A Man on the Edge

Reviews / by Jennifer Jacquet /

A new biography explores Jacques Cousteau’s strange and colorful life but struggles to uncover why he has been so quickly forgotten.

A reporter from an anti-establishment newspaper in Seattle once asked a 67-year-old Jacques Cousteau if he had faith in anything. Cousteau gave a strange reply: “I believe in the instant.” As a filmmaker and futurist who, early in his career, hoped to colonize the underwater world by the year 2000 and, later on, hoped to save the seas from tourism, pollution, and overfishing, Cousteau certainly believed, at least professionally, in far more than the instant. But when it came to his private life, perhaps he did indeed live for the moment, which might be part of the reason his legacy as a conservationist is fading.

The disconnect between Cousteau’s public and personal identities is evident in Brad Matsen’s new biography, Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King, which, in tracing Cousteau’s transformation from explorer to conservationist, struggles to reconcile the bizarre private life of the man beneath the red cap.

Like many notable conservationists (think Theodore Roosevelt or John James Audubon), Jacques Cousteau began his career as an avid hunter. He and his friends—who called themselves Les Mousquemers (The Sea Musketeers)—were ruthless spearfishers on the southern shores of German-occupied France. They helped develop new hunting and diving gear to kill fish in greater numbers than ever before. Eventually the French government had to restrain them by banning the use of air guns capable of shooting fish at ranges of more than 20 feet. 

Around the same time, Cousteau began making underwater films. He spent the next decade developing new filming techniques, and in 1950 he purchased his famous vessel, the Calypso, and began sporting the hallmark red caps that expressed his obvious comfort with celebrity. He and his equally adventurous wife, Simone, assembled a reliable set of equipment and men for dive trips to unexplored seas. Six years later, he won his first Oscar for his documentary The Silent World. 

It is clear from the film that Cousteau had not yet left his hunting past behind. At one point, a frenzy of sharks feeds on a baby sperm whale that the Calypso had hit in transit. Cousteau calls the sharks “the mortal enemies of men” as the crew hacks them to pieces on deck. Three years earlier, Cousteau had published a book also called The Silent World. Presumably, it did not include the shark slaughter since Rachel Carson, author of the 1951 title The Sea Around Us and mother of marine conservation, reviewed it favorably for the New York Times, and according to Matsen, “made Cousteau her ally in transforming the human relationship with the sea.” 

Carson’s unwarranted praise of Cousteau foreshadowed the transformation that his views toward the ocean were soon to undergo. Scuba technology had changed man’s relationship with the sea. Cousteau’s underwater communication devices, air regulators, and UFO-looking submarines exposed him to the impacts of other new technologies. “For ages, humans had been the most harmless, helpless animals underwater. With their masks, snorkels, fins, and spearguns they became apex predators,” writes Matsen. Technology and conservation were meeting at a pivotal moment—and Cousteau was at the forefront.

In 1969, a photo of the Earth captured from outer space was released and quickly became a beacon of environmentalism. People worldwide began to realize that this was our one and only home and we had to care for it. Much later in his life, Cousteau reflected on the growing movement to protect the environment around this time, of which his films had made him a part. “People were beginning to have a feeling for their surroundings,” he told a reporter. Presumably Cousteau was speaking as much about himself as anyone else, though Matsen is unable to offer any explanation from Cousteau’s personal life that may have prompted such a large shift in his views. The man whose attempts to obtain a live dolphin for the oceanic museum he directed in Monaco led to the accidental killing of a few dolphins became opposed to keeping marine mammals in captivity. He started exposing his audience to effects of industry, development, and tourism on the oceans. And by 1976 he had shaken his youthful naiveté that we would colonize the oceans and instead became a full-time conservationist.

As a storyteller but also a conservationist, he had trouble keeping his constituents happy. Scientists accused him of showmanship, critics accused him of faking scenes, and networks demanded he keep his films full of intrigue, not Earth-saving rhetoric. Funders wanted to see more wonder and less gloom—shows like Cousteau’s earlier work. But the ocean was now a very different place. Cousteau would fight to convince the public and politicians of this for the rest of his life. 

In 1980, at the age of 70, Cousteau made arguably one of his most important—and least popular—films. In Mediterranean: Cradle or Coffin? he wanted his audience to see how much the world had changed from when he was young. The film begins with black and white footage Cousteau shot in the Mediterranean in 1946, full of life such as rock bass, rays, and tuna. What follows is footage of the same spot in 1977. “In only three decades, the seafloor has become a desert—bleak as the surface of some barren planet…the rich abundance has vanished,” says the narrator. By juxtaposing footage spanning 30 years, Cousteau aimed to visually combat the problem of shifting baselines—that newer generations are willing to accept a degraded state as natural because they were never exposed to what was pristine.

Cousteau released Cradle or Coffin? on the heels of his successful television series, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. According to Matsen, the 36 episodes that aired between 1968 and 1977 “changed the way millions of people thought about the sea.” Maybe this is true. But what about the children of those millions of people? Why do I—and most of my colleagues in marine science and conservation—know only vaguely of a man once so loudly heralded? (I had never watched a minute of Cousteau before seeing Cradle or Coffin?) What will become of the Cousteau legacy? 

Perhaps because Cousteau’s television personality was so convincingly manufactured or perhaps out of respect for the family, Matsen tiptoes around Cousteau’s vulnerabilities: his brother’s pro-Nazi tendencies, his temper, the dissolution of his marriage that seemed to follow his son’s death in a flying boat crash, his womanizing (including his 20-year love affair), and his two illegitimate children. 

To ignore the personal dramas that surround Jacques Cousteau might be to ignore the reasons why his legacy as a conservationist and hero has been stunted. Perhaps the untimely death of his son Philippe, who was poised to take his father’s place, is partially to blame, although Matsen never makes that explicit. Aside from several references to Cousteau’s fiscal irresponsibility, The Sea King ends with only a brief mention of what could be the real reasons for the fall of the Cousteau empire: the disagreements between Cousteau’s second wife and his son Jean-Michel over rights to the derelict Calypso and, more baffling, the Cousteau name. Due to the drama in Cousteau’s private life at his death, it seems that the public memory of Captain Cousteau might go down with his ship.

Jennifer Jacquet is a postdoctoral research fellow working on the Sea Around Us Project at the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre. She blogs at Guilty Planet.

Originally published November 3, 2009

Tags history public perception scarcity truth

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