Friday, August 13, 2010


by Wade Doak

1986: A telegram sent me winging south to Wellington.  Invitation to the Beehive.  Lunch with the P.M. and Captain Jacques Cousteau.  There I was at table in the wood-panelled ministerial dining-room, on the right of David Lange and facing a living legend - the man who launched the age of undersea exploring, a dapper, vivacious, 76-year-old Frenchman, in New Zealand on a two-day reconnaissance foray for the Cousteau Foundation.

“These days,” he said, “I spend most of my life with a valise in my hand, flying around the globe in aeroplanes.”  He was here to prepare the way for the Cousteau fleet - Calypso, the 1942 wooden minesweeper, with its submarine on the stern, and Alcyone, the radical new windship.  Already his organisation had been contacting diving clubs and scientists, offering to assist in any projects where the most advanced of diving facilities might be appropriate.

All my diving life Cousteau has been my hero.  I even learnt to speak French in hope of one day joining Calypso.  Voyaging with Dr Walt Starck on his undersea research vessel El Torito was the next best thing.  For our fifties Christchurch group: Kelly Tarlton, Keith Gordon, Rob Davy, Wyn Christie et al., The Silent World was our bible - as it was for divers all the world over. 

But then, negative stories began to accumulate as the result of foul ups on Cousteau expeditions.  No doubt some were true.  Folk even suggested that Cousteau was just a showman !  Did my hero really have fins of clay ?  Had I been conned ?  I needed to know...

At David Lange’s table gradually Cousteau began to unfold his plans for New Zealand.  In Florida the ancient Calypso had just been completely refitted.  Alcyone, the windship, had crossed the Atlantic assisted by her 21st - century tubular turbosails.  When Cousteau berthed at New York, shipping interests awaited him on the docks, eager to purchase patent rights to his wind-powered system that could save millions of tonnes of fuel oil next century.  For months in the US the Cousteau Foundation had been preparing its forthcoming global, three-year project, a scientific programme and film series titled “Rediscovering the Planet”.

“Everything is connected,” said Cousteau.  He told us a story of the bald eagle.  America’s most treasured of birds is doomed.  Huge efforts were being made to save it.  The eagle was dying of lead poisoning.  Along the Mississippi it eats the carcasses of ducks.  Duck-shooters’ pellets indirectly endangered the eagle. 

Every day, Cousteau asserted, people busy themselves razing mountains, diverting rivers, draining marshes, exhausting natural resources and extinguishing other species.  The Cousteau Foundation had decided to use its scientist teams, its ships and access to media in the coming years to undertake a vast inquiry, to accumulate proofs of the pillage of our planet and to identify also the reasons for hope.  And the kick-off would be in New Zealand!

“What resources of old film do you have?” Cousteau asked our Prime Minister.  He explained how his team wanted to look at New Zealand as an island world where the advent of humans caused immense destruction.  He hoped to document this from our archives - the decimation of our whales and seals and birds and the felling of our native forests.  I recalled that there were once so many right whales in Wellington harbour that settlers complained to the Governor.  Their noise at night kept them awake !

But nuclear - free New Zealand gave the Cousteau people hope; here they saw the beginning of the “roll back” and they wanted to document how New Zealanders were changing their attitudes towards the environment.  Here we have no imported pollution, no borders with other countries.  A small, well-integrated population has the chance to give the world a lead.  David Lange pointed out that conservationists were once a minority in opposing the might of developers, but these days the shoe is on the other foot and developers are worried.

Cousteau talked about Cuba.  All over the world fishing fleets have been concentrating their efforts on fish spawning grounds at exactly the times of the year when they should refrain from fishing.

Ignorant, short-sighted entrepreneurs have devastated fisheries in Newfoundland and the North Sea - cod, sardines, salmon, halibut.  The global catch is declining, despite efforts to inflate the figures with inedible catches such as antarctic krill, used mainly as animal feed.  But in Cuba the state had forbidden all fishing on spawning grounds.  Cuba is the only place in the world where fish production is increasing.

“Surely we can manage this in democracies too,”  Cousteau challenged.  “But how do we do it?”

I suggested that it’s really a matter of communication.  The political process depends on people understanding what is going on.  The Cousteau films would help.

As we discussed the ecology of Antarctica I learnt that my hero truly did have a vast knowledge of global ecology.  He referred to the plunder of Antarctic krill by giant Russian factory ships - mostly to feed mink for fur coats.

“While in the Antarctic,” said Cousteau, “all my team tried eating krill.  It gave all of them diarrhoea.”

“That wouldn’t worry the Russians”, quipped the Prime Minister.  “They’re used to the Trots”.  The table roared but the wicked pun was lost on Jacques. 

Krill is not a food for the hungry world.  It contains toxins from dinoflagelates:  single-celled algae that cause the “red tide”.  The Japanese and Russians are developing expensive chemical techniques to remove these toxins, but krill paste is a luxury food.

Cousteau did not propose a “hands-off nature” policy.  Instead his foundation had launched Ecotech, a new triangular science which encompasses economics, ecology and technology.  At several universities it endowed chairs of Ecotechnics which must be held by professors from three disciplines.

Ecology and economics come from the same Greek word - oikos ,  the house.  Cousteau said:  “These disciplines should complement each other and share the same goal: to develop the art of managing our earth, the water planet, for the survival of all living forms.  Both sciences can do little without the help of technology, and technology goes wild without economical and ecological controls.”  With these three disciplines Cousteau hoped we might find antidotes to most of the problems inherent in development and progress.

In 1973 Jacques Cousteau wrote:  “Somewhere there must be a few thousand men and women who share with me a deep concern for the future of life on our planet Earth...who want to know what the sea means to mankind and who want to help spread that knowledge.”

For me and for many divers around the world, those words have been a lifetime clarion call.  “Otherwise,” Cousteau added in later years, “we’re writing  blank checks on future generations.”

As I post this story  a quarter century later I reflect: what has changed since then? How much of the vision of this man has ben left to  those who follow to achieve?  The work of Cousteau can be seen as a challenge. It must not be forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Wade. Everyone should watch the documentaries that resulted from these efforts. Messages that are even more pertinent to NZ now.