Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Adventure classics -- Once upon a time under the sea

The Silent World

by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, with Frederic Dumas


I’m writing this in the midst of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, made possible by Jacques Cousteau. Wait -- I don’t mean Cousteau made the Megalodon mockumentary possible, although he would have appreciated our human fear that really, really big creatures might be lurking somewhere in depths even he was unable to explore. After all, he devoted a chapter of his 1953 bestseller The Silent World to undersea monsters. And another entire chapter to sharks.

But without Cousteau’s development and popularization of free-swimming underwater diving through his books, dozens of documentary films, and television series, Shark Week would consist of film of people digging up Megalodon fossils and building models of Megalodon jaws chomping really big pieces of Styrofoam. And perhaps of viewers channel surfing away.

Sixty years since The Silent World, “it’s hard to know what a sensation (Cousteau) caused when he published the book,” editor Anthony Brandt writes in his introduction to National Geographic’s Adventure Classics edition. “At the time the only underwater diving was by professionals in diving suits with hoses connecting them to an air supply on the surface. . . With the aqualung, suddenly the world underwater was available, with a little training, to just about anyone.”

A pioneer in underwater film as well as breathing equipment, the 1956 Silent World film co-directed by Cousteau won a Palm d’Or and an Academy Award. The world of nature documentaries would never be the same.

All of that was preceded by more than a decade of research. And before that, a love of diving dating from childhood summer camp in Vermont. (Although a French citizen, Cousteau’s family lived in the United States for much of his childhood, and his command of English would later help him in “charming people out of their money” to fund his filmmaking, Brandt reports.)

I’m not sure how much of The Silent World’s charm is due to Cousteau and how much to his co-writer and fellow diver Dumas, referred to familiarly as Didi in the book. But now it’s time to let Cousteau (or Didi) speak for themselves.

“One morning in June, 1943, I went to the railway station at Bandol on the French Riviera and received a wooden case expressed from Paris. In it was a new and promising device, the result of years of struggle and dreams, an automatic compressed-air diving lung conceived by Emile Gagnan and myself. I rushed it to Villa Barry where my diving comrades, Philippe Tailliez and Frederic Dumas waited. No children ever opened a Christmas present with more excitement than ours when we unpacked the first ‘aqualung.’ If it worked, diving could be revolutionized.”

In the following years, Cousteau and company would struggle with perfecting equipment, testing the effects of different gas mixtures in the lung (pure oxygen, they learned, became toxic in a few dozen feet of depth), and pushing the physiological limits of divers. The nitrogen-related phenomenon of bends had been known for decade as a crippler of pearl and sponge hunters diving without breathing equipment. But not until divers’ depth range increased to hundreds of feet did Cousteau’s group encounter the hallucinatory effect they called “the rapture of the deep” -- or less poetically, nitrogen narcosis.

And about those sharks. . . . At least up to the time of writing The Silent World, Cousteau reported only one shark encounter that seemed to be a deliberate attack. "Without being at all certain," he wrote, "we suppose that sharks more boldly strike objects floating on the surface. It is there that the beast finds its usual meals, sick or injured fish, and garbage thrown from ships. The sharks we have met took a long time surveying submerged men. A diver is an animal they may sense to be dangerous.”

For more about the continuation of Cousteau's work, see

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues an August of adventures at sea with Daniel Defoe’s island narrative, Robinson Crusoe.)

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