Jacques-Yves Cousteau is that cliché, the "living legend". Strangers walk up to shake him by the hand and accept his autograph signed on any scrap of paper they can find. His superstar status might well be the envy of many an aspiring entertainer.
Each of his television films is seen by something like 120 million people; in Britain alone his audience can exceed 10 million. He has made 65 films for the cinema and television, he has written more than 30 books, and his articles appear in mass circulation magazines. His success gives him authority: the man who has mastered the media is obeyed. His films are edited only under his personal supervision, although he does permit the original commentary, written for the US market, to be rewritten for Britain. All the same, it is his story that is told, and in his way.
The films are pure entertainment, of course, and this accounts for their popular appeal. Yet they are more. They aim to inform and they advance Cousteau's personal view of the world. They are, unashamedly, conservationist propaganda. Cousteau's vision of the natural world and the threats to it is simple, and it is expressed simply and powerfully, mainly to viewers who lack the information or the scientific training to evaluate it.
The formula is dangerous, but it is difficult to picture Cousteau himself as the power-crazed demagogue his skills might enable him to become. He is quiet, gentle, witty, relaxed, highly intelligent and very well informed. (p. 172)
It is [Cousteau's] concentration on entertainment that has attracted considerable criticism, for films that are undoubtedly attractive may sometimes appear to possess a scientific content that is not there. His capture of two fur seals, "Pepito" and "Cristobal", for example, in order to see whether marine mammals can be tamed, like dogs or horses, made splendid popular television, but whether it had any scientific value at all is, to say the least, doubtful. Film of his divers catching hold of the fin of a fin whale to be towed along is charming, but, entertainment apart, what is the purpose? Even his almost magical film of the mating "orgy" of small squid left many questions unanswered and even more unasked. The Calypso left when shooting was completed, and she did not return. If there should be a conflict of interest between science and entertainment, entertainment wins.
Cousteau is not a marine biologist, but describes himself as a manager of scientists. Depending on the purpose of the expedition, a specialist accompanies the Calypso on each of her voyages as an adviser, but even so the contribution Cousteau has made to marine biology is minimal. Other popular marine writers and film makers—such as Hans Hass and Thor Heyerdahl—have managed to combine their entertaining with serious research the results of which have been published. Hass has published 135 scientific papers, Cousteau none.
This is due only partly to the exigencies of working for television. It suits Cousteau's own temperament. "We are explorers," he says, "and explorers are not settlers". He sees himself as a pioneer, opening the way for others to follow. As soon as he has skimmed off the cream, he is content to move on.
At the same time, his record of technical innovation is impressive. From his development of the aqualung to his work with experimental dwellings to test the physiological effects of prolonged periods spent living and working on the sea bed, he has sought and found—or caused to be found—solutions to problem after problem.
Each year, Calypso sails with a new silhouette, her equipment changed, modified, augmented. Many of the techniques developed by his team, and much of the equipment he has helped to develop or has tested, is in commercial use.
It is significant that while he takes only one academic scientist on each trip, he is able to attract and hold a team of divers whose training, skill and experience would bring them highly paid work anywhere.
Ironically, this very success exposes him to further criticism. He estimates that there are now something like five million people in the world using aqualungs, and some of them dive frequently. The invasion of the sea bed by divers is approaching the scale of a full tourist invasion, and it is producing rather similar local environmental damage. Cousteau shrugs. It is, he says rather disingenuously, the fate of new inventions. He has profited from the manufacture and sale of diving equipment, but even if he had no commercial interest in its sale, he could hardly help but popularise it with the films by which he earns his living. At least he has persuaded the company—not without a long struggle—to stop marketing weapons for spear fishing or to advertise other equipment as being essential to the spear fisher. They concentrate now on promoting underwater photography as a preferable activity.
Cousteau has speared fish, but only for food during the war to feed his family and friends. That kind of dire need is the only justification for spear fishing that he will accept.
Indeed, he is emphatic in his condemnation of fishing of all kinds. "It is as hopeless to count on fish as it would be to count on tiger meat to feed the world." Sea fish are usually high on food chains, so in a sense he is right, although it might be fairer to compare fish with all terrestrial carnivores rather than with just one species! (pp. 173-74)
Sweeping statements of this kind are characteristic of him, and they are worrying to those who devote their time to trying to avert the very dangers that concern him. He denies having ever said that the seas are dead, but his opinion that they are severely threatened by pollution is combined with the view that international agreements almost invariably fail. Sometimes he can contradict himself. He fears that despite international treaties forbidding it, parts of Antarctica may be developed for mineral extraction.
At the same time he admits that it may prove difficult to persuade coal miners to work through the Antarctic winter!
Recently he has been involved in underwater archaeology, and this has brought home to him the vulnerability of civilisations to natural calamities and so reinforces his fear and opposition to nuclear power. He points out that all our civilisations have flourished, and most of them died, during 6000 years, which is equivalent to 100 human lifespans. Nuclear wastes must be stored for much longer periods than this, and he finds the risk unacceptable. Even here, though, he is careless: it is the long-term storage of plutonium that he fears. It is mistakes of this kind that provide the levers by which otherwise sensible arguments can be toppled….
By now he will be at sea again, in search of new adventures, new material that he will use with consummate skill to advance his very personal view of conservation. Many film stars have become conservationists. Cousteau may be the first conservationist to become a film star. The phenomenon is unique, fascinating, and at times more than a little disturbing. (p. 174)
Michael Allaby, "In Person: Technological Merman," in New Scientist, Vol. 75, No. 1061, July 21, 1977, pp. 172-74.