Explorer, Eco-Warrior, Spy: The Battles of Jacques Cousteau

Explorer, Eco-Warrior, Spy: The Battles of Jacques Cousteau
One of the world’s great adventurers—and a Resistance spy—Jacques Cousteau warned me 25 years ago that humans were reaching the point of no return on environmental destruction.
Jun 4 2017

I wrote this long, intimate profile of Jacques-Yves Cousteau in the spring of 1993 and, for personal reasons, never published it. But at a time when deniers of science and of common sense are out to destroy the last best chance we have to slow climate change, it seemed an appropriate moment for this article to see the light of day. Cousteau had many failings, but he changed the way we see the natural world, and, sadly, the world that he introduced us to is now in terrible danger. — Christopher Dickey

PARIS, May 27, 1993—After a long conversation about Antarctica, a continent he felt he had saved, and before the raspberries, which he anticipated with the greedy enthusiasm of a child, one summer Sunday afternoon in 1991 at the Brasserie Lorraine on the Place des Ternes, looking out on Paris streets that were warm and green and pulsing with life, Jacques-Yves Cousteau talked about the death of his wife Simone a few months before. “For me it was terrible,” he said. His face was flushed and the lower lids of his eyes were red. At that moment he looked, uneasily, his 81 years.  Flakes of dandruff speckled the eyeglasses he used to read the menu.  “For her the good thing was, I spent the last three days with her.”

Finishing the last of the Bordeaux, he went on. “The night she died, we had a very joyful dinner.” Simone was a tiny woman, tough and reserved, who had spent most of the last 40 years at sea on the research vessel Calypso. She was known to the crew as “La Bergère,” the shepherdess, and she devoted herself to the ship she called “my best friend,” to its missions, its men and their Captain. “She is like a purser and a priest,” Cousteau liked to say. But in her seventy-first year she looked as if beneath her leather skin there were bones of excruciating fragility.  For most of the four months annually when she was not on the boat, she was in the Cousteaus’ little apartment in Monaco. She did not like Paris. Often alone, she left the radio and television turned on all the time to keep her company.

That night, however, her sister-in-law was there—and Cousteau. Simone was “gay, alert, joking,” he remembered. They stayed up late drinking and talking before finally going to bed in their room overlooking the sea.

“At five o’clock in the morning she asked me to help her to the toilet. And I did. And”—he hesitated an instant—”she died in my arms.”

“I knew she was not well, but I had no idea what was wrong with her,” said Cousteau.  He told the doctor he thought “she was drinking too much red wine.” But the doctor, who had known the Cousteaus since the early 1950s, and was the only physician Simone trusted, said, “Jacques, it was either wine or morphine.”

The old explorer did not understand. Wine or morphine?

For the last five years, the doctor explained, Simone had had “a generalized cancer.”  She had to have something to kill the pain.

“She made the doctor promise not to tell me,” Cousteau said, “so as not to disturb my work.”

We ate the berries in silence.

Other patrons of the restaurant glanced our way occasionally. Obviously they recognized the “Commandant,” as he is called in France. They were furtively inquisitive, but no people repress their curiosity with more neurotic intensity than the Parisian bourgeoisie. They allowed Cousteau his privacy and his secrets.

The rest of us think we know this old man of the sea because, of course, we grew up with him.  From countless hours of television we’ve learned his accent and the cadences of his speech and, in a general sort of way, we know how he changed the world. Can you remember a time when there were no scuba divers? When our vision of the ocean went no deeper than the keel of a glass-bottom boat? That’s the way it was before Cousteau. He invented the Aqua-Lung. He used it to explore oceans, rivers, caves in every corner the planet. And in the 50 years since World War II his films, which always featured his face and his voice, had two remarkable effects.

First, they conveyed a wondrous excitement about nature and—what is rare—a sense of  good-natured intimacy with it. The spectacle beneath the seas was wildly alien when it was first revealed in the 1940s, but through Cousteau it became suddenly and marvelously accessible. He and the members of his team seemed as fascinated as four-year-olds by just about everything they come across, whether sharks of Senegal or a skua sitting on its nest in Antarctica. Secondly, these scores of television programs, broadcast and rebroadcast and translated into dozens of languages, eventually made Cousteau himself the environmentalist emeritus of the global village. “He’s a teacher,” as Vice President Albert Gore said a couple of years ago. “He enables others to see the world and their relationship to it in a new way.”



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