Death and Oil: A True Story of the Piper Alpha Disaster on the North Sea

Death and Oil: A True Story of the Piper Alpha Disaster on the North Sea, about which many of you have been hearing for a couple of years, will be out from Pantheon on October 18. I will talk about the book that night at 7:30 at Town Hall in Seattle, and on KUOW with Steve Scher that morning at 9:00. In the Pacific Northwest, I’ll also be at Village Books in Bellingham at noon on October 20th, and Eagle Harbor Books on Bainbridge Island at 3:00 p.m. on the 23rd.

The pre-publication reviews of the book are encouraging.

Kirkus calls it “A searing indictment of human greed mixed with memorable sagas of death and survival.”

Publishers Weekly said “With the same meticulous research employed in books on sea explorer Jacques Cousteau and the mysteries of the oceans, Brad Matsen takes on the devastating 1988 Piper Alpha oil rig tragedy. In the end, this remarkable book is a stunning tribute to the survivors and their families, who banded valiantly together against the corporate giant, Occidental Petroleum, which absolved itself of all blame in the costly event.”
Other writers liked the book:
“Matsen’s horrifyingly readable account of the 1988 oil rig explosion that killed more than 160 people is a terrible reminder that the activity of extracting oil—and coal, and gas—has always included death as just a cost of doing business.” —Carl Safina, author of A Sea In Flames and The View From Lazy Point
“Death and Oil masterfully reveals the terrible human toll of our petroleum dependency. By taking us aboard the Piper Alpha oil rig and into the lives of its doomed men, its heroes and its haunted survivors, Brad Matsen has given us narrative history at its best and a cautionary tale for our time.” — Mitchell Zuckoff, New York Times bestselling author of Lost in Shangri-La
“Matsen’s extraordinary and captivating account of the Piper Alpha catastrophe makes visible the terrible price we pay for oil. It offers a compelling look into the embattled lives of men who spend their lives on the verge of an emergency, and shows us what happens when a place of work—in truth a war zone—becomes an inferno in an instant.” —Rikki Ducornet, author of the novels Netsuke and Gazelle

Death and Oil is available at bookstores, libraries, and online


Pantheon Books:

Fatal Pressure on the History Channel

Please join me, William Beebe, Otis Barton, and billions and billions of deep-ocean creatures tonight, March 16, on the third episode of The History Channel’s Underwater Universe. Fatal Pressure airs at 9:00 PM, 8:00 PM Central Time. On Saturday night, March 19, the entire four-hour series will air again, beginning at 8:00 PM.

Lary Wallace at Faster Times with an insightful reading of Sea King, August 2, 2010

On the DVD commentary track to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)—that large-canvas parody of not just the films, but really the whole damn life, of Jacques Cousteau—director Wes Anderson and his co-writer, Noah Baumbach, discuss having been advised by Peter Bogdanovich on one particular moment in the film. He’d told them that it was a bad move, that scene where the son dies in the helicopter accident—it’s too abrupt, too joltingly out-of-synch with the rest of the movie’s mood. His criticisms, apparently, tended toward the aesthetic, but given the tragedy that Bogdanovich had experienced in his own long life, it’s likely that he also saw the sheer gratuitousness of the scene, and its harshness, and wondered what in the world these callow young protégés of his could have possibly been thinking.

Jacques Cousteau’s son Philippe, of course, died in a similar though not identical accident, but most of the other parallels between Zissou’s life and Cousteau’s are more lighthearted and parody-ready: there’s the early, idealistic documentaries followed later by films not as well received, and which sometimes have to tamper with reality to achieve their effects; there’s that old warhorse of a vessel repaired and refurbished, made seaworthy over and over again (Cousteau called his the Calypso; Zissou’s is the Belafonte); there’s a bizarre, screwed-up family comprised of so many loose and unconventional parts, it’s scarcely possible to believe it all (this may be one reason why Anderson actually decided to mute, rather than exaggerate, the strangeness involved here); and, of course—how would one fail to mention?—there’s the red knit caps that the crew all wears.

Those are just the obvious, protruding parallels, and one of the pleasures of always reading about Jacques Cousteau is finding some of the smaller, buried, less conspicuous ones. Those pleasures are there for the taking in Brad Matsen’sThe Sea King, amazingly one of the only full-length biographies ever written about Cousteau, a man who through his films was able to create an awareness of, and a concern for, the ecology—an awareness and a concern which, if all too prevalent today, was not nearly apparent enough in the 1950s, when Cousteau was making his first documentaries, or even in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when he was making his most popular ones.

Matsen’s book was written, proofed, and published well before the BP-sponsored oil leak from out of the Gulf Coast, but you can imagine what kind of sport he would have had, had he written later, with the knowledge that BP actually rescued Cousteau’s career—which is to say that it rescued the cause of environmentalism itself—at a crucial moment near its very beginning. Cousteau hadn’t even made his first film yet—hadn’t even made The Silent World (1956)—and although his book of that title was phenomenally successful, with almost a half-million copies in print, all the money accrued from that endeavor was earmarked for the conduction of his research, and it looked like he might have to close down his operation altogether for a lack of funds. This is the same research that had allowed Cousteau to conceive of and then develop the Aqua-Lung, a truly revolutionary technology that allowed deep divers to avoid narcosis by breathing air and helium, for extended periods and in lieu of nitrogen.

BP wanted to exploit this technology in its quest to prospect for ever more oil, all the oil that the seas might conceivably conceal, and they put up real money to Cousteau and his divers to board the Calypso and explore with them the Persian Gulf. Cousteau was enterprising enough to bring his cameras along, and that’s part of how he got The Silent World on film. The movie won the Palm d’Or at Cannes, and it enjoyed a tremendous success by every other measure possible. Cousteau was on his way to making the string of set-piece television series for PBS that would make him an icon. That’s never the end of any story, of course, and by the 1980s, his moment seemingly behind him, Cousteau was once again desperately in search of cash. John Denver, who had already made his song “Calypso” in homage to Cousteau’s craft, now introduced Jacque’s son Jean-Michel to his buddy Ted Turner, who was more than happy to put some piece of his billions toward whatever endeavor Cousteau may have planned for himself next.

And so the Cousteau’s Society bobbed and buoyed and stayed afloat still. Recently, it had been $5 million in debt, and now it was flush. For Cousteau to have managed the fiscal health of his enterprise the way he did, while all the time conducting research, shooting and editing film, dealing with television producers and film distributors, keeping his employees satisfied, then maintaining not one but two families (keeping the first unaware of the second) must have required all the concentrated energies of a highly disciplined man. To call this a talent for multitasking is to impugn its immensity and extent.

But when his first wife died and he married the other woman—with whom he already had two children—on the very anniversary of Phlippe’s death, his first-born son was none too pleased. Jean-Michel, in his repulsion, refused to have anything to do with either Jacques or Francine, and the feeling was mutual. It was about this time—fittingly, symbolically—that the Calypso finally broke down, seemingly for good. Anderson in The Life Aquatic fetishizes the ship and its functions by showing a cross-section of theBelafonte and then providing a tour of all its many neat-o compartments; Matsen does something similar for the Calypso, and it’s easy to see why the crew would have been so loathe to let go of her:

On deck, Cousteau had installed a crow’s nest on a square aluminum scaffolding in front of the wheelhouse, which gave an observer an additional 20 feet of elevation. It had a full set of steering and power controls, and also held the radar and radio antennas at the highest point on the ship. Aft of the deckhouse was a towering wench for retrieving sample cables, dredges, and baskets of artifacts on archeological expeditions, and a light davit for launching and recovering dive tenders, compression chambers, and other equipment. On the top deck, behind the wheelhouse, was another davit for lowering and lifting an auxiliary motor launch.

The next deck up was given over to the galley, a dining salon with banquettes around a single table that could seat most of the crew of twenty-two at the same time, a double cabin for Jacques and Simone Cousteau, Cousteau’s office, six two-berth cabins, toilets and showers, and a wine cellar. A shelter deck ran on the port and starboard sides from just under the wheelhouse to the open diving deck, onto which the staterooms in the middle of the ship opened directly through separate doors. The navigation bridge, chart room, a four-berth cabin, and the captain’s cabin topped the ship, behind which was a streamlined funnel. On the funnel were painted the green silhouettes of a swimming sea nymph and adolphin. First sketched by painter Luc-Marie Bayl on a bar napkin, Cousteau and Simone chose it to be the insignia of the Calypso and French Oceanographic Expeditions.

After Jacques died, Francine was left in charge of all Cousteau operations, and what’s more, she even sued Jean-Michel over use of the name. (Jacques, when he was still alive, had also prevented Jean-Michel from using the name, on a Fiji Islands resort.) In all the documentaries he currently makes, for National Geographic, Jean-Michel has agreed to use only his full name in the titles. One of those documentaries is to be about the BP oil disaster. Meanwhile, the Calypso is being summoned from the dead; it’s currently in the shipyards being refurbished. It will sail again on the 100-year anniversary of Cousteau’s birth.

Andrew Revkin in the New York Times on JYC

Everybody has a Cousteau story. Here’s Revkin’s.

American Scientist review, June 11, 2010

Archangel with Aqua-Lung
Craig McClain
JACQUES COUSTEAU: The Sea King. Brad Matsen. xviii + 296 pp. Pantheon Books, 2009. $27.95.
An article by American journalist James Dugan that appeared in Science Illustrated in December of 1948 began as follows:
In the clear, warm waters of the French Riviera a new species of large mammalian fish have been observed in the last few years, one-eyed monsters shaped and colored like nude human beings with green rubber tail fins, gills of metal, and tubular scales on their backs. They are called Cousteau Divers. They swim around sportively at hundred-foot depths, examining sunken ships, taking photographs, and harpooning big fish. They are the first of the menfish, a new order of marine life invented by Lieutenant de Vaisseau Jacques-Yves Cousteau of the French Navy.

Jacques Cousteau died in 1997, but his remarkable ability to reveal worlds below the ocean’s surface continues to recruit many to be menfish and womenfish. I was one such recruit. Growing up in a landlocked Southern state, in my youth I rarely visited the ocean, but I devoured every page of the 21-volume encyclopedia The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau. Those books and Cousteau’s television programs were staples of my childhood—my connection to the environment, to which I later dedicated my career. As a marine biologist, I continue to depend on technologies Cousteau developed decades ago to explore both the shallow and deep oceans. The key to his success in public outreach and education was fascination, and that model guides my own efforts to educate the public about oceans. Whenever anyone asks me what inspired me to become a marine biologist, I always begin my story with Jacques Cousteau.
Many people have a similar story to tell. In the superb new biography Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King, Brad Matsen notes that while he was researching the book, nearly every time he mentioned Cousteau’s name people would respond with testimonials about how they had been changed by him. “Everybody had a story,” Matsen says, adding that not all of the stories were kind to Cousteau’s memory.
Matsen handles the issue of how to separate the myths and legends from what was real about Cousteau’s life by showing him from a number of different perspectives, weaving the disparate stories told about Cousteau into a cohesive narrative with a dramatic structure like that of a great novel. The early chapters describe the innovations that Cousteau and his collaborators came up with that allowed for breathing, filming and living underwater. Next come accounts of the events that solidified his status as a legend: acquisition of the Calypso, the minesweeper that he converted into a research ship; the many expeditions that followed; filmmaking, and the Oscar won in 1956 by the documentary The Silent World; the launch of an enormously popular television series, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau; and the founding of the Cousteau Society, a nonprofit organization with “the protection and improvement of life” as its mission. Then a downward arc begins—the television series declines in popularity and is canceled. In 1979 Cousteau’s beloved son Philippe dies. The Cousteau Society deteriorates, exploration giving way to “military campaigns” to meet “a steady grind of production deadlines.” In 1990 Cousteau’s wife dies. A few weeks later he reveals to his son Jean-Michel that he intends to marry Francine Triplet, a woman he has been secretly seeing for 15 years, with whom he has two children. When Cousteau dies a few years later, having designated his new wife his successor, turmoil plagues the family and its enterprises. Matsen does not gloss over any of this, candidly titling the final chapter “Chaos.”
Small character portraits abound throughout the book, and Matsen ultimately portrays Cousteau as the sum of his interactions with the people around him. First we meet the woman who became his first wife, Simone Melchior, who later acquires the nickname “La Bergère” (the Shepherdess) when she plays the role of caretaker for the crew of the Calypso. Next we are introduced to Philippe Tailliez and Frédéric Dumas, who with Cousteau formed the Sea Musketeers; the three men worked together to perfect skills and technologies that made it possible to breathe underwater. A few chapters later Matsen shows Simone using her family connections to introduce Jacques to Émile Gagnan, who will help him develop the first self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (scuba), the Aqua-Lung. Other people important to the story include David Wolper, the creator of the television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, who developed the iconic look of Cousteau’s group (silver wet suits and yellow helmets ), and Ted Turner, who came to the financial rescue of the foundering Cousteau Society in the early 1980s.
Cousteau’s prized Calypso is also an integral character in this biography. In the preface, Matsen describes finding the ship several years ago with “weeping rust streaks from corroded fittings on its sooty white flank,” and he laments that “the wreck of the Calypso felt wrong, neglected, and dishonored.” The deterioration of this icon raises questions that he goes on to address in the book, which concludes with the information that the ship’s restoration is finally being undertaken. Over the course of the book we see that the Calypso was magnificent in her prime: Powered by two 800-horsepower diesel engines, she measured 136 feet long by 24.5 feet wide with a displacement of 270 tons. After starting out as a minesweeper, she had been converted into a ferry for passengers, cars and other cargo. Then Cousteau acquired her and transformed her from a mere seagoing vessel into the ship that ferried his vision around the world.
Cousteau once said to his son Jean-Michel that his life was “a lot of little things that came together just right.” The book confirms this: Matsen describes many instances in which events and people interconnected fortuitously to provide the tools and opportunities Cousteau needed. When Cousteau was a young man serving in the French Navy, he began swimming in the ocean to help facilitate his recovery from a car accident, and the officer he swam with turned out to be a snorkeling enthusiast who introduced him to the world beneath the water. (This same accident prevented Cousteau from becoming an aviator, which presumably saved his life, given that every member of his flight-school class was killed during the first few weeks of World War II.) During the war, Cousteau’s superior officers allowed him to continue experimenting with diving and underwater photography, recognizing that what he learned might have military applications. Decades later, the president of the Explorers Club in New York, Tom Moore, needed an after-dinner speaker on short notice and called on Cousteau; in return, Moore, who was also president of ABC, persuaded the network to give Cousteau a television series.
Matsen portrays Cousteau as neither angel nor demon but a complex man of contradictions. He was an environmentalist who preached stewardship of the world’s oceans and rivers, and he pleaded with the U.S. Congress to curb pollution on the coasts, but he let British Petroleum charter the Calypso for oil exploration and took money from Atlantic Richfield Petroleum Company (ARCO) for the PBS series Jacques Cousteau Odyssey. He described himself as an “honest witness” showing “the truth about nature,” but he orchestrated scenes for his television show. He publicly opposed removing animals from their natural habitat, but he ordered his crew to trap sea lions from the Cape of Good Hope and kept them in a cage aboard the Calypso. Cousteau was extremely adept at popularizing the ocean and life within it, yet he created an inefficient bureaucracy with an enormous budget at the Cousteau Society. By drawing these contrasts, Matsen captures the essence of Cousteau as a man whose accomplishments do not justify his faults and whose faults do not detract from his accomplishments.
Cousteau once said of his crew that they were “wounded by life on land, and . . . thereafter put trust in the sea”; those words perhaps apply equally well to Cousteau himself. He liked to contrast being bolted to the earth by the weight of gravity with the freedom that comes with being buoyed by water. “Underwater, man becomes an archangel,” he said. And that is how I think of him: in his element, as a manfish swimming below the surface of the ocean, free of the flaws that weighed him down on terra firma.
Craig McClain is assistant director of science at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, North Carolina.

You can find this online at
© Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society

Happy Birthday, JYC

If you have a nice bottle of Bordeaux laying around the house, tonight is a good time to toast Jacques-Yves Cousteau on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

ReadOn, WriteOn, Vashon

On Saturday, May 29th, I’ll be sitting down with Will North, Michael Gruber. Robert Dugoni, and Karen Cushman to discuss the origins of book ideas. The rest of the weekend from Friday night to Monday afternoon is packed with writers, readers, and the other delights of Vashon Island.

The Wonderful Life of Jacques Cousteau, a lecture and slideshow

Northwest Maritime Center, Port Townsend, Washington

Saturday, February 13 at 4:30

Naval Undersea Museum, Keyport, Washington

Saturday, March 27 at 2:00

The word from San Francisco

Alan Littell, author of the novel of the sea, Courage, reviews The Sea King in the Christmas edition of the San Francisco Chronicle:

“In a splendid new biography, Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King, Brad Matsen leads us on that sunny morning with the young diver through crystalline Mediterranean waters carpeted with “silver forests of algae and brightly colored fish.”

Read the entire review here.


In a new review by David Helvarg, the Washington Post calls The Sea King “a fast and thrilling dive through Cousteau’s aquatic life.”

“The Cousteaus… are continuing Jacques’s mission to open up the eyes and ears of the world to the threatened miracle of the sea, the crucible of life on our blue marble of a planet. After reading Brad Matsen’s salty and engaging biography, I’m sure the Sea King would approve.”

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