Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau: Oceanographer

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Photo by John Shuttleworth
Jacques Cousteau at the Oceanography 2000 Conference at Annapolis, Md. in 1969.

Of the many oceanographic conferences held in 1969, one  — Oceanography 2000 was unique: It was held for students. Jointly conducted by the U.S. Naval Institute which is the Navy’s professional society and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland from December 10th through 13th, the gathering brought 575 college students face to face with world famous oceanographers such as Jacques Cousteau and Roger Revelle.

Cousteau’s address was particularly effective against the current “the-sea-is-inexhaustable-let’s harvest (rape)-the-bounty” thinking we hear so much of these days. That’s the old “buffalo hunter” mentality, gang, and it ain’t gonna work under water any better than it’s worked on land.

Cousteau’s Address:

“The 20th of July, 1969, I was on board Calypso in the Aleutian Islands. We were having one of our mini-subs exploring the bottom of a canyon of this island called Viva Inlet, and the sub was about in 800 or 900 feet of depth. Raymond Cole was in it. We had the sonar telephone on the fantail and we were in communication with him and, at the very same time, we had a loudspeaker on the fantail giving us a direct account from the first landing on the moon. All the crew was there. We were all very excited, of course, by this historical landing and we could hear the communications of Armstrong to Houston, Texas, and, at the same time, this was intermingled with reports from Raymond Cole at the bottom of the sea. We were relaying this information to Cole, who was just as excited as we were. We explained to him, ‘Armstrong opens the hatch, he’s climbing down the ladder … There it is, he’s on the moon.” Then there was a silence. Raymond Cole expressed his admiration. Then another silence. Then he said, ‘Well, I am not going to open my hatch!’ 

“The description from the moon described a hostile, dusty, grayish, impressive but empty desert barren universe. And this was intermingled with the descriptions of Raymond Cole telling us about the hordes of king crabs he was following in their migration some of them at great depth, burrowing into the mud, which was a discovery for those who are interested in king crabs the bottom of the sea being absolutely covered with a thick layer of swimming shrimps, beautiful golgonyans in these cold waters down to 450 feet and the contrast between this tremendously populated world which is the sea and the generally barren universe that not only Armstrong, but also the Surveyor, described on Mars, suddenly enlightened my own conception of the ocean. 

A Dying Ocean

“For the first time, it was obvious that men on this earth are nothing else than 3 billion astronauts on a spaceship, and a spaceship in which the oceans are our water supply. And we are there going into this desert hostile universe only depending from this mass of water which is the oceans, the clouds, the rivers, etc. knowing that only 1% of this total water is in circulation all the rest being the oceans. If this is so, it is obvious also that this water mass, the oceans, where life originated, is also critical for our survival. When we are speaking of protection of the sea, it is a little more than conservation of nature and protecting species that may disappear. It is a question of life and death for mankind, and this thing that I think some of the other speakers have already emphasized, I will emphasize in my own manner in a little while as a diver, as a witness of the dying ocean. 

“When we dive a few years apart in the same places, we notice at once a tremendous change and not a good one. All the changes that we notice are all in the same direction destruction. 

“I am diving since 33 years and I’m still diving actively. I have made comparisons between some interesting places in the Mediterranean, in the Red Sea, in the Indian Ocean, in the Atlantic, in the Pacific, and mainly in California, and I must say that, in all these places, the change is radical. The vitality of nature has decreased at least 50%, or more, since 33 years. In the Mediterranean, there are practically no fish on the coast anymore; there were plenty 30 years ago. The groupers have totally disappeared.  

“In the Red Sea, the northern and the southern coral reefs are destructed. There is still an oasis of live coral reefs in the center. In the Indian Ocean, even in remote places like the Canal of Mozambique between South Africa and Madagascar, atolls and coral islands are dying from oil pollution. In California, to speak about America, in 1951, under each stone, there were enormous lobsters. You can’t find any, any more; it’s finished. So this is the situation, roughly speaking. I can give you many other examples to such an extent that what I am doing now with the Calypso and my 50 associates we are actively putting into the [record] as much as we can from this dying ocean before it is too late. 

Race to Survive

“Pollution is not the only destructive effect. It’s a major one, but probably on an equal par with fishing. There is a lot of nonsense told about fishing, even in the official circles. ‘We are going to increase the fishing capacity, etc.,’ which means we are going to destroy ten times more. That’s all that we are going to do, and, already now, even the pelagic fishes that used to come to the California coast, like the yellow-fin tuna, destroyed at another point of their migration by the Japanese, do not come any more; so the sardines that were abundant on the coast of Mexico do not exist any more. Factories have closed. 

“So it’s a race now to hunt the last animals in existence with the most elaborate electronic devices. It’s madness. We have to stop that if we want to protect what is left now. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have to take advantage of the biological resources of the oceans, but not by hunting by farming. This is the origin of civilization. It’s when man has turned from hunting to farming, and I would like everybody to understand this: that we have to abandon sooner anyway before the year 2000 any kind of fishing in the ocean and turn to healthy, decent, intelligent civilized farming. 

“I tell you very briefly what I believe will happen in year 2000 in the sea. I think that, before that, all the nations, reluctantly at the beginning and enthusiastically later, will contribute to the ocean science as much on an equal basis with space. That’s the first point. 1 believe that very soon, within 15 or 20 years, the ocean in its integrity, except for a narrow hand along the shoreline, will belong to mankind, not to a nation, and will be administered by a group. I don’t know if the United Nations will still be in existence in 2000. If not, there will be something else, but there will be an international organization. 1 believe that the main product o/’ oceanography is weather-making, not forecasting. In year 2000, an international body will decide if there will be rain tomorrow morning in Idaho for the potato growers, or if there will be sunshine in Miami for the tourists. The mechanics for this are all ready to go. It’s a matter of money. 

“I believe that fishing will be entirely replaced by farming by the year 2000 and that, thanks to this, the productivity of the ocean will be increased greatly to an untold factor because farming includes increasing the basic fertility of the water as well as growing such-and-such species. I believe that the ocean will have a narrow escape. I think that the change in the public opinion and in international regulations will save some of it. There will be no national parks there because the destructions will be too great, but there will be acclimatation parks after the pollution is stopped. It means that man will create new environments, biological environments, new biological complexes. Some of the damage will be repaired. Some of it will not be repaired. I believe that man is going to invade the oceans in all the ways we’ve talked about vehicles, saturation diving stations, mobile manned undersea stations, and so forth. 

Training Vital

“I also believe that most of the scientific aspect of the marine sciences will be more and more [taken over] by huge outfits, international and national, and this will have the effect of increasing the possibilities, but of decreasing the individual initiative. But I also believe that … in the ocean, there will be a substantial area of activity for private initiative, individual concept, and small firms and small groups. I don’t think that it is a good thing to monopolize all the small labs and the small initiative and creative minds into huge concerns; and I think that this will be recognized and taken care of in the future. 

“Now, to finish, I urgently ask for a claim. I claim that more sailors invade the labs and the marine sciences because at the moment, too few people know what the sea is and too few people are capable of thinking in terms of marine craftsmanship. The knowledge of such a training as the Naval Academy does … is absolutely vital to the development of marine sciences. We have almost too many scientists in marine sciences that stay in their lab and go occasionally a few days a year at sea. We want them to participate and to be fully aware of the difficulties and of the problems of seamanship.” 

Upon completing his address, Captain Cousteau opened the meeting to the audience. Almost immediately, he called Alice Ballard a student at Radcliffe to the microphone for the following exchange. Miss Ballard, then, speaks for PLOWBOY in this interview.

PLOWBOY: Captain Cousteau, I would like to make a comment on behalf of the six Harvard students here today. We came to this conference concerned with the goals of oceanography; we have felt that some of the most important points have been neglected during most of the speeches. 

COUSTEAU: Come over here! Come over here! Take the mike!

PLOWBOY: We feel that in the next 30 years, oceanography should be directed towards the peaceful and wise use of the natural resources of the ocean for the benefit of all mankind and not to the specific exclusion or profit of any one group. What we mean by this are such measures as proper international management and recycling, not exploiting, of the resources of the sea and prohibition of all arms and weapons systems on the ocean floor. We must realize that our planet is a finite system and that the ocean is just a part of that system. Its use should be directed through international cooperation such that its quality is in no way impaired, and its stability as an ecological system is in no way endangered. 

The use of the ocean must not be denied to future generations by ecological backlash through today’s mismanagement and ignorance. Because the earth is a finite system, we must also realize that it can support only a finite number of people. All that we have suggested here will be done in vain unless the population of every nation on earth is stabilized soon. The United States as a world leader must be as dedicated to this commitment, as to any other. The best offense in a nation is the defense of the environment of the world. 

COUSTEAU: Very good. I thank you for your statement, but I’m still waiting for the question.

PLOWBOY: I think probably the most important question would be, do you have any suggestions as to how we could best implement, in a political way, these ideals which we’ve set forth? 

COUSTEAU: Yes, miss, I have. There is only one way. It’s public opinion. There is no other way. Already now, conservation is a necessary item in the electoral programs of every party. That’s a big victory, so the more we spread around ourselves in our vicinity these ideas, the sooner the public powers will take this into consideration and give us satisfaction. It’s a matter of public opinion. I’m working with television. Please work with other means. We need all the media to convince people.

PLOWBOY: Sir, it’s a two-fold question. First of all, on the pollution of the seas, how extensive, how widespread through the seas is the pollution; that is, is it the first 20 meters, or does it extend throughout the whole sea? Second of all, can we possibly ease this pollution, especially the chemicals, such as DDT, which we’ve produced? Can we use these … as a tracer, possibly trace through currents in the ocean? 

COUSTEAU: Two questions, how widespread is pollution? Second, can we use such poisonous elements as DDT as tracers? The first question is difficult to answer, but I will. The second one is very easy. First, when we speak of pollution, we don’t know what we are talking about, because there are pollutions of many kinds chemical pollution from factories discharging chemicals, especially plastic factories. You have the oil and I don’t know the English word pollutions which spread very much. You have the micro-biological germ pollution. You have the nuclear pollution. You have the thermal pollution. Unfortunately, each one of these must be taken separately, because they have their own effects and are cumulative, but independent.

The most insidious of them all is probably thermal pollution, because I don’t know how we can avoid it. We are heating the globe and the water, especially with the nuclear plants of the future. In the year 2000, I think the difference will be very noticeable, but today, yes, DDT, as Dr. Revelle has told you, was found in the liver of penguins in Antarctica. Detergents stable detergents stay on the surface and destroy the neuston in the sea. The coastlines are polluted to a much bigger degree, and even deep sea fish can be found extremely polluted, because there is a constant rain of organic matter from the surface to the bottom.

Pollution is actually invading the entire ocean everywhere. There’s no place where pollution is not acute, but, of course, in coastal areas it is more so. Just off some very popular jet-set types of beaches, the pollution is so bad that, if a swimmer drinks about half a glass of sea water, he has a chance out of five to get hepatitis. The oil pollution – the big, spectacular things like the Santa Barbara Channel or the Torrey Canyon disaster moves the press and the mass media. There are tremendous destructions on local points, but they represent about 3 percent of what the private yachts are polluting every year. Each time you start your outboard motor, which has the exhaust end in the sea, you are polluting the sea. So it’s a vast problem, a very difficult problem. That’s one thing.

The second question was, “Can poison be used as tracers?” remains very simple; why not use something that is not a poison? We have very good tracers that don’t poison.

PLOWBOY: Sir, what has been done about the starfish on the Great Barrier Reef? Is anything being done to stop that? 

COUSTEAU: The issues are very confused here. Yes, I was in Truk Island in Micronesia with the team of 35 or 40 scientists who were investigating this thing last summer. Yes, the starfish are invading the reefs, not only of Australia, but of Guam, of Micronesia, everywhere. Yes, they are eating away coral, leaving big patches of dead coral behind them.

But they are not responsible. They are just instrumental in a very complicated process which man has started. These star fish have existed for millions of years and they have never done that damage. They are eating coral, but in limited quantities, because they have enemies of their own. Once man is suppressing these enemies, which are a number of fish, a number of the large shellfish who attack and kill the starfish. Now these are sold to tourists, so they are extensively overfished; they are no more on Guam, and the starfish proliferate.

So it’s always the same thing. We destroy the balance of nature and, after that, we accuse one starfish and we send teams to destroy the starfish; so, after destroying the starfish, you have to destroy the enemy of the starfish, or he is going to come in great numbers, and, at the end, you will stay alone with a few mosquitoes on the earth.

PLOWBOY: Captain Cousteau, I have been curious as to the possible biological effect of the loss of one of the large super tankers which are now being built and I noticed the story this morning two paragraphs. “The 207,000-ton Dutch tanker Marpessa on its maiden voyage, much like the Titanic, has exploded, caught fire, and has been abandoned.” Can you tell us what 207,000 tons of crude oil might possibly do? 

COUSTEAU: About 4 percent of the exhaust of the yachts.

PLOWBOY: What could this do as a unit dropped into the ocean? 

It can do tremendous damage in a limited area and contribute some to the general damage. These big spectacular accidents are very regrettable, but they are criticized by the very people who turn on their outboard motors.

PLOWBOY: Sir, when we were outside, you gave me … a very enlightening answer that I think the rest of the group would benefit by. When I mentioned that the Japanese are harvesting clams and giant mussels, you mentioned that we’re not going to need fish as such. Would you repeat the answer?

COUSTEAU: What you are asking me is to repeat what I said about imagination in farming. The only farming that exists today seriously is oysters, not only in Japan and Italy, but all over the world they are farmed very well in mass quantities mussels, clams, everything. This is pretty well done. The problem now is pollution, because they are getting contaminated, but, otherwise, it works.

Now, when people think about farming, they say, “Well, are we going to farm tuna, or mackerel, or sardines?” Probably not, because they are pelagic animals who have a very difficult pattern of life that would be difficult to artificially make. But we need more imagination and more research to select the species that are going to be a practical, efficient protein manufacturer. Our very ancestors 10,000 years ago had stopped hunting to settle down and farm, but, before they did that, they had to have a fantastic knowledge of nature that they transmitted from father to son for generations, because they had selected in their jungle, their own deep forests, the most appropriate species in vegetables, corn, wheat, etc. in animals, the vegetable-eating animal the cow, the pig, the hen. They have not selected the lion, the tiger, the eagle, to make their food, because they are carnivorous. It’s a tremendous wiseness from the ancestors because the carnivorous animals are too high, too far away, in the food chain; so the efficiency rate is very small.

All the fishing industry is based on carnivorous fish, which means a poor efficiency ratio animal. What I said is, “Why not eat worms?” This is a big, fat sea worm which could be very simply found and are palatable when they’re well cooked, so it’s a matter of adjustment of our thinking. That’s for year 2000 not now.

PLOWBOY: If we could stop pollution now, by some miracle, how long would it take to clean up what is already polluted? 

COUSTEAU: My guess is that it would be pretty fast pretty fast something between five and fifteen years, because there is a leak in the sediment small, but efficient. A leak of everything, including the nutrient salts, but it is theoretical because pollution is not going to be stopped at once. It’s going to be done by stages. And what about thermal pollution? How are we going to stop that?

PLOWBOY: One question about international cooperation. I think that everyone agrees that international control should be exercised over the high seas. For at least the past ten years that I know of, and before that, there’s been quibbling about deep seas, international law, that the boundary should be such and such, and they haven’t been able to come to an agreement on a simple matter like this. Some nations even claim make a point of claiming fishing grounds and banks that lie a great distance from their shores claim that these are their jurisdiction. These are of tremendous economic importance both to the nation and to the world as a whole, and I have the unfortunate feeling that it’s going to take practically till these resources are no more until people get cooperative. I’d like to know whether you have any idea of how we could get international cooperation now before it’s too late. 

COUSTEAU: I’m very pleased to listen to such questions. Because they are difficult to answer because they are true also. You are asking me, telling me, people, nations meet in Geneva and argue on details of the coastal waters that have no importance and they cannot agree, so how can they agree on basic things that harm their interest, their economical interests, as the things we’re talking about pollution. True. But the only hope, I think, is precisely in fact that this is going to become vital. As long as people don’t feel menaced in their life, I don’t think we will progress very much. We must make a brave fight but pessimistically. But when we demonstrate that what is at stake is the survival of mankind, then maybe there will be an understanding, because all the other problems will look very stupid compared to that one I hope.

PLOWBOY: Sir, the reaction of this group to your talk in the discussion about pollution seems to indicate a great concern with the people in this country. I was wondering could you perhaps tell us, or those people who haven’t had the opportunity to see, the reactions of other countries. Could you enlighten us as to their reactions, sir? 

COUSTEAU: It’s a very good question because it’s one of my greatest concerns. The higher the degree of development of a country, the easier it is to move the masses because of the mass media and also the more influence the mass media have on the politicians. This country is by far the most aware of these problems, and it is not much, so you can imagine what the others are. When a country like the United States bravely decides that there will be no DDT used any more from January ’71 on, which has been decided, fine. What about India? What about South America? What about China? What about Russia’? What about France? What about Spain? Portugal? If the world does not take the same measure, it will be exactly as nothing. The American manufacturers will send DDT to China, too.

PLOWBOY: I’m concerned about the statement that we won’t be doing any fishing in the year 2000. I hope you haven’t included sport fishing in this. 

COUSTEAU: Yes, I do, but for another reason for a moral reason. I think to take any joy in killing something is bad.

This transcript of Captain Cousteau’s address and exchange with Alice Ballard was originally published in the Yearbook Issue 1970 NATIONAL FISHERMAN and is reprinted by permission of that publication. 

Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau is probably the one man most responsible for today’s widespread interest in underwater exploration and development. The popularization of his aqualung and other inventions during and after WWI opened the waters of the world to man on a vast scale for the first time. 

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