More Jacques Cousteau’s please!

“The sea, the great unifier, is man’s only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: we are all in the same boat.”  Jacques Yves Cousteau, Oceanographer

Cousteau’s TV series enthralled me as a child – so for those who share my nostalgia and would like to re-live the excitement of discovery on the high seas as well as hear his prophetic words, have a look at this classic episode.

The Water Planet – The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau – YouTube

For those who don’t remember Cousteau, he was an unlikely icon with a nose like a turtle’s beak – far too big for his wiry and wizened frame. He was inclined to lyrical statements such as “ I am the sea, and the Sea is me”. What presenter could say that on TV now without self-conscious sniggers?  He could. He made no apology for sharing his deepest feelings and describing his emotions in detail. He was forgiven for it, even loved for it – he was French after all. Time Magazine called him “The Poet of the Deep.”  As an author and film maker he had a storyteller’s sense of drama and ability to communicate authentically to a wide audience but he was also an inventor, explorer and oceanographer with an extraordinary life story even before his TV fame.  His gifts were unique; a poet’s sensibility and depth of feeling; the curiosity and innovation of a scientist and inventor; a piratical sense of adventure – with him science exploration was fun and exciting. He captured the imaginations of millions as he took us on a voyage of discovery into the fathomless deep in his quest for an understanding of the mysteries of our oceans. I seem to remember a palpable sense of joi de vivre on board the Calypso with seemingly endless days of salt, sun and sea as he mused lyrically about the vulnerability and beauty of the seas.

His sometimes melodramatic despair – did not seem pretentious to me as it would if anyone else said the same,  “At times I find myself flirting with the morbid seduction of flaccid-itude ……and in the blackest of my black moments when the imagination has worn thin I feel I can no longer tolerate the rocking and ripping ship…”   A little exotic and oh so French! Only Cousteau could get away that.

He was a pioneer in film as well as an innovator in the technology of underwater exploration which made him into a rare kind of marine conservationist – one who could fill cinemas. He reminded generations that we are all in the same boat – we must all become custodians of the sea to save it… He was authentic and brave.  We need more like him.

What appealed most was he was not an ‘impartial scientist’ denying his own emotional response and trading in cool hard data like a bureaucrat detached from real outcomes – (as if being an observer requires one to report dispassionately and take no further responsibility).  Peer pressure forces scientists to remain silent and allow data to speak for itself – but it doesn’t. Cousteau used scientific observation to lend authority to his passionate advocacy as a storyteller unafraid to say what was needed even if unpopular.  He was not out to please, he was out to live more fully.

The moon landings must have renewed his sense of wonder and awe at exploring our own blue planet and technology was making it possible to go further into the uncharted depths of our oceans for the first time.  The innovations in underwater filming and scuba diving met in Cousteau and are still being explored today. Modern film technology is even cheaper, smaller, and available to everyone at a fraction of the cost of his era.  We have go-pros on head gear for divers which can go beyond 60 meters and small submarine drones too.  The future of ocean science looks more democratic.

Not everything Cousteau did was saintly, but it was certainly the first time innovation in dive technology and film technology dovetailed to make this kind of TV discovery possible and it was fun.  As one journalist put it “Cousteau made the oceans rock’n’roll”.

The fun was contagious.

Sea Change’s Baseline MPA survey:

Sylvia Earle, another Oceanographer quoted Dickens when she said   “It is the worst of times but it is the best of times because we still have a chance.”  Even in the 60’s and 70’s Cousteau knew we were at a crossroad and that we needed public figures who could inspire change. We now need another Jacques Cousteau.

I found myself remembering Cousteau and my salty marine childhood in Guernsey, when sitting on board a scallop diver’s boat during Sea Change Wester Ross’s August (2016) survey as I watched air bubbles rise and the water ripple as I waited for the divers to break the surface again – knowing somewhere beneath the waves they had entered another world. I was envious of their ability to swim with creatures I might never encounter and observe them in their own home.

Like Cousteau, Sea Change wants to share the discoveries of Wester Ross Marine Protected Area but these days the technology allows the chance to encourage others to join us in documenting it on film both for science and education. This could be as a snorkeller from the shore, or as a diver with a camera or go-pro, or a kayaker,  sailor or a fishermen with a drop down camera rig or even small motor driven submarine cameras….As members of the public we are all equal ‘owners’ of the sea,  or as I prefer to think of it – all custodians of the original source of life, which is the sea.

In August last year it was Sea Change’s first survey of the MPA.  A  brilliant cameraman called Andy Jackson volunteered to help and he was supported by Keltic Sea Fare scallop divers and skippers who were members of SCFF  as well as other Sea Change supporters and community members who offered boats. I supplied accommodation and Don Rice very generously covered Andy’s expenses.  It was a collective effort.  Andy used an HD camera designed specially for his and as he said himself he loved “going down a rabbit hole and filming the microscopic world “. The scallop divers assisted used go-pro and I filmed the surface.

This was the first survey since the MPAs creation on March 23rd 2016,  and we hope it will be just the first of many. Yet  our ambitions go well beyond this small scale survey. Our greatest hope is to do an extensive base line survey of the whole MPA. This would mean mapping the species and habitats which are of greatest local interest and socio economic importance – in a very inclusive process which encourages all sectors to take part. We would hope to monitor it annually with the expectation this would lead to better marine management and the sharing of knowledge between scientists, fishermen and the community. It is an ambitious vision but it will also help us foster businesses around the benefits of the ‘designation effect’ and help attract visitors interested in the marine life, seascapes and sustainably caught seafood.  It would be a self-sustaining sea bed survey in which we would hope to train future survey teachers within the community so that monitoring can continue indefinately.

Imagine if fishermen, kayakers, divers, sailors, snorkelers, even tourists and school children were able to participate as citizen scientists and take ownership of the protection of the sea and support the low impact fisheries? It would be a soft revolution in the way coastal communities are empowered to manage the sea and promote the area. It would be much more joined up and would illuminate the how’s and why’s of  marine protection for the community and beyond. Young minds hold the key to future ocean stewardship and are the next generation’s ambassadors for the sea, so school involvement is crucial.

We hope the footage collected will become the foundation for a community archive,  as an asset to attract researchers of science data, whilst the footage can be used for education, online films and interpretation.  Video surveys will also supply footage for science research and for interpretation and education.

This could even lead to a sea festival celebrating our discoveries as well as our fishermen’s work and sea food helping to build the area’s reputation internationally and attract more marine tourism. We can use the footage and beauty of the area ( photos and film) to build awareness of the importance of the MPA on social media too. For it truly is an historic window of opportunity in Wester Ross, not only to restore the sea but to build upon the MPA’s designation effect and support businesses built around the sea.

I suspect Cousteau would approve and he would encourage more of us to learn to snorkel or dive.  For me snorkelling around Reiff bay offers that same meditative absorption I remember from exploring Venus Pools as a child.  I would very gently touch the dark strawberry-like anenomes and watch the seaweed flowing like green hair –  all magnified by the glassy sea water and be absorbed for hours. It is medicine for the stresses of modern life.

My father, was in a Highland regiment and was often away, so my mother took us to live on Guernsey with my grandparents. It was a salty life by the sea with long hot summers.  It was a blessed childhood in many ways, catching butterflies in hedgerows full of wild flowers,  in the days when they seemed more abundant. We were often at the shore with a shrimp net and bucket crabbing, or feet dangling off my grandfathers sailing boat fishing for mackerel, or snorkelling, but always with a slight trepidation at putting my bare feet down, for fear of the crabs with giant claws!  I think this early life gave me an abiding fascination with the sea and desire to protect it.  For just standing beside it cures me of stress.

Years later when I was asked to make a film to celebrate Wester Ross MPA, The Bountiful Sea,  I realised how much I owed Costeau and Guernsey for inspiring my two passions,  film and the sea.  The brief the National Trust gave me was to celebrate the sea – it was a great invitation to at least try and recreate the sense of wonder Cousteau and rock pools had inspired in me – I hope I did that just a little.

The Bountiful Sea: the story of the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area (director’s cut) on Vimeo

Jacques-Yves Cousteau Biography – highlights 

 Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910-1997) was an undersea explorer, photographer, inventor of diving devices, writer, television producer, and filmmaker. He was also active in the movement to safeguard the oceans from pollution. IN 1943 he co-invented the breathe-on-demand valve for SCUBA diving – the diving regulator or aqualung was born, patented by Gagnan and Cousteau. Cousteau immediately incorporated the new device into SCUBA apparatus. It gave him exactly what he wanted, clearing the path for him to swim freely under the ocean’s surface.There was no longer any need for the incredibly restrictive heavy helmet, diving suit, and air tube going back to ship, that had made diving such a cumbersome activity in the past. In 1947 he set a new depth record for a free diver, descending to 300 feet under the sea.

In 1953 his book The Silent World, was published about their pioneering adventures in SCUBA diving. It was an instant hit, and has sold millions of copies. His pioneering television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau promoted human understanding of ocean life and its intelligence, with Cousteau and his crew doing things never seen before, such as swimming with whales, caressing octopuses, and being pulled along by giant turtles. He was the first person to propose that cetaceans, such as whales and porpoises, use echolocation to navigate.   He had deduced this from observing their behavior entering the Straits of Gibraltar.  Today, most of us have seen plenty of undersea footage, but until Cousteau released The Silent World, only a tiny number of people had any idea of what the undersea world looked like. The movie won Cousteau the 1957 Academy Award for Best Documentary. And he won two Movie Oscars and 3 Academy Awards. In 1961 President John F. Kennedy presented the National Geographic Society’s Gold Medal to Cousteau. He has also been a Resistance operator during the war. What a life! 

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