The longer we were in it, the smaller it seemed to get.
— William Beebe
The final episode of The Jacques Cousteau Odyssey begins not in the sea but in the sky. Sideways, we soar though the clouds, glimpsing a solitary island below, far into the Pacific. As always, we hold our breath in anticipation. A couple of years before “Clipperton: The Island Time Forgot” first aired, Jacques Cousteau gave his son and trusty costar Philippe a PBY seaplane named Flying Calypso, after Cousteau’s famous boat, Calypso. It was a fatherly gesture to a son who lived in his father’s shadow. The plane was meant to distinguish Philippe, whose true love was flight.
Eventually, we land. A menacing army of poisonous crabs mans the shoreline. The camera pans to a couple of rusted shipwrecks and some abandoned shacks, which are now perches for some booby birds. “Human beings have come and gone, leaving mute evidence of their troubled presence,” the narrator intones. This is what the remote island has to offer: some intimidating crabs, a flock of booby birds, the wreckage of failed attempts at civilization. In the final episode of The Jacques Cousteau Odyssey, the story of man and the story of nature will intertwine; melancholy, futile, but beautiful all the same.
Then, music! That triumphant theme song that trumpets, WE ARE ALL GOING ON AN ADVENTURE AND IT’S GOING TO RULE! Dah dah dah dah daaah! That music represents everything the whole world loves about Jacques Cousteau. It’s what we will blast on June 10, when we all grab a bottle of champagne and toast Jacques Cousteau on what would have been his 100th birthday.
Cousteau was not a scientist, though he spent his life in what would otherwise be described as scientific pursuits. Cousteau was not a military man, though he was in the Navy and developed the Aqua-Lung at the height of World War II, seeing its military potential for underwater recon. He didn’t care much about conservation until later in life. In fact, his undersea research contributed as much to the viability of offshore drilling as to the protection of coral reefs. He didn’t start diving to sell Aqua-Lungs, though once the public saw Cousteau dancing around the ocean floor everybody had to have one. The company which first held the patent for the Aqua-Lung and helped pay for its development, Air Liquide, made a good chunk of change off these sales. Cousteau did, too; the sales helped finance his projects.
According to Brad Matsen’s 2009 biography — Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King — Cousteau was a sickly solitary child, prone to creating private worlds, as sickly solitary children are wont to do. Young Cousteau’s father was a dynamic though absent figure. His mother was supportive, though baffled by her younger son. He tinkered in his room and dreamed big dreams, making little inventions while other kids played. And then, one fateful day, Cousteau saw something that would blow his mind. It was an American film that had made its way to France called 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In it, Cousteau (and the general public) got to see something special and hitherto unseen: a window into the magical underwater realm. Through the new cinematic technologies of the Williamson Brothers, Cousteau found himself swimming with sharks, diving through coral beds, discovering sunken treasures that teemed with fish. Everything else in 20,000 Leagues — the actors, the costumes, the plot — was window dressing for these drawn-out, majestic scenes. Cousteau got the bug, and began to make his own films. He realized he was good at telling stories, good at getting people to believe in them. Movies could tell stories, but more than that, they could be vehicles for magical, real-life shared experiences. Stories were not the end for Cousteau. They were the means.
You had to be ballsy and enthusiastic, but being a good storyteller was the essential personality trait for all the successful explorers of yore. Sometimes storytelling took the place of exploring altogether (as in the case of Marco Polo). An expedition had a practical mission — economic, territorial. This is how it got paid for. Yet to happen at all, the explorer had to excite the imaginations of the aristocracy and the public. The typical explorers’ economic model is to charm just enough dough from benefactors to get to the next adventure. What could be a better advertisement for a future quest — to shipmates, to funders — than a past one? Good yarns served as documentation and documentation was essential to further exploits. Cousteau knew that nothing would be so powerful a documentation as his first love, filmmaking. So as Cousteau was risking his life and those of his friends and family to help build the Aqua-Lung, he worked just as hard on improving the technology of underwater photography. With a working self-contained underwater breathing apparatus he could make sea movies and bedazzle people the way he had been dazzled as a child in that movie theater.
Adventure is also the perfect pretense to get people on your fantasy train. Exploration involves a certain amount of guesswork and a whole lot of flimflam, so explorers need to wrap themselves in a cozy blanket of believers. To do so, the explorer must be irresistible. The Shackletons and Scotts were ringmasters of the first order. Cousteau too was damn good at making people believe his vision. “I am not a scientist,” Cousteau told The Christian Science Monitor in 1986. “I am, rather, an impresario of scientists.” It wasn’t long until he found the new friends and new family he desperately sought as a child. His wife Simone was the first female scuba diver. His sons Philippe and Jean-Michel were gleefully thrown into the ocean almost from the time they could walk on land. Cousteau’s father became his agent. During the war, Cousteau and his buddies spent their time eating beans and half drowning themselves daily for their underwater experiments. Cousteau surrounded himself with a particular brand of enthusiast: Peter Pans and romantic types. People who were multitalented or at least good at faking it. People who are never content with the ordinary patterns of life and who, without an adventure to hang their hats on, would live the lonely life of wanderers.
To be part of Cousteau’s absurdist play of folly at sea must have been thrilling. Who wouldn’t want to be introduced at parties as an aquanaut? These people needed Cousteau. And to make the story complete, he needed them. For Cousteauists, all the seas were a movie set, all the Earth a playground.
I’m not sure why “Clipperton” is one of my favorite Cousteau episodes. It’s not much fun. The island is a forbidding place. “Here,” Cousteau says, “other creatures, including man, have little place. Yet by a harsh irony, man himself…is creating a world hostile to all but the hardiest species, a world hostile even to himself.” The background score of “Clipperton” is downright scary. The island’s primary occupants — rabidly omnivorous crabs — eat every shred of life the island has to offer. Here, nature exists largely as a force of evil, and Cousteau seems preoccupied by the way the natural malevolence of the island bleeds into the story of human monstrosity.
Interspersed between shots of eels eating crabs eating boobies eating fish, we are told the story of the last ill-starred colonists who tried to settle in Clipperton and failed. At the turn of the 20th century, the British and Mexican governments created a mining settlement on Clipperton. Ramon Arnaud, survivor and son of the colony’s commander, is taken back to the island for the first time since he left in 1917. Over a checkered tablecloth, Ramon recounts the harrowing years after all the men in the struggling colony — including his father — died off save one, Alvarez the lighthouse keeper. Arnaud tells us how Alvarez declared himself King of Clipperton, raping the women and girls left on the island, shooting those who resisted. In 1917, a passing U.S. Navy ship finally rescued them, just as Ramon’s mother and the family’s young nursemaid had bludgeoned Alvarez to death with a hammer.
At the end of the episode, Ramon erects a memorial cross for his lost father atop a rockpile. On the rest of Clipperton, we watch the daily routine. A tern hovers hopelessly over a cracked egg, unable to leave the child inside that didn’t quite make it. A group of crabs that have patiently waited for a stolen booby egg to hatch settle in to devour the contents. A jealous baby booby forces its newborn sibling into a crab death trap. Another crab dispassionately feeds on the innards of a companion who lost its life in a booby smackdown. “Yet from the island’s pitiless rule of natural selection, there is no appeal,” says our guide. “The weak die, the strong survive.” As the image of a crab “unencumbered by thought or compassion or love or hate” wanders over an old eyeless doll’s head, you notice that something has been missing on Clipperton. Something important: Philippe.
Television was Cousteau’s calling. Even more than film, television brought an immediacy to the old-boy explorer’s club. With The World of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, and The Jacques Cousteau Odyssey, we rode with his partner Falco and wife Simone, played with anthropomorphized sea animals, drank thousand-year-old wine, and laughed with the crew. Cousteau’s beloved Frenchified narration was another key element in bridging the gap, the narration that was (for American audiences) at once authoritative and hilarious. This immediacy was more meaningful to your average Jane than impressionistic hearsay about the egos of great, inaccessible men.
No one was more of a Cousteau enthusiast than Philippe. Knowing that he was already dead by the time “Clipperton” aired makes watching it all the more heartbreaking. In 1979, Philippe had been in Portugal test-running the Flying Calypso when he crashed. Three days later, rescue divers found his body in the sea. The Jacques Cousteau Odyssey was still not complete, and Cousteau told people the series should be finished, that work must go on as planned. “Clipperton” had been Philippe’s project, and now his footage (shot during his own expedition), was used by Cousteau to round out the odyssey. As Matsen tells it, the melancholy “Clipperton” ended Cousteau’s relationship with PBS, the last network station willing to entertain Cousteau’s escapades. In some ways, “Clipperton” marks the end of the carefree Cousteau of renown.
Cousteau would go on to make more television under the patronage of cable pioneer Ted Turner, but with the death of Philippe, subsequent Calypso journeys lacked the joie of the earlier films and TV series. The supporting characters began to die off or leave the playground as they aged. Jean-Michel valiantly stepped into Philippe’s role after his death, but everyone knew his heart wasn’t in it. Soon enough he quit. His betrayal in the eyes of his father was complete, and they became quietly estranged. In 1996, Calypso sank. In 1997, Cousteau died without saying goodbye to his son.
Cousteau was concerned with his legacy, what would happen to his work, his foundation, how he would be remembered. What would exploring be, he must have thought, in a post-Jacques Cousteau world?
This concern was valid, given that Jacques Cousteau really was the last explorer, in the classic explorer tradition. By televising his adventures, he made exploration accessible. But that famous voiceover, with the funny accent, may have been the weapon that finally killed The Explorer. Through that voiceover, Jacques the man took us on a voyage to a destination few have been — inside the explorer’s head. Listening to Cousteau’s voice, we were brought back to the boy, tinkering in his room, looking for friends, seeking family, dreaming about the big universe. This wasn’t his intention. He once said, “I do not find pleasure in asking questions about myself…. I like to look to the outside world,” perhaps knowing that the intimacy he was bringing to the explorer’s experience was also its last hurrah.
The explorers of the past romanced us into believing that every expedition has a magnificent resolution. We found the Northwest Passage! We brought back the sugar! We caught the big fish! The Cousteau series showed us a more difficult and human side: the explorer’s relationship to those around him. This part of the story — in which your wife, your children, everyone who aches to be close to you can only do so if they are characters in the play — changed everything. Whether he wanted to or not, Cousteau turned the explorer from a man giving answers into a person looking at the world with questions, and then finally looking inward with those questions.
At some point towards the end of “The Nile (Part 2)” in The Jacques Cousteau Odyssey, Philippe says, “Perhaps we have mastered the river. We have yet to master ourselves.” The quote sounds convincing, but I think Philippe was wrong on both accounts. We haven’t mastered the river and we will never master ourselves. This, we should remember, is the single most exciting part of exploration — exploring is incomplete. Jacques Cousteau started out trying to show us something definitive and new about the world “out there.” In the end, he was just like us, left to embark on the more complicated expedition of himself. An implorer. • 2 June 2010