“Adventures with Cousteau and the crew of the Calypso” was the title of Richard Hyman’s talk last week and we were left reflecting on what a wonderful experience it must have been for a young man of 19.
Cousteau was in serious financial difficulties in the early ‘70s and Hyman’s father was recruited to reorganize and save the enterprise. This led to Richard’s introduction to Cousteau and, having just left high school, he was hired to drive from Los Angles to Saskatchewan, accompanied by a young Frenchman which amounted to a crash course for him in the French language. There, in 1973, at Foster Lake, the Cousteau team built a camp site, shortly after which Hyman left for college.
Later, when he joined the Calypso, Hyman found the experience especially interesting from the social point of view; there were Iranians, Russians and natives from many countries, all living in close quarters. He described, and showed photographs of, life on board. Conditions were fairly cramped as the boat was only 139 feet long and 25 feet across in which 27 men were accommodated plus Simone, Cousteau’s wife, who was referred to as the “shepherdess”.
His first voyage was in the winter of 1974-5 when they went to Isla Contoy in Mexico, located at the confluence of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf. There they intended to study and film the annual migration of the spiny lobster. He described how the lobsters marched in single file up to 20 in line – a practice that made it easy for the fishermen to haul them in and then live off the proceeds from the harvest for the remainder of the year. Cousteau and his team camped on the island and dived every day but filming was not successful because the waters were too murky.
The team moved on to Belize to film coral reefs and the spawning of the giant grouper that could grow up to 3 feet in length. Thousands of the fish assembled annually and again huge hauls were taken by the local fishermen. John Denver joined the ship, having flown down in his own plane, and spent several days on Calypso where he participated in the daily activities and entertained the crew in the evenings with his music.
According to Hyman, Cousteau had been criticized for representing himself as a scientist but in reality he never did; he was committed to the maritime environment and he brought many scientists on board to help with his endeavors.
One of Hyman’s most memorable experiences was diving to find the USS Monitor that sank while being towed off Cape Hatteras. They had to dive down 230 feet using site scan sonar that Cousteau had developed. Diving at such depths was quite dangerous. They also undertook dives in St Pierre, Martinique that had been decimated by a massive eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902. Besides the loss of life, many ships had gone down and thus the area had become an excellent dive site.
Hyman ended with a slide show set to the music of John Denver and featuring his song, “Aye Calypso”.
In Q and A, Hyman was asked: What was their most unusual find? He replied that rather than a find, the most memorable experience was the dive at 230 Feet. How long had he stayed down? 25 minutes on the bottom with a 17 foot tiger shark for company, although he had not seen it. Combating a 3 knot current, this was, he said, reckless diving.
Was the Calypso still in existence? It sunk in an accident in 1996 but was raised and towed to France. Cousteau’s son Jean Michel had tried to restore it but had run out of money. It was currently in dry dock in France.
This was an interesting look at a maritime legend from a student’s perspective. On the Peter Knight scale of 1-10, the presentation scored a 7 that could have been improved perhaps with more colourful descriptions of Cousteau, such a multi faceted man.