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September 2010    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 36, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King

from the September, 2010 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Scuba diving has not had a hero since the irreplaceable Jacques Cousteau died. Some graybeards still point to Mike Nelson, but he was a fictitious 1960s TV hero, not flesh and blood, unless you consider the actor who played him, Lloyd Bridges. Besides, the last episode of Sea Hunt aired 49 years ago, in 1961.

Cousteau himself has been dead nearly 14 years but he left a profound legacy for every last soul on our water planet. For us divers, he was extraordinarily special, a man whose every TV production we welcomed into our homes. In fact, I fantasized that one day Jacques would invite me to join the Calypso crew and sail the oceans. Of course, I never got that invitation, but I did get to meet with him once, as a direct-mail fundraising copywriter, drafting letters for him to sign to acquire new members for the Cousteau Society. He was committed, full of hopes and dreams, surely inspiring to write for. We raised a lot of money for his work, but from the outside, I slowly watched the Society crumble in the 90s. Itís a sad story, one of many tales told in Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King, the excellent new book by Brad Matsen.

Cousteau struggled through the last years of his life Ė he wasnít finding buyers for his films, and his family was in uproar when he revealed he had kept a mistress in France, with whom he had two children, while his wife lived aboard the Calypso. While Matsen reveals the Captain, warts and all, he brings to life his two exceptional accomplishments: the development of diving gear, and his enormous talent for making films that brought the oceans and its creatures into the collective conscious of mankind. One has no doubt that had there been no Jacques Cousteau, who charmed Ted Turner, the National Geographic Society and others to bring his work to television, our oceans would be in far worse shape. It was no easy task, and Matsen brings us the inner details of negotiating contracts, preparing for voyages and going to sea for Cousteauís film adventures.

Divers will especially appreciate the first third of the book, which focuses on the young Cousteau and his burning desire to capture the sea on film. In the late 1930s, he began filming with an 8mm camera inserted into a fruit jar. Two years later, as a member of the French navy, he worked with others to develop an existing demand regulator and a rebreather, and during most of World War II, he invented and further refined diving apparatus after the French recognized its military potential. Jacques Cousteau: The Sea KingAfter the war, he and his companions, Phillippe Talliez and Frederic Dumas, joined an August Piccard bathyscape expedition, and eventually his photos made it to Life magazine, which led to an $11,000 contract for four documentaries, and a gift from a member of the Guinness family to help him refit an American minesweeper, which he rechristened the Calypso. Matsen goes into great detail about Cousteauís development of diving and photography equipment, his outfitting the Calypso, and the traumas and joys of his next decades aboard his beloved crafts. Itís a great tale of the sea.

Matsenís book (hardbound, 320 pages) is a must-read for any diver. You can order the book via Amazon (itís also available on Kindle) by going to Undercurrent and clicking on our Sea King book review, and whatever profit Undercurrent accrues from the sale will go to support saving our seas.

- - Ben Davison

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