Today’s selection:

The Silent World

by Captain J.Y. Cousteau

Plot: French naval officer Cousteau co-invents the aqualung, then proceeds to use it for a series of stunts resembling a post-WWII version of Jackass.

Review: These days, if you’re old enough to remember Jacques Cousteau at all, you probably picture him as the bird-like Frenchman in the red touque who used to come on the television all the time as the host/raison-d’etre of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. On the show, which I never missed, he always seemed somewhat old, undernourished and frail; he rarely dived with his younger, infinitely more athletic crew, preferring to lend his mellifluous, world-weary voice to narration and to point at things in the water from the deck of the Calypso. It made me wonder—how did this guy get to be the King of the Undersea?

The Silent World, Cousteau’s first book (published in 1953), settles this question more than adequately, and shows a side of Cousteau I never knew existed. Because in the process of becoming an explorer, filmmaker, defender of the environment and quasi-scientist, Cousteau was one stone-crazy mother. After inventing the aqualung  with Emile Gangan in 1943, he was quickly put to work by the allies doing, er, wartime stuff. Whether testing the effects of hand grenades underwater, recovering dead pilots and errant sea mines, or catching live torpedos on film, Cousteau was all up in it. After the war, he continued to push the limits of the new invention, setting depth records when nobody knew how deep was too deep, straddling gasoline-filled bathyspheres, and exploring the limits of shark harassment.

Let me warn you up front: This is not the Jacques Cousteau known to millions through television, the one who frets over baby sea turtles. That would come years later. Here, Cousteau and his alarmingly trigger-happy partner Frederick “Didi” Dumas are not above harpooning a dolphin and dissecting it right there on deck. And while he explicitly warns us about the dangers of nitrogen narcosis—‘rapture of the deep’—you can tell he kind of digs it.

But through all the death-defying anecdotes, what really endures is his ability to bring the submarine world to life through words. At a time when underwater photography was crude at best (as the pictures in this book attest), we’re fortunate that the first unofficial aquanaut was an exceptionally gifted writer. Take this passage (translated by Cousteau himself), and see if it doesn’t evoke experiences from EO:

Fifty feet down off Brava we discovered a large tunnel which passed completely through a small island. In the dark interior, one could look back reassuringly at the emerald glow of the entrance, swim on through shafts of silvery light falling from portholes in the rock above, and turn a corner to find the inviting green of the sea at the far exit. The cave entrances were exuberant with bright silver-blue fish, as animated as a wedding party…Here they gathered by the hundreds in a glittering mass circling in the shadows. They were quite excited by the invasion of the divers, and gathered around us reprovingly, like guests at a genteel reception glaring at uninvited drunks.

The Silent World is a plunge into the bare-chested world of scuba diving in its infancy and an early dispatch from a newly opened frontier, with Cousteau as both its fearless correspondent and erudite host. It comes highly recommened.