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CALYPSO’S PACIFIC PASSAGE: A COUSTEAU ‘RE-DISCOVERY’

The Washington Post

Capt. Jacques-Yves Cousteau stands at the chart table on the bridge of his famous exploration ship, which is plunging through moderate seas in a northeasterly direction at 11 knots, and examines a tiny dot representing an isolated volcanic island, L’Esperance Rock. “I’ve never been there,” he says, making a careful measurement with a pair of dividers. “Practically nobody has.”

That is where he is going now. It is virtually in the middle of nowhere, exactly where Cousteau most loves to explore.

According to Volume 2 of the “Instructions Nautiques” at his elbow, the rock is “abrupt and denuded,” a mere 200 meters in diameter and surrounded by “neighboring dangers” of the sea, including nearby Havre Rock, which lurks just beneath the waves.

Calypso, with its crew of divers and underwater cameramen, its Hughes 300-C helicopter nicknamed Felix and deep-diving submarine, and its big yellow shark-cage securely lashed to the foredeck, is winding up four months of exploration in New Zealand with a trip through the Kermadec Islands, a string of volcanic outcroppings belonging to New Zealand and lying more than 400 nautical miles northeast of the mainland. L’Esperance is part of the Kermadecs. Then Calypso will steam on to Tahiti in French Polynesia, some 2,500 nautical miles farther northeast, where the crew will disembark for a month’s vacation.

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Cousteau, 76, the scientist with the heart of a poet, will fly to Paris and begin to fashion tens of thousands of feet of film into a two-hour documentary on New Zealand for his “Rediscovery of the World” series, appearing on the Turner Broadcasting System. Calypso, according to Cousteau, costs $8,000 a day to operate, and Turner is backing the series with $15 million. Segments on Haiti, Cuba and Cape Horn have already aired.

The grand impresario insists that his films “are not documentaries. They are adventure films, with a heavy dose of nature and sociology. I hate the word documentary.

Cousteau, a lean, silver-haired figure in blue boating shoes, blue trousers and a blue shirt with four felt-tip pens--red, green, blue and black--in the sleeve pocket, typically operates energetically from dawn until late at night, giving directions, asking questions and holding endless impromptu seminars with his cameramen, divers and scientists aboard ship. He is alternately playful and exuberant, pensive, intense, demanding--at times inspired, at others full of laughter.

At one moment he turns from his chart table and swings like a monkey from the bridge’s overhead hand grips. “I could take out a patent and sell this,” he says with a grin, doing several semi-chinups. The world’s first deep-sea diver, Cousteau co-invented the Acqua-Lung in 1943, and his other inventions of diving and photographic gear are extensive, including the first underwater TV equipment.

A little further into the voyage, standing on deck with his hands in his pockets, Cousteau the environmentalist looked out at the primitive seascape and says quietly, “We are witnessing virgin waters. There have been a few divers here, but they have never been hostile, and the New Zealand government forbids spearfishing in these islands. These island waters could become a desert in two weeks with just 10 very good spear fishermen. Not that they would kill all the fish, but would frighten them off.

“It’s a very good lesson for us. Such places as this now, you cannot find anywhere else. It’s finished! It’s dead! I knew exactly the same thing in the Mediterranean in 1935 and 1936--you were swimming in masses of fish. And now it’s finished!”

Calypso left Auckland, New Zealand, for the Kermadecs on the afternoon of Feb. 27. On board, among other things, were 50,000 liters of light marine diesel fuel, the remnants of 1,200 bottles of wine originally stocked for the expedition, 230 different types of medication, 180 baguettes of French bread, 110 heads of lettuce, several hundred pounds of meat, fish, vegetables and fruit, 25 people and one small, white fluffy dog.

Youki, the dog, is the prized companion of Simone Cousteau, the captain’s wife, the world’s first female diver--and first lady of the Calypso. Charming and reclusive (she generally avoids press interviews), she is known to the mostly French crew as La Bergere --the shepardess, who sees to it that everyone is well fed and cared for.

The Calypso’s crew consists of many old hands who have become famous themselves over the years--well known to the hundreds of millions of viewers who have watched Cousteau’s scores of films--and several younger additions, temporary contract employees and visiting scientists.

Principal among the old hands is Albert Falco, Cousteau’s close companion of 34 years and the operational captain of the ship. Falco is a quiet man of unshakable good humor and a tough, smart sailor who respects the sea.

Guy Jouas, the communications officer and the ship’s practical joker, has also been with Cousteau forever. As has Joe Guillou, the chief engineer. It is Guillou, descended from fishermen in Brittany, who can draw an affectionate glance from Cousteau by observing, after everyone rushes to the rail to marvel at a squadron of blue maomao fish in the water, that they would make “excellent sushi.”

The crew tends to fall into three groups: the scientists, the divers and the cameramen. The principal scientist on this trip is Francois Sarano, an exuberant young man given to emerging from his dives with exclamations of “Super! It was unbelievable!” He is aided by Richard Murphy, an all-American type from California who is the Cousteau Society’s vice president for science and education.

“Well,” Murphy says later in the trip, “another day, another new discovery.” He means it. Each day brings some creature or geological phenomenon never before seen, or never before seen in such a place. Also on board are Roger Grace, a scientist from New Zealand who has dived in the Kermadecs before, and Gaspar Gonzales-Sanson, a guest scientist from Cuba.

Cousteau is keen on filming during this trip a giant grouper--a fish that is increasingly rare but still found in the Kermadecs. Grace knows where to find them, and knows of one that inhabits a particular piece of underwater territory. To Cousteau, this fish becomes “Mr. G,” and the quest to find and film him will occupy much of the team’s time for its first few days in the islands.

Cousteau quizzes Grace closely on the matter, and the scientist advises, “If you see them, ignore them and pretend to play with a rock on the bottom. They’re very curious, and if you’re quiet they’ll come over and you can start touching them on the side. They go into a trance, and may allow themselves to be held by a diver. You can cuddle them.”

Perfect for Cousteau’s kind of magic.

Michel Deloire is the main underwater cameraman. He is a rugged-looking guy who often has a worried expression on his face--after all, there is a film to be made. It is Deloire who must snuggle up to that grouper, and it is Deloire who will bear the blame if the pictures aren’t good.

Deloire is aided by assistant cameraman Raymond Amaddio, who rarely, even at dinner, wears anything but swimming briefs, and soundman Yves Zlotnika, an affable fellow who wears a continual smile.

The general divers--including Bertrand Sion, Norbert Genetiaux and Christian Le Curieux-Belfond--hold the lights and cables for the cameramen and also, in their streamlined silver diving suits, serve as subjects to be filmed with fish. Le Curieux-Belfond often goes on dives with the scientists, who, he claims, “are always dreaming and forget the time. They want to stay underwater as long as possible.”

In case they stay too long, Calypso has a decompression chamber on its afterdeck. This has not been used recently, except to oxygenate the cook, Patrick Bernard, after he sliced off a fingertip and the stitched-on part threatened not to heal. A seven-day course of high-pressure oxygenation was undertaken. It worked.

In isolated New Zealand (1,000 miles from Australia), not only did Calypso explore the country’s coasts and islands, but a “land team” worked inland filming natural and sociological phenomena.

Stretching from near-Antarctic waters in the south all the way to subtropical islands in the north, New Zealand provided Cousteau with the kind of variety he likes. His teams studied algae in freezing waters, penetrated deep forests, discovered layers of fresh water on the sea and filmed underwater geysers from an active volcano.

Just before Calypso left Auckland, Cousteau consulted with land team producer Paula DiPerna. His instructions were detailed. He mentioned Maori youth “forgetting their origins,” talked about camera angles and sunlight for certain shots, and about other shots of masses of sheep and masses of tourists--a “burlesque montage about the tourists” and “the impression of a voyage of sheep.”

In another instance he explained how to achieve on film “a poetic moment.” And he told Kip Groves, pilot of the land team’s seaplane, Papagallo, to take aerial shots of a forest that may be destroyed to make way for a cement factory.

Later, aboard ship, such discussions go forward day and night, in seemingly endless detail. At one point Cousteau hastily orders Murphy to telex DiPerna, back on the mainland, to have Papagallo film from the air “downtown Auckland, including the quarter where the Maori kids waste their time.”

He is every bit the great director at work.

At times Cousteau grows irritated. Missing a shot of sea birds, he says, “It’s the second time we passed something and weren’t ready to film, and now it’s finished!”

But the irritation never lasts long, the wonders of nature coming so quickly that there is always something new to marvel at. For the most part, Cousteau is low key, affable--but always intense, always focused on the job.

“My job,” he says, “is to direct things. Since we’ve been in New Zealand, we haven’t lost a single day. The trick is to get maximum efficiency.”

Calypso, a converted mine sweeper, is small--141 feet long with a 25-foot beam--for the equipment and crew it carries. It is wooden, and draws 10 feet of water. It rolls a great deal, quite badly in heavy seas. The New Zealand expedition has been marked by almost constant bad weather. The crew cabins are cramped. The pace of work is very demanding--three dives a day, nearly the maximum a human can tolerate, plus, often, other work in between.

Yet the mood of the ship is cheerful. People are doing work they want to do, for a cause they believe in. The food is French, plentiful and terrific. Telephone and telex communication is available from the ship to anywhere in the world, at any time. The bridge is loaded with navigational and other gear. Calypso is as safe as a ship can be.

And then there is this practically unheard-of luxury: unlimited quantities of hot and cold fresh water.

The reverse osmosis system that converts saltwater to fresh was installed six years ago, Cousteau says with laugh. “It was a revolution. Before that, we had to carry a lot of water and were obliged to find a port to fill our tanks every four or five days.”

There is also an ice-making machine, and the crew quarters are air-conditioned, a reassuring amenity as we head into the tropics. So far the weather has been moderate--in the 70s, with cool breezes, and water temperatures just right for diving and snorkeling.

At 9:17 a.m. March 1, Falco, on the bridge, sights L’Esperance Rock.

“It’s clear,” confirms Lemasson, who has the helm.

A speck is visible ahead. It is 17 nautical miles away.

Cousteau, who has been sitting in his captain’s chair watching the sea, goes below to shave.

It has been a gray day, with a storm front following Calypso all the way from Auckland. Now the threatening clouds catch up and pass over without much effect.

Ahead, the rock becomes a dark slab rising from the ocean. Cousteau returns.

The men watch.

“It looks like a guy’s face,” says Falco.

“With the mouth open,” says Cousteau.

Murphy has come to the bridge, and Cousteau turns to him.

“Here there are no giant grouper,” Cousteau says, depending on what Grace has told him, “so we will make a regular dive . . . . Tomorrow we’ll be in territory where Mr. G is located.”

Soon L’Esperance appears before the ship clearly, in all its black, jagged, savage glory--the rim of a volcano jutting above the blue-green water against a background of dark storm clouds.

Cousteau sits forward in his chair as if mesmerized by the sight.

Falco has his binoculars trained on the rock.

“One mile,” he says.

Hall-Jones, at that moment, lifts off in the helicopter from its pad above the afterdeck, carrying Deloire, who will film Calypso’s approach to the island.

And Guillou is on deck filming the helicopter taking off.

“We’ll arrive on the east coast,” Falco says quietly.

Suddenly, as if film maker Jacques Cousteau had just given orders directly to God, the sun breaks through the clouds and half a dozen dolphins appear alongside Calypso, escorting the ship to its anchorage.

Oh la la! " Lemasson says.

The chopper swoops in to film it all.

The surf is breaking along the base of the rock, so close now you can see the crevices and white streaks of guano.

Cousteau stands up.

He grins.

Then laughs out loud and says, “C’est magnifique!”


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