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April 18, 2007

Cousteau Perfection

Famed French explorer and diver Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the inventor of the aqua lung, died in 1997 but a decade later his legacy seems as impressive as ever, if not more so. I realized that when I recently watched part of the often malignd Warner Home Video compilation of 12 one-hour episodes from "The Cousteau Odyssey" TV series that ran between 1977 and 1981 onto six DVDs. Before that, there was "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" between 1966 and 1976 (between 1966 and 1968 called just "The World of Jacques-Yves Cousteau"), and then a number of specials on selected areas, plus "Cousteau's Rediscovery of the World" I and II between 1985 and 1994. You could say it was hard to grow up in the second part of the 20th century and not be exposed to Jacques Cousteau.

In general, anything technological filmed back in the 1960s and 1970s should look quaint by now, or perhaps otherworldly as in, in the truest sense of the word, the Apollo voyages to the moon. But not Cousteau. His productions remain totally modern, totally up-to-date. Sure, the video has some nicks and scratches, but otherwise nothing seems dated. The man was truly one-of-a-kind, one who succeeded in packaging his exploits, talents, and work into something more than the sum of the parts, something that spoke to the world in a magical way.

Case in point is "Calypso's Search for the Britannic." That dates back to 1977, but you certainly couldn't tell. The equipment all appears state-of-the-art and better. Sure, scuba experts today look at Cousteau's equipment, and smile; it has that Star Trek quality to it -- meant to imply scientific advance and professional perfection, and it was clearly designed to impress the public. Yet, unlike the Star Trek props, it actually worked. Well enough to dive the Britannic.

And it does look great. Though Cousteau helped develop the aqua lung -- scuba with a demand valve regulator as we know it today -- nothing looks like an experimental science project. It's more like science fiction. Cousteau divers wear color-coordinated wetsuits, black with elegant yellow striping. Everything fits together. Even their dry suits look good. That extends to the tanks. No bulky, battered bottles hanging off a Cousteau diver's back. No, they are integrated into a sleek black and yellow package, sort of like a high tech designer backpack. I want one! And if the air demand is too great to all fit into one of those futuristic backpacks? Well, then they resort to regular bottles, but they, too are sleek, shiny, and without a single dent or unsightly markings.

All this, of course, fits into the larger Cousteau image. There's his impressive boat, the Calypso, an ex-Royal Navy minesweeper. There's his matching seaplane, the Catalina. There's the Cousteau helicopter. And, of course, the almost cute flying saucer-shaped submersible. It's all there, that technology, all at Cousteau's disposal, and it's prominently choreographed and displayed in each episode. Calypso, Catalina, heli, submersible. This is no shoestring operation.

Then there are the subects and the presentation. By today's standards it is no high tech production, but it is masterfully thought out and crafted. The video is always just so, showing a human side and then flawless, elegant technology at its effortless best. There is a careful, perfect mix between American-English narration -- done in one of those ultra-professional, impressive, trust-inspiring voice-overs that sound like no one you ever meet in real life -- and then the French and other language conversations and interviews that lend that exotic accent without making it look like this is some translated production.

The subjects are always of almost unversal interest, and Cousteau manages to be both explorer and concerned ecologist without shrilly wagging a finger. Everyone gets their say. The sage Captain Cousteau simply and earnestly presents an issue and then lets people talk. Fishermen, workers, professors, mayors, presidents of companies. The mediterranean sea is dying, rapidly being poisoned, he says, and there are alarming images of dead sea floors where a mere 30 years ago had been teeming life. So Calypso collects water and muck samples from all over the sea, for later examination in a lab. Runoff is shown, industrial waste, nuclear power plants, acres of new hotels feeding a booming tourist industry, pollution-fueled algae eating the foundations of Venice and clogging up lakes. But then the water and muck are analyzed and it's not that bad. There must be more to it then, Cousteau offers, like landfills that deposit silt and such. It's all difficult and multi-faceted, all a matter of working together. He points out issues, but does not point fingers, is not truly upsetting anyone.

The Britannic episode was masterfully done, of course. In December of 1975, with the help of MIT-supplied side-scanning sonar they quickly find the even larger sistership of the Titanic near the island of Kea in the Aegean Sea. The episode tells its story and Cousteau attends get-togethers of survivors of its 1916 sinking while on duty as a UK rescure ship for allied woundeds. Most feel the ship had been torpedoed, a few think it had hit a mine. Captain Cousteau will go down and solve the mystery. The Britannic lies in deep water, deeper even than the Andrea Doria. 350 to 400 feet requires Trimix and careful decompression. But, as usual, the Cousteau team does it in style when they actually go down in October of 1976 (more info on the 1976 operation). There's a scale model of the Britannic and Cousteau tells the audience where his submersible will go, and the divers. The divers are equipped with all the high tech equipment they need and then some, and they are color coordinated as always. The sub provides good lighting as it accompanies the deep divers, so there's impressive video footage of the hulk of the huge vessel.

At almost 400 feet, bottom time is limited to 15 minutes and then it's up for decompression. But even that is done in style. Halfway up to the surface wait support divers and a decompression structure. The Cousteau divers simply take off their Trimix triples, neatly dock them on the chamber, then go inside. The lock is closed and the deco bell is pulled to the surface, still under pressure. While the divers sing and entertain themselves inside, a decompression expert outside adjusts the pressure until the men can exit some three hours later.

All in all, the Cousteau team did almost 70 dives to the Britannic, and the 66-year-old Cousteau goes down himself. He wears just a drysuit -- apparently the water was warm enough -- and no hood. Instead, he dons his trademark red cap. He knows the ship, of course, having carefully and scientifically studied its floorplans, but the casual way in which he is filmed entering the wreck down at almost 400 feet is still amazing. No lines. Nothing to it, really. Just science and good common sense. Just as science mandated the successful use of Trimix.

But even that's not all. For good measure, one of the Britannic survivors was located and helicoptered to the Calypso. It's 85-year-old Sheila Macbeth Mitchell who had been a nurse on the ship when it sank. That provided historic continuity, commentary by someone who'd been there, and a very human touch. The still very sharp Mitchell even gets to go down there in the submersible and sees the Britannic for herself. Then she is theatrically helicoptered off Calypso. They did all that so well.

What about the Britannic? The Captain himself finds pieces of coal where they should not be, and examines the twisted metal and pipes. The hole in the hull is much too large for a torpedo attack, he explains. Most likely the ship hit a mine, and then highly flammable coal gasses ripped the hull open.

Cousteau sure was special. A rare combination of competence, innovation, and masterful marketing and presentation. And it's all beautifully presented, poetry in word and motion, all.

Posted by conradb212 at April 18, 2007 11:11 PM

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