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Perilous Passage through the Coral Maze

Submitted by Nigel Bernard on Thu, 08/27/2020 - 21:34

Jacques-Yves Cousteau and the Exploration of the Blue Hole

Story 12 in the nonfiction serial, Into Danger with the Adventurers - Twelve Epic Lives of the Twentieth Century

Part One

Jacques Cousteau stood on the bridge of his research ship, Calypso, and looked north across Lighthouse Reef. There was coral reef stretching out as far as the eye could see. He knew what he was planning to do was dangerous. Many sailing experts would say it was foolhardy. But it was the only way to get Calypso to the mysterious Blue Hole. From the air this great cavern looks like an eye. It is a near-perfect circle, 300 metres across, staring menacingly in the middle of the lighter coloured water around it. Jacques could easily get there in a smaller boat, but he needed to get all the diving equipment to the hole. Without them he and his crew would not be able to explore its mysterious depths. 

Between Calypso and the Blue Hole were several kilometres of shallow waters. And in these waters, sometimes breaking the surface, were the coral formations. These are living things which could rip a hole in the side of a ship. In the past few days the men had found a channel which the Calypso could follow to get to the hole. It was like finding a way through a maze. They had marked it with over thirty buoys, red ones on the left and yellow on the right. They had drawn a chart with each of these buoys clearly marked. They had used radar to pinpoint the exact location of each buoy.

Jacques gave the order for Calypso to enter the channel. Two boats set out in front and a helicopter flew overhead. They raised the anchor and Calypso started to inch its way forward. The channel would not be easy to follow. It was over ten kilometres long and the ship would have to make two sharp turns, one after another. But there was no going back now.

Some men on Calypso stood at the front, or bow, of the ship to spot any danger. Below the surface at the bow, the ship had a small observation chamber in which a man was able to see what lay ahead. He radioed up to the bridge that there was nothing but sand and shells - so far so good. But after three kilometres, the water became even shallower. And coral could be seen pointing up through the sand. Jacques ordered the man in the observation chamber to get out. If the ship collided with a coral formation he could be crushed. Before he left the man put a video camera in place which could send pictures up to the bridge. He then climbed up a tube and onto the deck.

Jacques could see the coral just below the surface. The channel was getting narrower and narrower and the camera showed they were barely sixty centimetres above the bottom. Now came the tight double turn to avoid a huge coral formation. But as the ship turned, Jacques realized they were not turning sharply enough. Then the whole ship juddered and came to a halt. The men on the bridge looked at each other nervously. Was the wooden hull pierced?  Even if the hull was intact, they were now stuck in shallow water surrounded by razor sharp coral.  If a storm came they would be helpless. Calypso was in big trouble.

Part Two

Jacques-Yves Cousteau was born in 1910 in Saint-André-de-Cubzac, a small town in France. He spent most of his early years in Paris. His father had trained to be a lawyer and was an expert in law and finance. He got a very good job working for an American millionaire. He was a kind of secretary and also gave the millionaire financial advice. This job involved a lot of travelling abroad. The whole family, including Jacques and his older brother, Pierre-Antoine, would go with him. This sounds exciting but Jacques was not very healthy. He had a disease called chronic enteritis which made his stomach very sore. He was very thin and often felt unwell. All the travelling just made things worse. So his mother travelled less and spent more time in Paris. One thing which Jacques enjoyed from an early age was swimming. This made him feel better, but the doctors said he should not exercise.

In 1918, his father began working for another rich man called Eugene Higgins. Mr Higgins was a good boss and he showed concern for Jacques. He was very keen on keeping fit. He was horrified when Jacques’s father told him that the doctors said Jacques should not exercise. Mr Higgins said that exercise would make Jacques feel better. Mr Higgins encouraged Jacques to swim and this soon made him feel much better.

Mr Higgins needed Jacques’s father to come to America and in 1920 the Cousteau family moved to New York. This was an exciting adventure for ten-year-old Jacques. He went to school there and was soon able to speak English. During the school holidays he went to a summer camp in Vermont, a state in the far northeast of America. He was always misbehaving and he was given an unusual punishment. He was told to go to the lake used for swimming and get rid of the dead branches which were lying underwater beneath the diving board. But Jacques did not think this was punishment. Even though the water was dirty and he had no goggles, he enjoyed going underwater to see how long he could hold his breath. His fascination for underwater exploration had begun. 

In 1922 the Cousteau family returned to France. Around this time, Jacques began taking an interest in making films. In those days films were a very new thing and not many people had a camera. But he saved up his money and bought a movie camera and started making short films. Jacques was still misbehaving and he did not like schoolwork so his parents sent him to a much stricter school. He started to work hard and enjoy his studies

After he left school he joined the French navy. He travelled to many different parts of the world, such as Bali, Japan and Vietnam. He always had his movie camera with him and filmed wherever he went. In 1935 he started training to be a pilot but he had a bad car accident and his right arm was permanently weakened. He would be unable to fly again. When he had recovered from his accident he was made a navy Lieutenant and was transferred to Toulon as a gunnery instructor. He became friends with another Lieutenant, Philippe Tailliez. In their spare time they went on trips along the coast with a local man, known as Didi, who had a boat. They would try diving without any equipment to see how deep they could get. Jacques managed to get down to fifty metres. But he could only hold his breath for so long and his eyes would sting from the salty water. In those days the main way a diver could breathe underwater was by wearing a big diving suit with a tube running up to a ship to supply air. But Jacques wanted to swim freely. His first idea was to use goggles. This might seem obvious to us now but nobody had invented goggles for diving. To begin with, Jacques and his two friends used the same goggles that pilots used when flying in an open cockpit.

During the Second World War, which began in 1939, Germany invaded France and the French military were forced to cooperate with the Germans. Jacques still worked for the French navy but he was secretly against the Germans. He belonged to the French Resistance. At night he would spy on the Germans and sabotage their equipment. But he didn’t give up his love of swimming underwater. He persuaded the French navy to let him continue his work on designing a device for breathing underwater.

Jacques then met a man called Emile Gagnan. He had designed a special type of valve for car engines.  Jacques thought this valve could be adapted for diving. They invented a piece of equipment called the Aqua Lung, which means water lung. Later it was called a Self-contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus which is where the word scuba comes from. Jacques could now swim freely underwater.

He marvelled at the colours of the fish and the sea plants. He was determined to film underwater, but nobody had tried this before. There was no such thing as an underwater camera. So Jacques had to make his own. He bought a normal movie camera and built a waterproof box to put it in. Because it was wartime there was no movie film available so he had to painstakingly tape together rolls of film designed for taking still shots. His first film was called 18 Meters Down and after the war it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival.

After the war Jacques was allowed by the navy to set up the Undersea Research Group, a team to develop diving. But their first job was to clear the coast of explosive mines leftover from the war. It was very dangerous work and Jacques and his team had some narrow escapes. He also kept making underwater films including one which showed a submarine launching a torpedo.

In 1947 Jacques organized an experiment to find out how deep a person could safely dive. When breathing air under pressure gases such as nitrogen, can be harmful. The effects are very similar to the effects of alcohol. A person becomes overconfident and sleepy and this can lead to silly mistakes. On one particular dive, a diver called Maurice Fargues tried to dive deeper than anybody else. Every so often he would pull his safety rope to let people know he was all right. But then the tugs stopped. They began pulling him to the surface and a diver went down to meet him. He found him with his mouthpiece out. They spent many hours trying to revive him, but it was hopeless. Fargues had drowned. He had reached a depth of 120 metres, but from then on Jacques would not allow dives lower than ninety metres.

Jacques realized that to explore the oceans he needed to have his own ship. He contacted a wealthy friend who agreed to help him buy one. The father of his wife, Simone, who he had married in 1937, also gave him some money. Eventually he found just the boat he was looking for. It was a British minesweeper from the Second World War. Minesweepers are very strong and are easy to manoeuvre. It was the ideal boat for sailing out to sea, but also working near the coast where there might be dangerous rocks or reefs. The ship was docked in the Mediterranean island of Malta and it was called Calypso. For the next year he worked on the ship making it ready. He added an observation platform so that they could see further out to sea and he attached a tiny underwater chamber to the bow of the ship. This was just big enough for a man to lie down in and look out through a porthole.

By 1951 the Calypso was ready and Jacques was eager to begin his explorations. To get funding for his expeditions, Jacques went to America and asked the renown National Geographic Society for their backing. They agreed to help pay for his explorations. In 1953 he and his friend Didi Dumas wrote a book about underwater exploration, called The Silent World. This was a bestseller and it made him famous. He later made a documentary film of the book which won an Academy Award. During the 1950s and 1960s he went on many expeditions and he made numerous films.  In 1964 he won another Academy Award for a film called World Without Sun. In April 1966 he signed an eight-year deal with the American television company, ABC, to produce a series of one-hour specials for television. The programmes would convey the adventure and danger of underwater exploration and bring the wonders of the deep into the living rooms of millions of viewers. 

In early 1970, Calypso sailed from the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific and through the Panama Canal into the Caribbean Sea. After a stop in Belize, she headed to Lighthouse Reef for Jacques to reconnoitre the area. The crew then took Calypso to New Orleans for repairs to the observation chamber which had been damaged by a rock in the Galapagos Islands. A month later Calypso returned to Lighthouse Reef to begin the perilous journey through the coral maze. 

Part Three

The ship was stationary and silent. Jacques needed to know as soon as possible if the hull was badly damaged. There were no reports from the crew that water was coming into the ship. That was a good sign. Jacques ordered divers to go into the water and inspect the hull. They found that the hull was intact. The only damage was some scratched paintwork. Calypso had come to rest on a sandbank. Thankfully there was no coral near the ship. But she was still grounded. How were they going to get her off? 

One possible option was to make use of the tide. But the tide was already high. They had deliberately waited for high tide before sailing through the channel to give themselves as much clearance as possible. The water was not going to get any higher. If anything it would go down and they would be jammed even more on the sandbank.

Jacques had to act fast. To stop the ship from drifting further forward onto the sand an emergency anchor was dropped at the stern, or rear, of the ship. It was let down on a chain which was wound round a winch, or windlass.  Meanwhile, the small boats came round to the port, or left side of the ship, and began to nudge it gently. Finally, Jacques ordered that the engines be put into reverse. Slowly but surely the ship slid backwards and sideways off the bank. The water foamed and gurgled as Calypso freed itself from the sand and floated again. The bridge radioed the engine room with the good news. The engines were taken out of reverse and they were on their way again.  

The crew strained their eyes even more on the way ahead. They could not afford another accident. Next time it could be the coral itself they hit. There were now only a few buoys left to pass. According to the chart they were only a few hundred metres away from the Blue Hole. But all they could see was the light blue sea and protruding coral. They reached the last buoy and then they noticed that the water ahead was darker. It was not black, but indigo, a deep blue. With great relief they had left the coral behind. They passed over a thin slither of sand visible beneath the surface. After this, the bottom fell away, forming a deep cliff which formed the sides of the cavern. When they looked down now, all they could see was water. They had reached the Blue Hole.

The cavern was too deep to drop an anchor. To make Calypso stable, the crew secured steel cables to coral at the edge of the hole. Then they began to unload the equipment they would need to explore the cavern. This included mini submarines, or minisubs, and underwater scooters. According to legends there were sea monsters lurking in the depths of the cavern. It was also said that any ship which ventured onto the waters would be swallowed up and never seen again. It was time to see if these legends were true.

Part Four

There were no monsters but the divers did discover vaults and smaller caverns in the steep walls of the Blue Hole. Large stalactites hung from the roof of these vaults. Stalactites do not form underwater so Jacques thought that at some time in the past these vaults had been above the level of the sea. They found one stalactite which had fallen. It was about twelve metres long but they managed to haul it to the surface using chains and a winch.

Two divers in minisubs eventually reached the bottom of the hole, 120 metres below the surface. But it was dangerous work. One day, a minisub’s engine failed and it got trapped in mud. The diver inside only managed to free it by rocking the minisub back and forth. On another occasion a diver lost consciousness whilst lugging heavy electric cables. He had to be helped to the surface where, thankfully, he made a full recovery. As well as the dangers underwater there was always the risk a storm would loose Calypso from her moorings and throw her against the coral. After two months Jacques decided it was time to leave the Blue Hole and move into safer waters.  They left as carefully as they had come in, but this time without running aground.

In the coming years Jacques continued to explore the oceans of the world. He made several more television series about his adventures. In 1973 he set up the Cousteau Society, which still exists today. It aims to teach people about the importance of protecting life in both the sea and freshwater systems such as rivers and lakes. Jacques had two sons, Jean-Michel and Philippe, who both helped him with his work. Philippe had a good business mind and looked after the financial affairs of the expeditions. But in 1979 he was onboard the Flying Calypso, a seaplane, when it crashed.  He was killed and Jacques was devastated. But Jean-Michel promised to support and help his father and Jacques was able to continue with his work.

In January 1996 Calypso was docked in the port of Singapore. The crew were preparing to go on an expedition along the Yellow River in China. Then, one afternoon a barge accidentally slammed into the side of Calypso. Her hull was perforated and she keeled over and sank. It took over two weeks to raise her. She was eventually towed back to a dockyard in France, but she has not sailed since. 

The following year Jacques died in his home in Paris. During his life he received many awards such as the National Geographic Society’s Gold Medal in 1961 and the Medal of Freedom, given to him by the American President, Ronald Reagan, in 1985. He was recognized as a world expert on the oceans. He had increased man’s knowledge of the sea and he had also improved the equipment used by divers. But perhaps the most important thing he had done was to make underwater films for television so that millions of people could see for themselves what it is like in the silent world beneath the waves.


A particularly helpful source was:

Cousteau, J. and Diolé, P. (1973) Galápagos-Titicaca-The Blue Holes- Three Adventures, (London: Cassell).