When I was a kid and dreamed of someday being a marine biologist my hero was Jacques Cousteau. And there’s a good reason for that. Without Cousteau, who, along with engineer Emile Gagnan, developed the Aqua-Lung, the first scuba equipment. Cousteau himself was the first to test the equipment, which he describes in The Undersea World. It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that marine biology would be a very different science without him, and there’s a lot that we just wouldn’t know.
Because he was my hero I hesitated to pick up Brad Matsen’s book Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King. It’s usually part of growing up that we find out our heroes have feet of clay, and I wasn’t sure what sort of revelations there would be about Cousteau and how they might change how I feel about him. When Lawrance Thompson wrote a biography of Robert Frost he was initially motivated by admiration but ended up hating Frost the person. And yet I couldn’t think helping that, unless he secretly spent his weekends clubbing baby fur seals or something like that, there wasn’t anything about Cousteau that really would shock me. I’d also enjoyed one of Matsen’s earlier books, The Descent, about the two men who invented and tested the first bathyscaphe.
Matsen brings the same quiet, thoughtful insight to Cousteau that he gave to Beebe and Barton, trying to understand the individual behind the discovery but avoiding unnecessary speculation or analysis. And Cousteau would, in one way, be a difficult subject for analysis because he was so open about his motivations. In the book’s first chapter, Matsen quotes Cousteau telling one of his sons that asking about his past is a waste of time. In response to a question from a reporter about what The Cousteau Society means to him personally, Cousteau says, “That is an introvert question and I am not introverted…I like to look the outside world.” It seems that no one was really close to him, and there were some who felt used then discarded by Cousteau. He all but cut off his son Jean-Michel for several years, until the death of his son Philippe when he asked Jean-Michel to become his collaborator and eventual successor.
And this interest in the outside world is kind of a revelation and it does provide some insight into Cousteau. As a young man he wanted to be a filmmaker, documenting the world. He met his first wife at a party at her father’s which he attended with a film camera. As soon as he began diving he and his collaborators worked on ways to photograph and film underwater. Ironically, though, his personality and his innovations meant that he became a celebrity. His later documentaries, such as a two-part one about the Mississippi River, were panned by some critics for being more about Cousteau than about his subject, although, as Matsen says, “What Jacques Cousteau said on television was important to the world mostly because it was Jacques Cousteau saying it.” He was an important advocate for the environment, even though he would often be away from Calypso for long periods, showing up only to film sequences involving him before going off to raise research funds.
This is not to say that Cousteau didn’t have his secrets. The biggest was that he led a secret second life with his mistress, Francine Triplet, and even had two children with her. After his first wife died he married Triplet and insisted that she be part of the Cousteau Society, which put a strain on his relationship with his son and threw the society’s finances–which Jean-Michel, a pragmatic businessman, had tried to control–into chaos. The most shocking revelation, though, is the one that opens the book: Matsen’s discovery of Cousteau’s research ship Calypso, all but abandoned and rotting in a dock.
While it’s ironic that Cousteau, who insisted he was only interested in the outsidw world, would become a celebrity, he did use his position to do as much as he could to make marine biology and ecology accessible to a broad audience, and he promoted an understanding of the environment. Early on Cousteau saw how devastating human activity could be, and how fragile the ocean is, and he tried to bring that knowledge to the world. For that I think he’ll always be a hero.