Discover our expeditions
With an average flow of 20,000 cubic meters per second, the Mississippi is classified as one of the largest rivers in the world. Together with its longest tributary, the Mississippi-Missouri measures 6,200 kilometers.
In 1983, Calypso travelled the river from Lake Itasca, Minnesota, to the Gulf of Mexico, documenting the Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin, the Cajun fishers of Louisiana Bay, the pages of American history and the struggle of human beings to conquer this immense reservoir of water.
The border between the eastern and western United Slates, the river was an important commercial route: its banks were paved, its bed dredged, straightened, “improved” according to the engineers. In the face of such treatment, fish became rare. Pollution reached worrisome levels: heavy metals, insecticides, PCBs, nitrates and radioactive substances were concentrated around New Orleans, as through a funnel, where cancer reached record levels.
From the air, a flying team recorded the broad sweep of the Mississippi, dubbed the “Father of Waters” by the Indians. All the diverse aspects of the river would be documented on film: the great variety of wild species that depended on the water, the music, the great historic instances (the War Between the States, King Cotton, Mark Twain) that mingled with it. Two films told the grand adventure: Reluctant Ally and Friendly Foe.
At the southern end of the world, the isolated archipelago of New Zealand hosted the Cousteau team from 1986 to 1987. The Maoris were the first people, a thousand years ago, to settle in these islands in the far Pacific Ocean. They shared with Calypso’s expedition crew their rich and dazzling culture, with its pirogues carved from a single tree trunk, masks and ritual dances.
Unique landscapes sketched with volcanic eruptions fascinated the team almost as much as the shimmering colours of the ocean depths. This is a very young land, scarcely a million years old.
Here the very ground is alive; it moves, it smokes, it heats.
Whistling steam escapes from faults providing free, abundant, natural energy.
There were so many wonders to show that two films were produced. New Zealand is cut off from other land masses and the life forms there are unique. The kiwi, is the national symbol, a bird that does not fly. In times pas t it had no predators, no mammals or snakes, and no need to fly. Today, the bird is threatened because humans have imported new animals: deer, sheep, rats, etc.
Ten months on this famous African river allowed the Cousteau team to study the relationships between humans and the Nile river system. In 1979, airplanes and land vehicles carried the team to the natural beauties and ancient cultures of its banks. From its source in Lake Victoria in Uganda to the Delta at Cairo, the Nile crosses marshes and falls, bringing life wherever it flows. Its floods beat the rhythm of life for people throughout millennia; its dams and canals shaped new landscapes in the 1970’s.
The countries of the Nile basin faced, and still face, important ecological problems that the Cousteau crew documented on film. Lack of water, desertification, deforestation, erosion, sedimentation, floods, famine and epidemics are factors that must be taken into account if environmental policy in the region is to be understood. Travelling up the river, Cousteau met a wealth of wild life, protected by millions of hectares of swamp, tall prairies of papyrus, clouds of mosquitoes and crocodiles. Herds of elephants, buffalo, giraffes, antelopes and ostriches still lived in an intact kingdom, but for how much longer?
In the second half of the twentieth century, three huge river management projects were planned for the Nile: the Jonglei Canal, the Jebel Aulia Dam and High Aswan Dam. This last, the most famous of the water engineering projects on the Nile, was finished in 1971. It blocked floods, irrigated desert areas and produced electricity but more harmful consequences became apparent as time went on. For example, the Egyptian river banks were no longer fertilized by silt so, for the first time in history, farmers used substantial quantities of chemical fertilizer to do what the river used to do for them naturally.
The Cousteau team emphasized the important decisions to be made for the future in order to stem coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion in wetlands, and the perturbation of animal behaviours, like the sardine migration along the coast of the Nile Delta, which had completely stopped. Such are the lessons for the future.
The Cousteau team visited Polynesia several times during the Rediscovery of the World expeditions. Captain Cousteau saw through the idyllic landscapes of the Marquesas Islands to the human and environmental dramas within. Nine-tenth s of the indigenous population has disappeared since the arrival of westerners, and the environment, both on land and in the sea, has been seriously damaged. Goats, dogs, pigs and rats brought by ships have dangerously impoverished the islands’ ecosystems.
The saddest sight was native Marquesans trying to save their culture wren it may already be too late. No one remembered the meaning of the tattoos or the written language used by their ancestors. Nevertheless, some inhabitants still know the sacred dances, and perform them for the Cousteau team.
In Polynesia, nature comes in a myriad of colours. In Tahiti, Maupiti, Bora Bora, the ocean depths near the islands and atolls brim with magical sea life: damselfishes, tropical snappers, spotted rays, sea cucumbers-biodiversity invented by evolution that dazzled the divers and television viewers with its splendour.
At Mururoa, the Cousteau team was authorized to be present for a French nuclear test. A study was carried out to establish the impact of the explosions on the environment. The results showed the presence of nearly normal levels of radioactivity but a huge question mark as to the future. The Diving Saucer had observed an enormous fissure in the atoll itself.
The Red Sea
In 2004, fifty years after Calypso’s first expedition to the Red Sea, after the pioneering Conshelf experiments in underwater living, and after the shattering success of the Oscar-winning films Silent World and World without Sun, the Cousteau Society is returning to the Red Sea, retracing the path first explored by Captain Cousteau.
As Prince Albert waved farewell, the Society’s windship Alcyone embarked from Monaco on November 13, 2003, headed for the Suez Canal. With scuba gear and cameras, the Cousteau team will study and film coral reefs in danger of disappearing. The data they gather will be compared with the early images shot by Captain Cousteau. Dr. Jean Jaubert, coral specialist, will lead the expedition.
The eastern Mediterranean and the northern Red Sea are separated by a narrow strip of land through which the Suez Canal was cut more than a century ago. The Canal passes through the Bitter Lakes, a salty barrier that, for seventy years, prevented plants and animals from moving between the seas. The annual flooding of the Nile River also helped keep foreign organisms from settling near the northern mouth of the Canal. Now these blocks have disappeared so organisms have travelled the dominant current up through the Canal to establish successful colonies. This migration has caused substantial ecological changes in the eastern Mediterranean that the Cousteau team will study. We also examined the plants and animals of the northern Gulf of Suez, where environmental conditions are similar to those in the Mediterranean.
Like the Gulf of Suez, the Gulf of Aqaba borders the Sinai Peninsula but the two are very different from one another. While the Gulf of Suez is sedimentary and shallow, the Gulf of Aqaba is rocky and deep. It is a miniature version of the Red Sea with marvellous coral gardens and with uniquely spectacular large jellies and salps floating everywhere. The mission included the assessment of dangers that are threatening corals, those astonishing animals fixed in their calcareous skeletons. Although they grow north of the Tropic of Cancer (the normal limit of reefs in the northern hemisphere), the coral reefs of the Red Sea are among the most beautiful and the best preserved in the world. Climate changes that killed much of the living coral in the reefs of the Indo-Pacific in 1997-1998 had little impact on these. The shores of the Red Sea are not heavily populated so the reefs are spared the direct effect of human activities (with the exception of Egypt, where tourism is highly developed).
Then, the Cousteau team travelled to the reefs off Sudan, in particular Shaab Rumi where part of the underwater structure built for Conshelf II, immortalized in World without Sun, still rests. We followed the coast of Eritrea to the Dahlak Islands, dart inland to Djibouti’s Lake Assal then back to the islands of the Seven Brothers offshore, before sailing back up the coast of Yemen.
The Sea of Cortex
The Sea of Cortez is a long arm of the Pacific Ocean that shelters many species, as varied as
they are astonishing: corals, whale sharks, marlin, swordfish, mania rays, sharks … a diver’s dream! Unfortunately, the growth of recreational and commercial fishing and uncontrolled tourism have endangered this ecological paradise.
In 1987, A/cyone’s Sea of Cortez expedition provided the occasion to try out new silvery diving suits, tanks and updated underwater scooters. With their new equipment, the divers played games with dolphins and filmed medusas swimming lazily between two masses of water, devouring the plankton that drifted too close to their stinging cells.
Pacific – The exploration of happiness
Isla Isabela, off Mexico in the Pacific Ocean… Overhead hundreds and hundreds of seabirds are flying in the tropical sky. An extraordinary sense of bliss fills my body and soul. I sense growing inside me the rarely found but highly sought feeling we call happiness. And I wonder…
Our entire human existence is consecrated to the pursuit of pleasure—first that of meeting our basic needs of hunger, thirst, etc. Then our social structure gives rise to other joys: to command, to obey, to succeed…
Is there a place for more subtle, more refined kinds of happiness, free of material contingencies? The simple sense of belonging to the great miracle of life provides one example. I know others: contemplating a work of art, hearing a Bach concerto…
The concept of studying the question of happiness—of establishing a science of joy—seems fundamental to me. Such a discipline would let us separate ourselves from the pseudo-satisfaction we get from the relentless quest for material things—the root of foolish pollution and damage. It would give us a feeling of harmony with Nature, with our fellow beings and with ourselves, without which there is no true joy.
Yes, we can find happiness in protecting what is around us, not just because we can taste its impressive beauty, power and mystery, but even more because we love other humans—those who live today and those who will be born tomorrow…
Clipperton, Attack of the crabs
Calypso’s crew has been on Clipperton Island for several days, this tiny dot about 1,000 km off Mexico in the Pacific Ocean that belongs to France.
That belongs to France? “It really belongs to the crabs!” exclaims Jacques Delcoutère. And in truth…
The crabs of Clipperton Island, each about 4 cm to 6 cm long, are not very impressive, but they are numerous and nothing stops them when they swarm. They scurry ceaselessly over the coasts of the atoll looking for food. They will eat anything.
Jacques Delcoutère wants to see how fast the crabs react to a new situation. Wearing his dive suit, he lies down on the beach, still as death, and waits. He does not have to wait long!
One crab passes him by chance and immediately here comes the climb as it looks for a spot with dinner. Another arrives. Then another. It seems unbelievable. Every crustacean on the beach is rushing over to Delcoutère now. In their excitement, do they send out signals, auditory or olfactory, that the others pick up? Mysteries of instinct…
In less than ten minutes, Delcoutère is covered with crabs, some of which are beginning to pinch hard in places where his skin shows.
“It’s scary,” admits the diver, “to feel them climbing on you like that, trampling, feeling, tasting you. It’s an experience I don’t recommend for anyone!”
Caribbean Sea – The Destinity of Shipwrecks
We are in the Caribbean Sea near Silver Bank, where so many ships have been broken apart by storms and reefs. In a Zodiac, I am heading for a recent shipwreck—a large cargo ship. The sea caught this vessel by surprise, as it did the galleons of the Spanish Armada in the 16th and 17th centuries. But this wreck didn’t really sink to the bottom; she ran into the shallows and was stranded. At high tide, a good part of her is still visible. At low tide (as in this photograph), she is almost entirely out of the water and resembles a pathetic castle of rusty metal plates, eaten away and full of holes like fine lace.
Each shipwreck has a story—that of an owner, a captain, a crew… One day, or one night, the drama took shape for the men on board. They felt safe on their ship. They had confidence in human technology. They told themselves that our intelligent species had created a ship that could withstand the great Nature. At the bottom of their heart perhaps they had a small bit of doubt but they could never admit to fear lest they be thought cowardly.
The image of shipwrecks comes irresistibly to mind whenever I find myself in the presence of other human works in which our species flaunts its arrogance. Then I dream of the dozens of vessels I have seen crushed by the sea. I tell myself that humans rarely hear the warnings that the elements give them. That we forget too fast. That we are not modest enough to deserve the term “sapiens” (wise) that we award ourselves.
Turbosail – Sailing the trade winds of the Atlantic
What joy to cross the Atlantic on an experimental ship! What an honor to sail in the path of Christopher Columbus! This is just what is happening to Captain Cousteau and his colleagues, on board on Moulin à Vent for her first trans-Atlantic crossing. The ship certainly was not built for adventure. Her hull, salvaged from an old catamaran is quite fragile and the constantly lapping water is hard on her; it pounds the bottom of the boat between the two keels violently. The base of the Turbosail™, where it is anchored to the deck, is probably bearing too much stress. As long as there are no storms…
The crew stopped for a moment at the Salvage Islands, where they went diving. Then they continued on their way west. They have caught the famous trade winds that are pushing them toward America, just as the winds propelled Christopher Columbus and those who followed him to the New World. Moulin à Vent is moving at more than 10 knots. Her Turbosail has demonstrated brilliantly how reliable it is. Its efficiency, too, is a delight, to realize that it would take sail with five or six times more surface area to achieve the same productivity. The wind is strong. The voyage is showing how fast the ship can go. The electronic equipment is all functioning.
By satellite, the Cousteau staff team keeps up with how the experiment is unfolding day to day, even hour to hour. A pod of dolphins has come to greet the ship. A whale blows in the distant waves. Seabirds have taken up position at the top of the Turbosail.
Galapagos – Camp of the Galapagos sea lions
The volunteer castaways of the Cousteau team choose to set up camp on the island of Española (also called Hood Island), one of the smallest and most unusual spots in the Galápagos. The group includes chief diver Bernard Delemotte, two other divers Jacques Delcoutère and François Dorado, cameramen Michel Deloire and Jacques Renoir, assistant Henri Alliet and the American cook “Little Joe.”
“This camp,” relates Michel Deloire, “is a true delight. We feel that we are reliving—an extravagant privilege—the days of goodness on Earth, the mythical times of a golden age, when humans and animals came together without fear.”
Calypso’s men have come to Española to observe the behavior of marine iguanas (Amblyrynchus cristatus) that abound on the rocky coast but their most vivid moments are the times when the camp is calmly at rest. That is when the golden Galápagos sea lions (Zalophus wollebaeki) come, to scratch, lie about, yawn and sleep on the sand, just two paces from the tents.
Sometimes living with animals is more problematic. For example, the mockingbirds, a kind of small cheeky cousin to blackbirds, come steal anything the cook has inadvertently left in their reach, without the least bit of fear or remorse. They can be supremely wily, as when one rolls an egg off the table to smash it on the ground, then pecks at the white and yolk!
From its source in the high Himalayan Mountains to its mouth in the China Sea, the Mekong Rive r flows nearly 4,200 kilometers. Fifty million people draw their livelihood from its waters.
In 1992, Captain Cousteau organized a great expedition to the Mekong: Calypso patrolled the lower section of the river that irrigates four countries, while a small team aboard two wooden vessels explored the section above the falls that block the river at the border between Laos and Cambodia, a challenging adventure in a troubled region short of modern infrastructures. With no electricity, the small team had to live like the local people, by the rhythm of the sun.
Little by little, the Mekong unveiled its thousand faces: impetuous torrent in the Chinese mountains, turbulent river in the narrow valleys of Laos and Thailand, majestic flow in the vast alluvial plain of Cambodia and Vietnam, where it finally let itself be tamed. The river provided water to drink for all the inhabit ants and domestic animals. Vegetables were rinsed in it, soup prepared of it, dishes washed in it. The Mekong was there to cleanse everyone’s clothes and body. It was also the sewer, the communication line and the playground for children.
On the banks of the Mekong, majestic ruins of times past recalled how the river ‘s waters were laden with history. A thousand years ago, the Khmer empire built the largest religious edifices in the world. A route of cultural and commercial exchange, the Mekong was the subject of much attention. Every year, people who lived along the river organized great ceremonies in its honour. In Thailand, the Cousteau team attended the Songkran festival that marked both the new year and the return of the rainy season. The spirit of the dragon was venerated: it lives in the river and holds in its paws the des tiny of all those who sail thereon.
Cradle of many civilizations in the course of history, the Mediterranean is a wounded sea. Fifty years of adventure and oceanographic expeditions have allowed the Cousteau team to draw up a complete accounting of this nearly enclosed sea. From Monaco to Naples, Crete, Cyprus and Alexandria, Calypso spent more time in this sea than any other.
The crew of Calypso had to circumnavigate the Mediterranean to assess the status of its health. Even before starting out, the Cousteau team knew the findings would be catastrophic: they had watched the sea degrade since they first explored its depths. The garbage-can sea, the wounded sea… The expedition scientists studied each of the species found in it to develop proposed remedies.
Among the highlights of the work in the Mediterranean were five years of exploring a Greek shipwreck at Grand-Congloue (France), films, photographs and the discovery of ships, airplanes, submersibles and battleships submerged for centuries. In 1975, the Cousteau crew searched through the vestiges of Aegean civilization. From the Aegean Sea, they brought up vases, statues, ancient jewellery. The mystery of the hospital ship Britannica sunk during World War I off the island of Kea is solved thanks to the crew of Calypso.
The Mediterranean hosted Captain Cousteau’s first scuba dive and many of his films, including the most famous, The Silent World (1956), which was awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival.
On this island, life evolved in surprising ways. In Madagascar in 1994, Captain Cousteau and his team discovered a land that had only been conquered by human beings for scarcely 2,000 years, but was already deeply scarred by the invasion.
Here, lemurs numbered thirty different species; 95 percent of reptile species and 98 percent of amphibian species, i.e. salamanders and frogs, on Madagascar were endemic. From aboard Alcyone, divers discovered the rich waters of the Mozambique Channel, crossing paths with great pelagic sharks. By helicopter, the Cousteau team filmed the progression of humpback whales coming to breed around Sainte-Marie Island.
Meeting the Malagasy people, who comprised 18 different ethnic groups, the Cousteau crew came to understand the threats that weighed on the country: deforestation, desertification, lack of potable water. People were being punished for their errors, past and present.
Nevertheless Madagascar was rich in natural resources. A future harmony between humans and Nature was still possible in this reservoir of unique living species that absolutely must be protected. In the films Island of Spirits I and JJ, the Cousteau team related with passion the story of this paradoxical place where humans are capable of the worst and the best.
The Cousteau crew, approaching the coasts of Alaska, discovered a gigantic state, the largest in the US: 1,525,000 square kilometers for just 600,000 inhabitants. You can walk for days on end without meeting another living soul.
This wild expanse is home to the polar bear, grizzly and walrus, and to peoples who have been persecuted, exploited, sometimes reduced to slavery and decimated by diseases introduced by while colonists.
When A/cyone explored the Glacier Bay region in 1987 and 1988, the crew fell that they were travelling some 80,000 years back to a time when part of Europe and North America was covered with ice. At times A/cyone would be tossed from side to side by the waves created when impressive sheets of ice crumbled into the water.
Captain Cousteau, through the films from these expeditions, such as Twilight of the Alaskan Hunter, showed how Alaska holds many trump cards that would let it serve as a model of management of its natural regions: substantial financial resources, a high level of education, a small population in an immense territory. If authorities are wise, this “last frontier” can be developed into an area where humans and animals cohabit without serious problems.
In 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on a reef off the southern coast. It happened in the middle of a magnificent landscape of virgin Nature, especially rich in wildlife: migratory birds, young salmon departing for sea or adults returning to reproduce, seals hauling out, sea otters and orcas. There could be no worse site for an oil spill. Several days after the catastrophe, the Cousteau team arrived on site and could only tally the evidence: 1,000 kilometers of coast contaminated; thousands of birds and mammals dead. The tragedy symbolizes the dilemma facing the entire world today: how to exploit natural resources without vandalizing the environment.
Seven hours of television film, two volumes of scientific reports, teacher’s guides, articles and two books: the two-year expedition to Amazonia was the most ambitious ever undertaken by The Cousteau Society.
In 1982-83, Calypso’s crew penetrated to the heart of the emerald forest, going up the Amazon River, the largest and longest in the world (6,400 kilometers). This poorly known region, a complex amalgam of water and vegetation, covers nine countries and holds one-fifth of the planet’s fresh water.
The Cousteau teams took a lot of expedition equipment to the Amazon: several inflatable boats, kayaks, jeeps, a helicopter, a hydroplane and an amphibious truck. Once arrived, what a wealth of wonders they had to explore!
Through encounters with Indian tribes whose cultures extend back as much as 10,000 years, they learned about the traditions of river and forest, but the poor peasants looking for land to cultivate or the gold-seekers ready to do anything to scratch out a living were also part of the reality of Amazonia. The expedition acknowledged what an important position humans occupied there.
Scientists tried to understand the ecosystem of the river and its relationship to the atmosphere through the metabolic activity of plants, animals and microorganisms. Footage and photos, often shot in poor conditions, captured pink dolphins and lazy iguanas. This two-year adventure changed the way the public looked at the Amazon. The Cousteau films have played a big part in today’s awareness of the need to protect one of the world ‘s unique heritages.
An impressive collection of films resulted from this expedition: Calypso Countdown: Rigging for the Amazon (1982), Journey to a Thousand Rivers (1984), The Enchanted River (1984), Shadows in the Wilderness (1984), River of Gold (1984), Legacy of a Lost World (1984), Blueprints for Amazonia (1984), Snowstorm in the Jungle (1985).
On expedition in Antarctica in 1972, Cousteau divers realized a “first” when they explored under the icebergs and ice shelf. Calypso was equipped with a helicopter platform and a balloon to complete the equipment for aerial exploration. The ship barely escaped the onslaught of ice and storm she encountered.
An extraordinary film, Voyage to the Edge of the World, retraces this epic adventure to the heart of the iceberg as well as Captain Cousteau’s apprehension as he watched Calypso about to be crushed between the steel jaws of the polar winter. Thanks to NASA’s satellite, this human adventure gave the world a modern vision of the ice continent and its stakes.
The continent, 25 times the size of France, revealed its beauty bit by bit, and its fragility as well. This extraordinary land harbours animals that are extremely vulnerable to human-induced changes. The ice shelf offers an ongoing spectacle of penguins milling about in colonies while seals strike out beneath the ice. Life has adapted itself to the icy conditions in surprising ways. Fish, squid, crustaceans and sea stars live in water that is -1 °C.
This unique animal and plant life led Captain Cousteau to launch, in 1990, an international petition to safeguard the white continent. “Antarctica is an inestimable treasure that we must preserve intact for future generations,” he proclaimed.
He returned to Antarctica with children from six continents, staking a symbolic claim on behalf of future generations. Their voyage is depicted in the film Lilliput in Antarctica. Aware of the environmental danger s that industrial exploitation could bring to bear on Antarctica, Captain Cousteau demanded that the continent be declared a “natural reserve, land of peace and science.”
The seas that surround Australia harbour a luxuriance of life and a veritable coral continent. In the 1990’s, Captain Cousteau and Calypso explored this marine expanse from north to south, while a land team travelled throughout the interior to meet the Aborigines and learn about their culture, the world’s most ancient.
Some 2,500 coral formations, some as big as a house, comprise the Great Barrier Reef. Divers moved among calcareous treelike forms, the skeletons of microscopic animals called “polyps.” This oasis of life, refuge for innumerable multicoloured fishes, offered up an extraordinary spectacle for Calypso’s cameramen to bring back to the entire world: images of millions of ovules and spermatozoids released one time a year by the polyps during the night of the full moon.
On land, in the middle of unique animal life that evolved in isolation on the island continent, Aborigines were trying to preserve their identity and their way of life, closely tied to Nature and her gifts. These men and women are the descendants of nomads who arrived in canoes more than 40,000 years ago. Cousteau visited archaeological sites where rock paintings evoke the Dreamtime, the mythical dimension where aboriginal thought puts all creation.
The kangaroos, duck-billed platypus and lungfish, capable of breathing out of water, clearly illustrated the unique evolution of life in Australia. The divers yielded to strong emotions wren they stroked a saltwater crocodile, or brushed past a sea snake with death-dealing venom. A/cyone’s crew studied great white sharks for two years and shed new light on these animals that are certainly dangerous but that manifest no hostility toward human beings.
Whether in encounters with the Himbas or the Bushmen, whose cultural traditions still survive, or with the Karretjes, nomads of the great Karoo Plain, or the Afrikaners of the interior, spiritual heirs to the first white colonists; whether it’s a tale of sharks or elephants, all the adventures of the Cousteau team in South Africa share the vibrant colour and the heady perfume of the region.
If the name Cousteau is always associated with water, the eight-month expedition to South Africa in 1995 was one of the exceptions that prove the rule. More than half the sub-continent receives less than 500 millimeters of rain per year: this is “desert.” Some of the untouched regions are diamond areas, to which access is strictly forbidden. The Cousteau team filmed ghost towns that used to be the most modern in South Africa, where, a century ago, diamond fever carried off the men who were would do anything to possess these gems created by the high pressure in Earth’s entrails.
But the true wealth of South Africa lies in its unique animal life, which Alcyone’s crew observed and studied closely. The mammals have adapted to the lack of water: carnivores drink the blood of their prey while herbivores graze at dawn when the plants are damp with dew. From these arid adventures, Cousteau produced two films (South Africa: Diamonds of the Desert, South Africa: Sanctuaries for Life) and numerous articles.
In the early 1980’s, Calypso sailed up the St. Lawrence River to the Great Lakes. The Nature that the crew encountered was grandiose, but also damaged: humpback whales caught in fishing nets, beluga whales suffering from toxic pollutants…. but, as they played hide-and -seek with blue whales and filmed the birth of baby seals, the Cousteau team would reveal for the entire world how profoundly beautiful Canada is.
The Captain was invited to visit the Mingan Indians of Quebec, who have lost even the right to fish in their ancestral rivers. Like all the native peoples of North America, who once lived in harmony with their environment, they have been deprived of their lands and their concept of the world.
During one memorable outing in the Diving Saucer, in Saguenay River fjord, the team discovered a “lens” of perfectly pure sea water hidden under 15 meters of chocolate-covered river. Through the portholes, they watched millions of tiny medusas, like so many snowflakes, proof that the water was briny. That explained the presence of beluga whales and blue whales in a river so far away from the ocean: at the bottom of the fjord, an abundance of marine life throbbed.
Calypso’s crew did not stop there. They explored shipwrecks and Niagara Falls; some days, the ship was coated with more than 10 centimeters of ice. But nothing would stop Captain Cousteau’s odyssey; Calypso sailed on and brought back astonishing images of one of the most dangerous expeditions she ever undertook.
In 1999, twenty years after Calypso, her older sister, made this trip, Alcyone found herself on the St. Lawrence River. Using her Turbosails, she traveled up this great river into the heart of the North American continent.
The Saguenay River merges with the St. Lawrence at the western end of the Laurentian Channel, a tongue of cold seawater that wells up with an enormous quantity of nutrients and planktonic crustaceans. This is where whales gather. From Alcyone’s deck, they announced themselves from far away by the nearly continuous jets of white vapor, splitting the horizon like explosions.
In an instant, the dive team was in the Zodiac heading for a pod. Eyes were riveted to the spot where the whales were last seen. Bernard Delemotte, the expedition leader, smoothly and tranquilly heads for what seems to the divers to be some imaginary spot. Then, to their surprise, a blow rose with a “whoosh” and the immense head of a whale pierced the surface close to the boat.
Then, not two meters away, there was a second blow, and a third, and a fourth. These were fin whales that come to mingle with the resident belugas, or white whales, in the nutrient-rich waters.
Huge backs emerged and the wash of tails made big circles of flat, smooth water in the middle of the tumultuous waves.
Suddenly, one big whale glided through the water underneath the little boat while four or five immense backs encircled it. Dozens of whales surrounded the divers, more than the imagination could encompass.
Bernard was astonished. When he was here with Calypso in 1980, there were far fewer whales. Beluga herds were only remnants of a population believed to have numbered 5,000 as recently as the early twentieth century.
All whaling was banned by Canada in 1973, but the beluga herds continued to diminish to a few hundred at the time of the earlier Cousteau expedition. Canadian environmental organizations were pressing for greater protection for the belugas and other whales, encouraging the establishment of a reserve and of a whale-watching industry to generate support for conservation.
Together with the Canadians, the Cousteau team rejoiced at the state of the whales today and hoped for a resurgent future.
Flying the flag of the International Year of the Ocean (1998), The Cousteau Society undertook a three-month expedition to explore the entire Caspian Sea. Stated goals of the mission were to evaluate, explore and document on film the status of the Caspian in order to illustrate and analyze what is at stake for the region in the present and future.
Study focused on three primary natural resources: fossil fuels, wetlands and sturgeons. The very symbol of the Caspian Sea, sturgeons were a plentiful resource at the beginning of the century, when approximately 40,000 tons of Beluga, Sevruga Ossetra sturgeon were caught each year. Today, the official catch is only 4,000 tons, despite three decades of effort by scientists and managers to strengthen the stocks. The Cousteau team traveled to the Volga River delta to observe the age-old fishery.
Two small boats took the team out to the fishing site where seven teams of thirty men each worked to supply five factory ships. During the day, the fishers would set out their nets and haul them in, using shore-based winches, at least fifteen times. A good haul caught about forty sturgeons at a time, mostly Sevruga and Ossetra, ranging from 2 ½ feet long to 5 feet long and 130 pounds. It seemed so easy and, in a way, it was. Following ancient instincts, the fish head up the river to reproduce, traveling a well-known migration route. Catching them couldn’t be simpler.
In the weeks spent in Russia, Kazakhstan, Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, the team learned to appreciate the economic importance of the sturgeon. It is a basic foodstuff that is simply irreplaceable. In the semi-desert areas of the eastern side, meat is much too expensive and sturgeon constitutes the main protein. The trade in caviar provides substantial financial revenues, with worldwide sales estimated at $ 500 million. For these reasons–the need for food and for money–poaching is rife.
For several decades, authorities and scientists of the littoral states have been trying to counteract the drastic decrease in sturgeon stocks. All the legal, technological, scientific and political measures that have been undertaken by the states must be praised; they are good and it may be that, without them, sturgeons would already have disappeared from the Caspian. But more must be done. Rebuilding sturgeon stocks means maintaining natural spawning areas as well as continuing the efforts in artificial propagation. Catch quotas must be fixed not just according to financial imperatives but according to scientific stock assessments, to include the take represented by poaching. Eradicating illegal fishing must include retraining, stricter monitoring and sanctions, and programs to disperse information and awareness. Pollution reduction must also be encouraged, on the rivers as well as in the littoral cities and industrial sites. The preservation of this unique treasure that is the Caspian dictates a long-term commitment
In 1985, the marine depths of Cuba provided an example of healthy management for four reasons: first, because the fishers could not sell undersized fish or shellfish; secondly, because fishing was forbidden during spawning; thirdly, because the available sea space was divided into parcels that were exploited in rotation; fourthly, because some parcels were classified as temporary or permanent reserves.
The reason behind this prudent exploitation bears the name “lobster.” Calypso’s divers visited perfectly tended lobster parks. The crustaceans abounded in the fissures and refuges of the rock and coral. All vibrating antennae, they were the very symbol of an ecosystem in balance.
The team brought back images to show the world a whale shark (a 10-ton fish) feeding inoffensively on plankton and sardines. The human experiences were also exceptional. Jacques-Yves Cousteau received Fidel Castro aboard the ship for dinner. The Cuban leader granted Captain Cousteau the favour of liberating 80 political prisoners. By the same token, the members of the Cousteau team became the first non-Cubans to enter the gate to the US Naval base at Guantanamo Bay since the missile crisis of 1961.
The basin of the Danube River extends over ten countries. The river is so wide that passengers in Calypso’s helicopter, flying over the brown water, could not see the banks.
For two years, from 1990 to 1992, the Cousteau team observed the river in the rhythm of the seasons: frozen with the ice in winter, flooded in spring, nearly dry at the end of summer, the Danube yielded its environmental riches. By canoe, inflatable, icebreaker and helicopter, on foot and in the water, the crew of Calypso captured material for four films (The Curtain Rises, Charlemagne’s Dream, Cries of the River, Rivalries Overflow), scientific reports and many articles about this adventure through the countries of Eastern Europe.
The plain of the Danube is as wide as a sea. It was the wheat basket of Europe until the early 20th century and sometimes life seemed to have stopped still in that area. Some 120 tributaries drain 805,000 square kilometers of basin into the Danube’s 2,850 kilometers, making this the preeminent river of Europe.
It was the hyphen between eastern and western Europe. It opened them up to the world, witnessed their chaotic relationships and still concealed their exceptionally well-preserved areas.
In September 1990, Captain Cousteau carried out a complete survey of the river from its source in the German Black Forest to its immense delta in the Romanian Black Sea. To do this, the Cousteau team had to cast a fresh eye on this river so charged with history. They acknowledged its European dimension, even as each country along its path tended to appropriate the river for its own use. The outcome was a voluminous synthesis of findings that was distributed to some 1,600 scientists, decision-makers and journalists.
Assisted by roughly forty European experts, Cousteau scientists were particularly concerned by problems linked to energy, pollution, navigation and the protection of natural areas. They were able to formulate precise recommendations for each country involved, and proposed the creation of a High Council of the Danube to be responsible for studying projects related to the river by integrating environmental, technical, economic and social factors – a multidisciplinary vision of ecological problems close to Captain Cousteau’s heart.
Captain Cousteau took Calypso to the 13, 677 islands scattered over more than 5,000 kilometers that comprise the Indonesian archipelago several times (1988, 1989, 1990, 1991). More than 100 active volcanoes made living hard for 188 million Indonesians but they, paradoxically, also provided fertile land yielding three rice harvests a year.
The Cousteau team climbed rumbling volcanoes, talked with convicts who extract sulphur from the earth and visited villages devastated by eruptions. Off Sumatra, they met one of the last hunter-gatherer peoples of the world, the Mentawi of Siberut Island. They shared the daily life of these people whose teeth were filed to a point, experiencing the Neolithic life of our ancestors of 10,000 years ago.
Indonesia may be just one country but what a country! Sumatra, Java, half of Borneo and Papua New Guinea. During the expedition, the team felt that they were visiting 20 countries, so different were the cultures. This diversity existed in the sulphuric waters of the ocean, too. Colonies of sponges grew in the most bizarre shapes. Some individual sponges were so big that a diver could hide in them. The rare spectacle of sponges spawning was shared with millions of television viewers.
After six hours of driving northeast from Irkutsk, the Cousteau vehicles finally crossed the last pass that hung over Lake Baikal. An immense white desert stretched to the horizon where the beige mountains of Olkhon Island separate the lake into two parts: on the eastern side, the “little sea” and on the western, the “great sea” that extends 650 kilometers from north to south.
This deepest and oldest lake in the world lies on the border of Russian Siberia and Outer Mongolia. Known as the “Pearl of Siberia”, the lake fills a tectonic trough that is widening at the rate of 2.5 cm a year, swallowing up sediment and leaving crystalline water above. In 1997, the Cousteau team travelled the lake to film the rich, diverse life in it: 1,800 species of which 80 percent are endemic (the omul salmon, the oily golomyanka fish and the freshwater seals called nerpas).
Cape Horn has made generations of mariners tremble. It is the ultimate test for all sailing vessels. In 1985, Cousteau decided that Alcyone would prove her solidity by rounding this tip of South America, and the test was a total success. The ship crisscrossed the end of the Andes mountain range where it plunges into the sea 46 times during her first day at land’s end. Nevertheless the southern Pacific lived up to its reputation.
Alcyone began her adventure in a deceptive calm. Horn Island was clearly visible. The weather was exceptionally good and the crew revealed in it for the moment. Rounding Cape Horn is no longer the exploit it used to be in the days of wooden ships. Maps and radar can help avoid pitfalls, but the passage
remains a symbol because of the thousands of sailors who have perished in these waters.
In the evening, the weather changed. The wind rose and clouds closed ranks. The following morning, the weather was changeable, punctuated by showers and rays of sunlight. Sometimes the rain became hail, then everything stopped, just before the storm broke and 60-knot winds tossed Alcyone about.
Horn Island and the little islets around it never ceased to amaze Alcyone’s crew. They dove time and again to observe lampshells, hagfish and Southern king crab, among the ancient, primitive creatures there. The cape with the sinister reputation possessed jewels to be revealed. In 1986, the film Cape Horn: Waters of the Wind told the story of this Cousteau team epic to the world.