, were not great. But the eyes in Simone’s picture did have that trick, which some portraits have, of following you around. Framed on the wall, she quietly dominated the room.

In life, she was down in the kitchen. Lunch was ready late in the day, a simple meal with friends à la Provençale: raw fava beans, salami, pizza, steak. (The only fish on the table were little rubber ones used as knife rests.) Everyone drank red wine and talked about food. Much as the captain might eat, he never seems to gain weight. Cousteau had always been skinny, said Simone. When they used to make love, she laughed, he was so boney she used to get bruised.

After dinner, with a little encouragement, Cousteau continued the chronicle of his life. “Obviously it’s almost overwhelming the amount of things I’ve been involved in. It’s almost embarrassing,” he said. “And the amount of luck I’ve had, compared to the life of a bank clerk.”

“Your luck,” said Simone, “was marrying me.”

“Evidemment,” he said. Obviously.

But as Cousteau’s fame continued to grow, Simone began to retreat.

It is easy enough to imagine the enervating effect of his constant excitement. Like an emotional dynamo he would fill you with energy in short bursts, but over the long run he could take that energy back. And then some. Looked at closely, so much of what makes Cousteau charming verges on self-parody, and occasionally crosses the line. His manner is as quintessentially Gallic as the French accent he has kept despite 75 years speaking American.  He was ever and remains a “bon vivant” filled with “joie de vivre.”  A favorite word in English is “enjoy.” Cousteau not only has fun—diving, traveling, spying during World War II—he watches himself having fun, records himself having fun. And the effect for those around him can be a little like living in a film. Searching for the key to the cellar of his Paris apartment so he can take a visitor to see his wines, he narrates the action in the present progressive like a scene from one of his movies: “Now I am opening the drawer, taking out this key…”  In the basement room, among old books by John Gunther and rolls of paper for oceanographic survey equipment are cases of Château Belles Graves, various vintages, from a Bordeaux estate owned by relatives. He frets about the ’89, which is wonderful, he says, but may not age so well. Opening a bottle, he admires the Teflon-lubricated Screwpull. “The French make great wines,” he says, “the Americans make great corkscrews.”

In the late afternoon in Monaco, while everyone still had a glass of Belles Graves in hand, Cousteau rummaged through the videos near the television. He scanned the controls of the tape player like a navigator looking at the horizon. “People become nomads at home,” he said. “I allow people who would never become nomads the possibility to imagine they are.

“I become furious when they put on my films the word ‘documentary.’ That would mean a lecture at home by a guy who knows better. There is a kind of solemnity. Our films are not documentaries. They are true adventure films.”

He found the one he was looking for, a shorthand account of his life called “The First 75 years.” Cousteau said he hadn’t seen this television homage but once or twice since it was produced for his birthday in 1985, five years before, and like a child he sat rapt, the silver-blue light of the television screen illuminating his features, watching the decades pass. Here are still photographs of a mischievous schoolboy in the United States, there is Cousteau the mustached villain in his primitive melodramas. He circumnavigates the globe on the Jeanne d’Arc, camera in hand, exploring the world of geishas, Balinese dancers, the cardboard deck of a Hollywood battleship.  A remarkable clip shows him with Douglas Fairbanks at Pickfair. The movie star lights a cigarette for the 22-year-old midshipman. Cousteau seems completely, elegantly at home.

A certain noblesse oblige combined with joie de vivre is a key to Cousteau’s environmental consciousness.  “There is a way to conduct yourself that is aristrocratic,” he said that evening in Monaco. “What I tried to do with my children—unfortunately half of them died— was to teach them just that: the aristocratic way of judging yourself. As long as you were not able to look at yourself in the mirror, satisfied with your behavior, you better shut up.”

From the early 1950s, he sensed that what was happening to the natural world he explored was unconscionable. “The start was curiosity, the enthusiasm about beauty. Then I realized that it was threatened,” he said. “Bon. Now after the period of curiosity and exploring came the period of alert, because we were looking at things that were actually disappearing already. That began to turn us into environmentalists. And that started in 1950 when I found the Calypso.”

The boat—the famous boat—was built in Seattle in the early days of the war, a wooden-hulled minesweeper dubbed simply J-826. By 1950 it had made its way to private hands in Malta where it served as a ferry and was given its name, after the nymph who kept Odysseus enraptured on her island for seven years. Cousteau bought the Calypso with money donated by one of his father’s wealthy friends. He then contrived to have himself assigned to a special division of the Navy and the Calypso proclaimed France’s first vessel for oceanographic research. Cousteau had been 20 years in the military, and technically he still was. But as he and his crew sailed aboard the refitted Calypso on their maiden voyage to the Red Sea he realized “for the first time we were on our own. It was not ‘the’ navy. It was ‘my’ navy.”

Here on the video in Monaco is the opening scene of the movie “The Silent World”: an escadrille of divers, flares in hand, descending to the lower edges of a reef. There is the Calypso prospecting for oil off Abu Dhabi. There are the inventions—Aqua-Lung, Diving Saucer, the habitats under the sea called Conshelf I, and II, and III. Here is Cousteau being received by Presidents of the United States. John Kennedy awards him a medal. Simone stands, ill at ease, in the background.

With the backing and direction of David Wolper in the 1960s Cousteau began his television series “The Undersea World of … ,” and his slightly folksy sense of showmanship became Hollywoodized. In that late-1960s era of ersatz interplanetary adventures (this was the time of “Star Trek,” the first generation), Cousteau’s divers were outfitted in silver diving gear with weird helmets suitable for encountering aliens. But the captain always kept his sense of humor, and some of the costumes were absolutely ludicrous. For a program about African hippos, he had two of his men don a fiberglass hippo suit. At a scene in the video of web-footed divers trundling past a puzzled elephant, Cousteau erupts with laughter.

The documentary continues to play out in the Monaco evening. There by the banks of the river among the hippos is a lanky young man, his face mostly hidden by a thick beard, but his bearing and his lean build reminiscent of his father’s. As the story of Philippe Cousteau appears on the screen, the captain watches in silence.

Throughout the 1970s, while Cousteau became a grand old man, his son Philippe appeared as the successor to his fame and his causes. Philippe was the younger of the two children Simone bore Cousteau. But his poetic temperament, his drive and ego and interests all pushed him to the fore in his father’s projects. He had a good sense of his generation’s environmental preoccupations and a fascination with gadgetry like hot air balloons and seaplanes. He pushed the edge of the envelope to keep in the Cousteau films the sense of excitement and discovery that always set them apart.

At first they traveled together, in later years they divided up the work. It was with Philippe that Cousteau first explored the edges of Antarctica. It was Philippe who flew his seaplane to the upper reaches of the Nile. And when Philippe was killed in Portugal in 1979, crashing his plane into the waters of the Tagus River, there was no replacing him, really.

Jean-Michel, the older brother, was by contrast plodding and reserved. His chosen metier was architecture, the stuff of a static imagination. Philippe was 39 when he died. Jean-Michel was 41 when he was called on to take his brother’s place. “I joined the Cousteau Society on the demand of my dad,” as he put it. More than a decade after Philippe’s death, years after Jean-Michel began appearing regularly in all the publicity of the Cousteau Society and in most of the films, there was often an uncomfortable tension apparent between the effusive, effulgent spirit of the father and the taciturn, responsible soul of the older—but second—son.

When privately I would ask Cousteau about the death of Philippe (“half” of his children) he would say it did not change the way he saw the world, but he was less than convincing. “It has hurt me for the rest of my days, personally, but it has had no influence on my thinking. … It gave me more courage maybe. Because he was convinced, he was trying to advertise the ideas that we developed together and his death is almost an encouragement.”

But Cousteau’s world changed enormously just then, in some ways publicly, in many ways unremarked or unspoken. The captain had met a young airline hostess named Francine Triplet, and it was soon after Philippe died that his only daughter, Diane, was born to her. A couple of years later she bore him another son, Pierre-Yves, and gradually the presence of this second family began to assume a larger role in his life. Francine began writing the scripts for his films. Eventually the children started to appear in them, although their identities were not made clear until after Simone had died. Cousteau kept their existence “not really a secret,” he said later. “It was part of my life. A little aside, but not very much aside.”

Also about the time of Philippe’s death, Cousteau published a book that his staff in Paris handle with care verging on reverence. Now long out of print, The Cousteau Almanac: An Inventory of Life on Our Water Planet, made little impact on the world’s consciousness. Much of it is a compendium of, now, more or less out of date essays by Cousteau staffers about nuclear reactors, oil tankers and other threats to mankind. But there are sections that Cousteau refers to constantly. One is the bill of rights for future generations that the Cousteau foundations now circulate as a petition. “Future generations have a right to an uncontaminated and undamaged earth and to its enjoyment …,” begins this little manifesto. It concludes by urging governments, organizations and individuals to “take all appropriate measures” to protect the environment “as if in the very presence of those future generations whose right we seek to establish and perpetuate.”

There is, too, a brief essay titled “The Exploration of Happiness.” In it Cousteau proposes “a science of joy”.


Oracle of the Apocalypse

Through the 1950s and 1960s, Cousteau was mostly content to take us under water, open those natural doors of perception, and leave us to marvel at the the experience. But about the time of Philippe’s death, his central preoccupation moved dramatically from discovery to preservation. Jacques Cousteau was 70 years old, and the Biblical milestone of three score years and ten had been crossed. Half his children were dead. And, perhaps coincidentally, he had glimpsed the apocalypse.

One of the last films Jacques and Philippe made together was about Easter Island, and the Captain talks about it still. “In certain cases environmental destructions may reach the point of no return,” he told the Rio Conference on Environment and Development last year. “In the seventh century A.D., as told by petroglyphs, two large outriggers landed on a virgin, lush and uninhabited tropical island. Two hundred Polynesians—men, women, children—and pigs and hens landed on the beautiful beaches of Easter Island. … For eight centuries after they settled they cultivated, multiplied, developed a unique civilization, a society divided in three castes: peasants, sculptors and priests. Their population increased wildly. They ran short of resources, and when they reached the number of 70,000, famine, bloody revolts and social chaos brought about the total collapse of their society. When Dutch navigators landed at Easter Island in the seventeenth century, it was a barren, totally deforested piece of rock where a few hundred cannibals were hunting each other for survival. All that remained were undecipherable tablets and proud statues, a stern warning to humankind of what will happen to Island Earth if humans do not strictly control their demography.”

In the 1980s Cousteau’s team went to Haiti, another grim little island, with “7.5 million people on an exiguous and impoverished land.” They might be “beautiful, proud, intelligent, good-humored and hard-working,” but “they have exhausted the marine resources of their narrow continental shelf. They have deforested, without precaution, two thirds of their country and tropical rains have thereafter wiped out the soil, laying bare the ground rock and impeding agricultures for centuries to come. To cook their scanty meals, they continue to deforest, and turn wood into charcoal. We asked: ‘What will you do when there is no wood left at all?’ ‘That will be the end of the world! Yes, the end of the world!’ they answered. Until then, the men of Haiti procreate, hoping that their male children will take care of their old fathers, and women say ‘I am not the one to decide how many children I will have.'”

Cousteau was in a unique position to put across almost any message that interested him. By the early 1980s the nonprofit institutions that Jacques and Simone and their sons had created were taking on the proportions of an empire. From 1956 until about 1989 Monaco gave Cousteau a virtual sinecure as head of its oceanographic institute. But after some of his most ambitious underwater projects were cancelled by the French government in 1972, the Captain increasingly moved his activities to the United States. First with the Cousteau Society, then in France with the Fondation Cousteau, the Captain/Commandant cobbled together the means to underwrite his life and ideas. Royalties from past films provided some income, contributions from members provided much of the rest. To keep the cash coming for his new television projects—at a cost of $1.1 million a show, shooting 50 hours of film for every one that got used—Cousteau forged agreements with Ted Turner, then Banque Worms, exploiting reserves of past rights the way geologists probe the mesozoic sediments of the Persian Gulf.

From the time the Captain bought the Calypso with a philanthropist’s money and helped outfit it by selling some of Simone’s jewelry, he and his family were engaged in what he called “our financial adventure.” The main objective was to continue his work, but on the side this most elegant of explorers refined a style of life in which “without personal ownership, I live like a prince. I have two yachts [the Calypso and the turbo-sail Alcyone], an airplane, a helicopter. I travel all the time.”

He learned to play all sorts of angles to underwrite his activities. Today, for instance, Cousteau is one of seven surviving French people allowed to live in Monaco tax free because they were there before DeGaulle ended the privilege. (“We were several thousand,” Cousteau says in passing. “Next year there will be six or five or four.”) But he has never accumulated much capital. Cousteau makes a fetish of traveling light and fast, carrying his rather oddly tailored leisure suits and turtlenecks in a suitcase smaller than a gym bag. If he can commute on the Concorde between Paris and New York, he does. His favorite briefcase is the one the stewardesses hand out to all their passengers.

Cousteau took a long time to realize the political potential of his fame, and longer still to decide what to do with it. The antic activism of Greenpeace did not interest him, certainly. Cousteau didn’t need to draw attention to himself by hanging banners on warships or dumping sludge on doorsteps. If he walked down the street he could pull a crowd. For years French polls have ranked him the most popular man in the country, and his office claimed it got 80,000 letters asking him to run for president in 1988.

Still, it wasn’t until the fight for Antarctica that Cousteau realized just how much power he might have.

As he tells the story he was reading the International Herald Tribune one morning in 1988 when he noticed that several signatories of the Antarctic Treaty had given their initial approval in Wellington, New Zealand, to a convention on mining and drilling in the frozen continent. It would put severe restrictions on prospecting, but by providing a legal framework for claims, it could eventually open the door to exploitation. The United States and France fully supported the convention.

Cousteau knew this place, Antarctica. He and Philippe had gone there in 1972 and 1973 and been overwhelmed by its beauty. The stupidity of mining there, of doing anything that put this virgin continent at risk, seemed so manifest that he could not conceive why governments would approve such undertakings. The villains, he concluded, were bureaucrats who put their careers before the good of mankind. “The scribes are governing and not the governments,” Cousteau declared. “The prime minister can say to his apparatchiks what he wants, when he is gone they do what they want.”

One Tucker Scully, the State Department official who dealt directly with the Antarctic Treaty, became the target of Cousteau’s special contempt. And after 15 years working on the subject, the ever diplomatic Scully initially met the captain’s criticisms with polite contempt. “Maybe it’s time for new blood,” he said in the corridors at a 1989 Paris conference on Antarctica. “But as of now 13 agencies of the U.S. government concur in the positions we’re taking.”

Cousteau decided to go to the top. He personally lobbied French President François Mitterrand, as well as the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand. And finally Captain Cousteau went to Washington.

The fate of the frozen continent was not exactly a burning issue on Capitol Hill. A handful of environmental  activists like Susan Sabella of Greenpeace and James Barnes of the Antarctica Project had followed the issue closely, hoping to defeat the Wellington Convention by working with congressional staffers, issuing reports, occasionally testifying before committees and laboring over every word of pending legislation. They were, essentially, creatures of the Hill, and when Cousteau hit town in his turtleneck and leisure suit he looked, to them, like someone from another planet. But there was no question he had an impact. “You have members of Congress that go ga-ga. They bring their children out for pictures with him,” said Richard Munson, a congressional staffer and environmentalist who wrote a 1989 biography critical of Cousteau. “This is generally a pretty cynical lot,” said Munson, “but you see some of them treat him almost with reverence.”

Occasionally, weary from a relentless schedule, Cousteau would muddle facts: 30,000 birds affected by a recent oil spill in the Antarctic suddenly became 30,000 birds killed. Cousteau described the Wellington Convention as secretly negotiated, when in fact Barnes had been able to follow its evolution for years. As the captain spoke before members of the House Foreign Affairs committee Sabella and Barnes shifted in their seats, stifling laughs. “I kept wanting to say ‘point of information,'” said Barnes when it was over. “He doesn’t understand the politics of it at all.” But when Cousteau begged off on one question about Antarctica by saying “I am not a prophet,” Congressman Wayne Owens of Utah allowed as how “some think you are.” Nobody ever said that about Barnes or Sabella.

Cousteau had access no other Antarctic lobbyists ever had. Conservative senators opened their doors to him. Liberals embraced him. At a breakfast in the Rayburn building, a dinner in the Capitol, they listened to him expound not only on the fate of Antarctica, but on the future of the world. “Since I was born, the population of the earth has tripled. And it goes on. Every two years there is another France. Every 10 years, another China.” There are, right now, more than 5 billion people in the world.  “It’s a heavy, heavy threat. We weigh too much on the planet.” Some scientists believe the earth can feed three times its present population. “But is the goal to feed more people and have them lead a miserable life or is it better to have fewer people lead a full life?” he asked. “If you have 12 or 15 billion people there will be no nightingales, no butterflies, no et cetera. And you will have only a few animals—cows, pigs, sheep—to feed those people. Everything else will be destroyed.”

Cousteau, began, in fact, to preach his revolution. “It is during this next hundred years that the future”—of mankind, of the et cetera—”will be decided.” Sure, the cost of setting things straight will be high: women in the developing world have to be educated so birth rates will go down, the poor have to be convinced that their future security does not depend on the proliferation of their descendants. Something like a global welfare system needs to be created. “Urgency makes this possible,” said Cousteau. “If the doctor tells you you have cancer you enter the hospital, even if you have to borrow money.”

People have to get over the idea that consumption and contentment go together. Cousteau reserves special disdain for the notion of “sustained development” dear to most politically savvy environmentalists. If American-style consumerist prosperity continues to be the model for the world’s aspirations, in Cousteau’s opinion all is lost. “Seven hundred million Americans, that’s all that the earth could support: 700 million Americans, it means nobody else.” The positive side of the Third World’s underdevelopment is that “more than half the planet’s human beings are not yet consumers.”

All of which met with polite nods among the photo opportunists of the Hill, and drew particular attention from then-Senator Al Gore. For the future vice president, Cousteau was something special. The baby-boomer politician had grown up with him, just like the rest of us, then became a personal friend. “I first invited him to come and speak to the U.S. Congress 12 years ago, and I have spent a great deal of time with him,” said the senator. “I was at his last birthday party in Paris.” They may have different accents, but two speak much the same eco-visionary language, rattling off alarming statistics, trying to picture a world that works very differently from anything we’ve experienced before. At the end of Gore’s best-selling book he writes about the effect his son’s brush with death had on his views, and the importance of “inner ecology.” “We can believe in that future and work to achieve it and preserve it, or we can whirl blindly on, behaving as if one day there will be no children to inherit our legacy. The choice is ours; the earth is in the balance.” All this sounds remarkably like Cousteau.

In the end, on Antarctica, the captain—and Barnes and Sabella, and Gore, and the rest of the environmentalists—won. A complete moratorium was declared on prospecting as well as mining for the next half-century, and that was good enough for Cousteau. “It is a victory of good sense, really,” he said later. “I have just been a soldier of good sense.” But Cousteau, while he still laughs at himself, finds it hard to be humble. “I carry on piling up information and I’ve done that all my life,” he said. “I’m in a position, and I didn’t want it, it happened to me, where I know more about the environment than anyone else alive.”

There are, of course, many environmentalists who would question this claim. Even Al Gore, who likes to quote authorities as varied as Aristotle, R.D. Laing and Carl Sagan, only mentions Cousteau once in his book, and then only in passing. He doesn’t include a single work by the captain in his bibliography. It is as if, after all he has done and learned, all the photo opportunities and homages, in the end Cousteau is not to be taken seriously. His information is too general, his interests range too widely, his talents are too varied for the tastes of a world attuned to specialists. Perhaps there is no place for a Renaissance man in a post-modernist age. Perhaps the power of beauty has waned, or, perhaps, he has lost his sense of it.

Undeterred, the old man of the sea keeps lowering his lance and charging at the apocalypse, pursuing the all-important, all-consuming work that those closest to him are reluctant to disturb. “Utopia or death,” he likes to say. The alarm has been sounded. There are only 10 years left to save the world, he announced last year. That’s nine years, now, and ticking. The message from his organizations is relentless. Every young member of the Cousteau Society in the United States or l’Equipe Cousteau in France gets a regular dose of Cousteau’s philosophy in “The Calypso Log.” “All society is organized to exploit those who are not yet born,” he tells his child-revolutionaries. “The future of the human species is in danger.”

With the zeal of a man who has seen the light, Cousteau advocates the teaching of something he calls “ecotechnique,” a neologism for the simple, sensible notion of creating interdisciplinary programs and universities to give economics, technology and ecology equal weight in the curriculums, and in the decision-making process generally. A handful of European universities have endorsed the program. The Vrije University in Brussels has even created a Cousteau chair. The idea in the end is to prevent projects like the mining of Antarctica from ever getting off the ground by seeing clearly what would otherwise be “unforeseen consequences.”

But there is another aspect to Cousteau’s philosophy that is even more elemental, more essential to understanding his views. “You know,” he said one radiant morning at a cafe in Cannes, “I believe that happiness is for this world, and I believe that we could teach happiness.” It is a theme he comes back to again and again, a “crazy idea,” as he readily admits, but one of which he is deeply enamored. The “science of joy” is the standard against which everything else is measured. As if joy had no potential for disaster.

Cousteau insists: If people extend their realm of experience by learning, loving, sharing and creating, as he wrote in his Almanac at the beginning of the 1980s, then they can escape sterile, destructive measurements of well-being like consumption, spending, and “efficiency.” If we know well what joy is, and pursue it together, anything is possible. The notion neatly bridges his personal and global missions.  But somewhere along the way, some of the people closest to him were left out. “He’s a one-man show,” says Jean-Michel, “because he doesn’t delegate, because he doesn’t know how, because he’s got to go where he’s going: in pursuit of happiness.”

Cousteau’s last major documentary, a massive four-part series on the Danube that cost millions to make, was written by his new wife, Francine Triplet. It features his two young children, Diane and Pierre-Yves, who appear as amazed and often obviously uncomfortable spectators along for the ride on their father’s peregrinations through Eastern Europe. Publicity for the programs in France included painfully awkward pictures of Cousteau, looking ancient in his diving gear as he stands beside his 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old-son.

“Are we born on earth to be ‘efficient’ or to be happy?” Jacques Cousteau asked one afternoon in Paris last fall. It was an interesting question, and central to the way he thinks.  “We have to say, ‘what are the parts of your life that you like to remember?'” Maybe there was a moment when you were playing sports in high school, or an afternoon spent having a glass of wine, talking to good friends. “You can lose years trying to find the love of a wonderful woman [before] you finally get it. That’s not efficient,” said the old sailor. “The efficient thing to do is to go to a bordello.”

The day was almost over at the offices of Equipe Cousteau near the Place des Ternes, across the street from the Brasserie Lorraine. Francine, Cousteau’s new wife, was waiting for him to finish the interview. He was picking up the papers on his desk. At the back of his agenda were two photographs of his young children. “They keep us young,” he said, clearly a happy man.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau died two decades ago ago, on June 25, 1997. Since then, it has been up to the rest of us to save the planet. There is still a very long way to go.

I wrote this long, intimate profile of Jacques-Yves Cousteau in the spring of 1993 and, for personal reasons, never published it. But at a time when deniers of science and of common sense are out to destroy the last best chance we have to slow climate change, it seemed an appropriate moment for this article to see the light of day. Cousteau had many failings, but he changed the way we see the natural world, and, sadly, the world that he introduced us to is now in terrible danger. — Christopher Dickey

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June 8, 2017 |

2 thoughts on “Explorer, Eco-Warrior, Spy: The Battles of Jacques Cousteau

  1. oceanboy says:

    Excellent story Christopher!

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