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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Friday
Dec142012

« In Which We Descend Into Homo Aquaticus »

Habitat Jones

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Since eventually the lands of Earth will be subsumed by the rising tides of the planet, it is imperative we learn to live completely underwater. A lot of things are better underwater. Synagogue services are only twenty minutes, for example, and imitating Lord Grantham isn't as bougie. Other aspects are less appealing: no smoke breaks, movies by Ridley Scott just feel claustrophobic, and it's impossible to read Jules Verne without marvelling at his naivete. What is certain is that mankind will be irrevocably altered by this sea change. Jacques-Yves Cousteau termed this new species homo aquaticus, and made a mock dictionary definition of the phrase with a picture of Andrew Sullivan swimming the butterfly.

JYC and Simone with their pet dachshund

"In ten years," Cousteau said in 1962, "there will be permanent homes and workshops at the bottom of the sea where men can stay for three months at a time, mining, drilling for oil, coal, tin, other minerals, and farming seafood and raising sea cattle." The Captain, as he was often called, was a fervent believer in stock farming, and he equipped his flagship Calypso with massive explosives to lay the groundwork for underwater mining until his conscience got the better of him.

That year Cousteau launched a livable capsule that held two members of his team in a project called Conshelf I. The long hours were relieved by radio and television relayed from the surface, and the capsule even featured the ability to provide long, hot showers. Great care was taken to ensure that Albert Falco and Claude Wesly had every comfort in their new underwater home.

the DiogenesFalco suffered terrible nightmares in the Diogenes. When he closed his eyes, he imagined a hand coming to strangle in him in his sleep. The merest indignity because a horrible nuisance; when divers came to maintain the habitat he called them "surface people" and berated them for stirring up a murky haze that obscured the view from his "home." In his diary he moaned, "We are sentenced to remain underwater for a week!"

After Cousteau ordered the divers to avoid disturbing the homo aquaticus, Falco mellowed to the experience. When he returned to land after a mere ten days, Cousteau asked his colleague what exactly it had been like down there as they strolled the streets of Marseilles. "Oh Captain," he responded, "everything is moral down there."

Above the Diogenes, things were decidly immoral. Cousteau provoked the animals of the sea constantly to get the reactions he desired for his underwater films. The Calypso would tear through assemblages of sharks, whales and dolphins to torment the poor beasts into savagery, creating an innate fear of humans that was generally spread by word of mouth. Once an imprisoned octopus (Cousteau had commented that he hoped the creature "would accept its situation") lifted up his aquarium cover and marched back into the ocean. The crew nearly killed many of the dolphins of Monaco when they tried to capture them, not realizing they were markedly different from the more docile dolphins of the Americas. Another time, Cousteau tried to tame a three ton elephant seal. If the animals survived the capture, Cousteau named them.

Cousteau never sat still. His relentless energy is a distinctive quality of all achievers. It bears little to no relation to his own intelligence or the merits of his ideas, only to the likelihood of their accomplishment.

Near the end of 1962, Cousteau addressed the so-called World Congress on Underwater Activities. He argued for the existence of homo aquaticus and informed the group that by the year 2000, people would be born and die at the bottom of the ocean. His next experiment, Conshelf II, placed five men in a star-shaped base at the bottom of the Red Sea, at a cost of $1.2 million. The only way he could afford to fund the research was to sign a movie contract.

They called this second capsule Starfish House. For the ten men inside the air conditioned structure, all was peaceful and idyllic, and the television was nearly always on. The habitat contained quarters for eight men, a kitchen and dining table, a biological laboratory and a dark room. For the massive team on the utility ship Rosaldo and the Calypso, the calm beneath the sea required round-the-clock work in temperatures of more than 100 degrees, as delays had postponed the experiment into the summer though it had been designed to take place in March.

Most of the photography was done at night, when temperatures were cooler and tropical waters flooded with a variety of species. A nasty pack of seventy sharks tormented the crew from the first days of filming, and several close encounters with the beasts nearly killed an inexperienced diver. Given these handicaps, Cousteau's record of preserving the lives of his crew is regarded as sterling considering just how many dives they made.

Of greater concern was the house's deep cabin, which mysteriously kept flooding despite the ideal pressure of oxygen and helium in the unit. The team eventually figured out that helium was seeping out of the habitat through the television cable. The documentary about Starfish House, entitled World Without Sun, won an Academy Award.

emerging from Conshelf III live on EurovisionFor their third experiment in underwater living, Cousteau submerged a globe seven meters in diameter at nine times the depth of Starfish House. On the other side of the planet the U.S. Navy was testing its own venture in underwater living, Sealab II, and the two groups were linked by telephone. The U.S. government experiment entailed aquanaut/astronaut Scott Carpenter confined below for an entire month. Easing his time was a bottlenose dolphin named Tuffy who had been trained to bring supplies to the unit.

The environment aboard Conshelf III was no less lavish. Aquanauts consumed wine and cheese at their leisure, fresh fruit was an absolute mainstay. Cousteau and his wife Simone even celebrated their 26th wedding anniversary in the habitat. Conshelf III launched Cousteau deeply into debt, and the next project, planned as a 300-ton ten man sub that would operate at a depth of 700 meters never materialized. In Cousteau's mind, it would have been the first step to an underwater Disneyland.

The $4.2m deal Cousteau signed with ABC to create a series of television specials marked the end of his serious research. Governments also were turning away from the oceans and focusing on the possibilities of space. Both refuges afforded a measure of distance from reality. It would feel like a relief, on some level, to rid yourself of the landlocked world. The inside of the ocean (for all things contain some penetrable interior, even endless ones) envelops willing participants as a cocoon, and nothing can intrude without permission. It would also be important to have pets.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about the writing of The Lord of the Rings. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

The best way to observe a fish is to become a fish. A shark is no more a killer than the housewife who served bacon at the family's breakfast table.

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