Rendezvous with a Diving Pioneer

By Jean-Michel Cousteau

Rendezvous with a Diving Pioneer Rendezvous with a Diving Pioneer By Jean-Michel Cousteau Recently I had an unexpected encounter with one of the pioneers of undersea exploration-Jacques Piccard. It was in Switzerland, where I was helping to launch a new line of dive watches. I scanned a long list of invited guests, smiling frequently as well-known names conjured happy images in my mind. Then I saw "Piccard." I was a little stunned. Although our fathers, Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Auguste Piccard, had collaborated often and well in the late 1940s, we had known one another only in passing. I am ten years younger than Jacques Piccard and was only 21 or so when he and Don Walsh stunned the world by descending more than 35,000 feet into the Marianas Trench in the bathyscaphe, Trieste, in 1960. They entered a portion of our water planet that had never before been visited by human beings.

I was immensely impressed by that event and still am. Unlike jet airplane or space travel, trips to the ocean floor are remarkable and rare, even today. But here he was, well more than six feet tall and smiling a familiar smile as he shook my hand. We talked a bit and he invited me for a ride in his private submarine in Lake Geneva. By a curious coincidence, I had run into Don Walsh just a month before, at the White House National Oceans Conference in Monterey, California. I smiled at the association and immediately agreed to visit Piccard the next day.

Piccard is now 70 years old, white-haired but still robust and enthusiastic. He leases his small three person submarine, the Forel, to a laboratory on the French side of the lake. The lab performs environment surveys of water quality and fish habitat. When not used for scientific purposes, the sub takes tourists for the dive of a lifetime.

The Forel is cozy but not cramped. There is a viewing bubble in the nose and one in the main hatch. After being guided out of the marina and along the shore, the pilot steered out into the lake and then descended like an elevator. Gradually, the light dimmed and the bright alpine world disappeared. Cold, dark and bereft of currents, the lake is not exactly an undersea treasure trove of biodiversity, but a few fish species do live here and several specimens observed our descent with typical Swiss reserve.

The pilot took his bearings and stopped at 220 feet, at the edge of a submarine cliff. He guided the sub along the cliff and then allowed the Forel to drift upward. Suddenly, resting on the last bit of sloping bottom before the gloomy abyss, lay a shipwreck. L'Hirondelle was a side-wheeler that sank in a storm in 1863. The wheelhouse, with its square, sashed windows, was filled to the sills with fine sediment. The pilot's precision maneuvering brought us within inches of the finely carved bowsprit, past elegant brass fittings and up along the main mast. At the top of the mast was a humorous surprise: a Christmas tree, affixed by members of the local dive club.

Then it was back to the surface-in the middle of Europe. Piccard smiled at the look on my face, which was one of pure delight. L'Hirondelle is not the greatest marvel I have ever seen, but something about the dive will always stay with me. And I think I know what it might be.

The entire afternoon rekindled in me a thrill for the days of my youth, when history was being made on my father's toolbench and in the cluttered workshops of family friends. I recalled the conversations about the physiology of diving between my father and Auguste Piccard, famed at that time as a balloonist who held altitude records of more than 30,000 feet. I remembered the original bathyscaphe, which was actually a metal balloon filled with non-compressible gasoline, from which a diving sphere was suspended. (In The Silent World, my father called it the "submarine dirigible.") I resurrected tales of the trip to West Africa, where the bathyscaphe reached 4,600 feet. And I remembered a tennis match with my father during which he broke his foot. It was a few days before he was scheduled to descend in the bathyscaphe. I felt bad but not for long, because in the end he did descend, cast and all!

But more than all this I remember the sense of awakening, of new frontiers. Seeing Jacques Piccard again, after all these years, I saw a man who made history but who is still as passionate and as curious about the sea as when he first stepped into the bathyscaphe.

It is sad that many divers today are unaware of the accomplishments of people such as Piccard and Don Walsh or even that they existed. Oblivion is a deeper and colder place than the Marianas Trench. It is also sad because the story of diving is still being written and if we don't remember the great achievements, we will lose the continuity that makes each dive more than just a dip in the lake but a true adventure and another step toward understanding our marine world.

An entire generation has grown up with the television series, Star Trek, inspired by the voyages of a captain named, by no coincidence, Piccard. These children dream, as the real Piccard did, of going where no human has ever been before. They may never reach the "Gamma Quadrant," but the sea lies at their doorstep, waiting to be explored-and that's what diving is all about.