on a whim, i picked up the jacques cousteau classic the silent world. although he was a native french speaker, he wrote the book in english, and i was shocked at how similar his prose is to the (translated) works i’ve read by antione de sainte-exupery, wind, sand and stars in particular. the story of cousteau and his team, exploring the oceans as the first ‘menfish’ is so captivating; i had never before considered those early days of sea exploration and how little we truly knew about the world beneath the waves.
although cousteau later gained the reputation of a conservationist, in seems many of his undersea experiments involve harming animals out of curiosity. will the shark die if you harpoon its head? why not just harpoon this whale and see how long it takes to die? oh, you’ve discovered a colony of monk seals, a species thought to be extinct for 300 years, so why not kidnap (his own words) a juvenile and raise it for a couple months until you realise how vast its appetite, and then release it to a zoo? although some of the things his team did, such as dissecting manta rays, led to greater scientific understanding of the species, many of the incidents served to highlight the difference in attitudes toward animals then and now.
anyway, that didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the book–i adored it and wished there was more to it, but that’s always the way with a good book.
One Sunday morning in 1936 at Le Mourillon, near Toulon, I waded into the Mediterranean and looked into it through Fernez goggles. I was a regular Navy gunner, a good swimmer interested only in perfecting my crawl style. The sea was merely a salty obstacle that burned my eyes. I was astounded by what I saw in the shallow single at Le Mourillon, rocks covered with green, brown and silver forests of algae and fishes unknown to me, swimming in crystalline water. Standing up to breathe I saw a trolley car, people, electric-light poles. I put my eyes under again and civilization vanished with one last bow. I was in a jungle never seen by those who floated on the opaque roof.
Sometimes we are lucky enough to know that our lives have been changed, to discard the old, embrace the new, and run headlong down an immutable course. It happened to me at Le Mourillon on that summer’s day, when my eyes were opened on the sea.