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Interview in Take Part

Jacques Cousteau’s life has not been covered in biographical form since 1984, which is surprising considering he was once one of the most recognizable celebrities on the planet. Author Brad Matsen’s newest book, Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King, details the underwater pioneer’s life, from the invention of the Aqualung to Cousteau’s systematic research on underwater filming and the environmental crusade he undertook to preserve the world’s oceans.

Scrupulously researched and compelling, The Sea King reveals the various facets of a hero who was worshipped by several generations of adoring fans. Starting as a member of the French Resistance who went on undercover missions in World War II, Cousteau left a permanent impression on both the television and film worlds, partnering with a young Ted Turner and PBS, while nurturing a tumultuous relationship with his family.

To find out more about the curiosity and ambition that drove Jacques Cousteau, read on for a conversation with biographer Brad Matsen.

Q. What made you want to write about Jacques Cousteau?

A. It began 5 years ago, when I was living in New York and had just finished a book about William Bebe and Otis Barton, who were two men in a very unlikely venture to build and dive in what’s called abathysphere. They were sealed inside a steel ball 4 1/2 feet in diameter and lowered on the end of the cable into the Atlantic Ocean, becoming the first human beings ever to descend beyond sunlight and see what was in the dark ocean—it was really a remarkable bit of heroism…

Read the rest of the interview here.

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If Cousteau went to Copenhagen

I wrote this for grist.

Cousteau's ship Calypso. Photo by Brad Matsen.

As we grapple with global warming, ocean acidification, and the possibility that life on earth really is doomed, it is with considerable chagrin that we recall how Jacques Cousteau sounded the general alarm thirty years ago. The celebrated underwater filmmaker, co-inventor of scuba diving, television star, sage of the environmental movement, and bon vivant died in 1997. But before he left he had developed a brooding pessimism about the future of humanity.

At a rally in Seattle in 1977, where he headlined in a sold-out basketball arena with energy expert Amory Lovins and population theorist Paul Ehrlich, Cousteau predicted the dire consequences of a runaway human population and its apparently insatiable appetite for fuel to heat, move, and feed itself. Cousteau toned down his pessimism for the audience of 15,000 in the arena that night, urging them to take responsibility for the environment before it is too late. But an hour later, in an interview with a pair of reporters from the Seattle Weekly, he laid out his far more dismal vision.

“Fossil fuels are polluting the air and the sea and now people are saying that nuclear energy is the answer,” said Cousteau with his sexy French accent. “They are wrong. If we continue to develop nuclear energy and make kids like crazy, we will surely end up in a police state. It will become the duty of governments of the world to suppress all dissent in order to avoid nuclear terrorism. Eh? We will have no other choice. A nuclear civilization adds up to a global police state.”

Cousteau saw overpopulation and energy collapse leading inevitably to worldwide disaster and social chaos.

“Why do anything at all?” the reporters asked him. “Why have the Cousteau Society?”

“We have no choice,” Cousteau resplied. “And there’s a slim chance we can make a difference.”

The delicious irony in all of this (very important if we are, in fact, doomed) is that Cousteau’s earliest expeditions on his famous white ship, Calypso, were financed by oil exploration charters. His second hit movie told the story of the very development of sub-sea habitats and saturation scuba diving that make today’s offshore oil production possible.

Cousteau and his divers pioneered the equipment and techniques that now anchor gigantic platforms and wellheads to the sea floor at depths of up to a thousand feet and produce 60 percent of the world’s oil and gas. Until just fifty years ago, when Cousteau and engineer Emil Gagnan invented the demand regulator for breathing and swimming free underwater, our undersea explorations had been limited by the depth to which a single breath could take us.

Cousteau’s early oil exploration charters, his best-selling, ghost-written book about inventing scuba diving, and a pair of hit movies on scuba and under-sea habitats earned him an ABC television series on the oceans. By the early 1970s, the charming French sailor was one of the most recognized people on the planet. With the power of his celebrity, he tried to make the world see that his beloved Mediterranean would be the first sea to die and that like a canary in a mineshaft, it was only the beginning of the death of the oceans unless a way to reverse the destruction could be found.

“By the time my father died, he no longer believed that humanity could save itself from disaster,” said Cousteau’s son, Jean-Michel, himself a noted champion of the oceans. “I disagree with him, but I do not hold his mistake against him.”

Now, the deadly blend of fossil fuel emissions and a booming human population has even the most optimistic among us worried. Cousteau’s predicted disaster and chaos have arrived only in the most desperate parts of the world and the political structure remains generally intact. But with scientific tools that were nowhere on the horizon when Cousteau’s instincts were screaming at him that the Mediterranean was sick, we have discovered grim, undeniable evidence that we are in real trouble. Our continued use of fossil fuels has inflicted life-threatening damage on the oceans and the atmosphere, damage that cannot be repaired for several generations, even if we could manage to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 50 percent by 2050.

Next month, the world will limp into Copenhagen, frantic because 30-year old warnings from a seductive Frenchman—among many, many others—didn’t change human behavior enough to forestall what in all likelihood is a catastrophic global disaster that began 150 years ago with the industrial revolution.

If Cousteau were alive to address the delegates in Denmark this December, he would probably summon the courageous warrior he was in his youth and insist that humanity, not the earth itself, is in danger—and that this might not be a bad thing. He would likely argue that a world with fewer people, ultimately, is the answer. Then he would demand that we keep trying in the face of terrible odds, simply because we have no other choice.

Review in Outside magazine

By Bruce Barcot, this review appears in the November issue of Outside.

By the end of his life, Jacques Cousteau seemed a caricature of himself. The red cap, the thick accent—the Cousteau aesthetic was so overripe that director Wes Anderson used it as the template forThe Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.But this month, Brad Matsen reminds us that Cousteau earned his fame honestly: He invented the modern understanding of the sea. Matsen, an ocean writer and film producer, proves himself a master of biography on his first try. Born in 1911 to a landed family in a village far from the coast of France, Jacques-Yves Cousteau discovered his love for the sea as a naval officer. He wanted to be a filmmaker, and many of his innovations were driven by a desire to take his cameras into the deep. Thus his creation of the underwater movie (1938), a scuba tank and regulator (1940s), and the wildlife TV show The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau (1966). He was no saint: Matsen deals with his dalliances (the guy kept a second, secret, family), the callousness he showed his sons (he sued Jean-Michel over his use of the family name), and the ever-present tension between science and showmanship. But The Sea King never loses sight of Cousteau’s accomplishments. “Everything seemed like playing to him,” Jean-Michel once remarked. And it was. For centuries, the romance of the sailor’s life had been extolled in poem and song. Cousteau showed us that things were far more alluring under the ship.

From ScubaBoard

Following a description of the new Cousteau book, one reader of scubaboard wrote:

When I am finished, the book will share a spot on the bookshelf with the bios of other adventurers and ocean people such as Farley Mowat, Scott Carpenter, Francis Drake, Captain Cook, Willard Bascom (The Crest of the Wave), and Tristan Jones (Wayward Sailor). All acheived things heroic and all were humanly flawed…Defintely worth buying for anyone interested in this ocean icon.

Early reviews

Here are some of the blurbs on my new book, Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King.

“Like the subject of this book, Brad Matsen has found his true milieu; the deep ocean. Now he brings his very special brilliance to illuminate the undersea world of Jacques Cousteau. He has done a masterful job in this much-needed, revealing biography of the ocean’s most illustrious adventurer, filmmaker, conservationist, and advocate.”

—Richard Ellis, author of Tuna: A Love Story and On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear

“Jacques Cousteau was a genius who became an icon that became a legend. His legacy continues every time anyone dons a scuba tank, or even thinks of an undersea image. Matsen’s book, perfect for beachside or bedside, is a worthy chronicle of a truly whale-sized life.”
—Carl Safina, president and cofounder of the Blue Ocean Institute

“A marvelous story. Matsen’s biography made me realize I knew almost nothing about the incredible inventor, scientist, businessman, explorer, and environmentalist that was Jacques Cousteau. I owe my career as a professional diver to him. Undoubtedly, this biography will inspire a new generation of divers to take to the water.”
—John Chatterton, celebrated scuba diver and cohost of the television series Deep Sea Detectives

“I have looked into the sea all my life, and Cousteau has always been there, leading and guiding my journey. But the heroic image of the French explorer who informed, enlightened, and entertained us was as mysterious as the depths he plumbed. Now Brad Matsen shines light on the man behind the icon. A fascinating exploration of a true legend of the sea!”
—Richie Kohler, celebrated scuba diver and cohost of the television series Deep Sea Detectives

Cousteau is on facebook

Almost 36 thousand fans have signed up on the main Cousteau page on facebook. An editor friend has also started a discussion thread there asking for people’s stories about the man. As I was researching the book, and in my travels promoting it, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many people have Cousteau stories to share—everything from personal encounters to how he inspired them. At a reading in my home town, a woman told a story about her son, an airline steward, talking for hours with Jacques on a long flight. Didn’t hurt that she bought my book for her son as a Christmas present.


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