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My Travels with Jacques Cousteau
by W. Sean Chamberlin

Caroon of Jacques Cousteau and crew of Calypso

Ever since I can remember I wanted to be an astronaut. Growing up in Florida, I watched every rocket launch–from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo–rise like a flying skyscraper right over my house. The second stage used to fire up over West Palm Beach and that added an extra thrill to an already captivated mind. Who wouldn’t want to be an astronaut with such pyrotechnics in your own backyard?

My favorite astronaut was John Glenn and when he went into space the first time I wrote him a letter and he sent me back an autographed picture and I was stoked!

One day I brought home one of those elementary school calendars that we all make and on it there was a fill-in-the-blank that said “I want to be ______” and I filled in “astronaut”. I must have been in the 3rd grade or so because that calendar hung there for a while soliciting the following discussion from my parents:

“So, you sure you want to be an astronaut?”

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

“But there’s so many other things to do and it’s pretty dangerous…maybe you should leave your options open.”

“I guess so.”

Well, I wasn’t born yesterday and in so many words I knew that my parents weren’t exactly thrilled with the idea of me traveling in outer space. I got to thinking a little bit and tried to figure out how I was going to pull this off without getting in trouble.

About the time I was 10 years old, an astronaut named Scott Carpenter became involved in ocean exploration. All of the astronauts trained in the ocean anyway because it simulated zero-gravity conditions but Carpenter took it a bit further. The light bulb went off in my head: if an astronaut could become an oceanographer, then an oceanographer could become an astronaut! And so, at the age of ten, I announced that I was going to be an oceanographer.

By that time I was already completely in love with that French man in the red cap aboard that really cool boat with the funny front end and all those scuba guys in space-age wetsuits diving in every place I ever wanted to go. The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau was a legend with me and Jacques Cousteau was my hero (along with John Glenn and Pablo Casals, who filled the #2 and #3 hero spots). I never missed a show and every time I heard that theme music I felt chills up my spine. 

The thrill of those early shows and the absolute reverence I held for the sea as a result never left me. The oceans were the new frontier and I wanted to be a part of it. There was never any doubt in my mind from that moment at ten years old that I would get a PhD in oceanography and become a famous oceanographer. And if somehow, someday, I could make it aboard Calypso, well, then I really must have died and gone to heaven.

Photo of Dale Kiefer aboard Calypso in the South PacificRoll ahead eighteen years to 1984. I am now a graduate student working in the laboratories of Dr. Dale Kiefer (pictured at left) at the University of Southern California (USC). Kiefer has offered me an opportunity to put one of his theories to a field test. He has the idea that the “glow” emitted by the phytoplankton–the microscopic drifting plants in the surface waters of the world ocean–while they photosynthesize–the process that all plants use to capture energy from the sun and turn it into food–might offer a means for measuring how fast these little plants grow. Phytoplankton growth rates are fundamental to understanding the global carbon cycle which is important for figuring out global climate change. And if a reliable optical technique could be developed for measuring photosynthesis, rather than the laborious bottle incubation method, then oceanographers would have a whole new window on phytoplankton and their world, a window that would offer far better insights into their natural physiology and ecology than had ever been realized previously.

The idea is very similar to what we see on Star Trek when Spock uses a tricorder to determine if any life forms are present. We lower an instrument into the water, measure the intensity of the glow and use that information with information on photosynthetic rates to see if there is a relationship. This glow, called natural or solar-induced fluorescence, is simply a byproduct of photosynthesis, where plants absorb carbon and turn it into sugar. The field test is straightforward: make measurements of natural fluorescence and photosynthesis at the same time.

It’s quite simple, in theory, but testing it in the ocean has a few restrictions. Typical measurements of photosynthesis are limited to a few samples at specific depths and can take anywhere from 2 to 12 hours to complete. On the other hand, measurements of natural fluorescence are instantaneous. We can raise and lower the instrument all day or measure at one depth continuously and get tons of data. The problem is that the photosynthesis experiments are stuck in a bottle tied to a line at different depths while the natural fluorescence measurements occur in the natural state of the water, which is constantly in motion from currents and tides. It’s kind of like trying to compare two versions of the same movie, only in one movie, you can only see a couple frames every ten minutes or so. It might be hard to tell that they are the same movie and the same problem faced us in trying to make these field tests.

As destiny would have it, the Vice-President of Science and Education for the Cousteau Society, Dr. Richard Murphy, graduated from USC. He and a fellow graduate student, John Morrow, who also worked in Kiefer’s lab, worked together on Project Ocean Search, an oceanography program in the Caribbean sponsored by the Cousteau Society for school kids . Murphy (or “Murph the Surf” as he was sometimes called, being a southern California surfer dude) heard about our desire to measure ocean photosynthesis using a radically new, cutting-edge technique and offered us a chance to travel aboard Calypso to conduct those experiments. My dreams were staring to come true.

Now I have to pause here for a moment and thank my lucky stars for being such a *lazy* student (okay, I partied a lot, too) as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. I started college there in 1974 and spent five years working on my Bachelors of Arts Degree in oceanography before completing it in 1979. Problem was my grade point average (GPA), a 2.95, wasn’t good enough to get me into graduate school. I took a year off, worked for the Washington State Ferry System, and then went back to school to get a Bachelors of Arts in English, a subject I loved and excelled at, so I could raise my GPA high enough to be accepted into grad school. I wanted that GPA. Two years later, a 3.75 GPA under my belt, I was accepted into USC’s graduate program in biology.

Now if I had come into Kiefer’s lab a couple years earlier (which might have been the case had I been a good student) or if I had come into Kiefer’s lab a few years later (which might have been the case had I wasted away in Margaritaville working for the Ferry System), then I would not have been working in Kiefer’s lab at the precise moment that Richard Murphy walked in and said “Do you want to go on Calypso?”

I think “When does the plane leave?” was our next response. Suffice it to say that all of us were absolutely thrilled (read ecstatic) to have an opportunity to sail aboard one of the most famous research and exploration vessels in the world. I couldn’t believe it. I was going to meet Jacques Cousteau.

There was just one minor problem that had to be solved before I would be allowed to go. It was my hair. According to Murph, the French were a very conservative group of people and they had pretty strong opinions about how people looked, especially on board the Calypso.  At the time I was living in an artist’s loft in downtown Los Angeles, tearing up the pavement on my DogTown Stonefish skateboard, making nightly runs to Al’s bar for beer and poetry, and to complete the image, I  had bleached my shoulder-length brown hair. So what Murph saw was a long-haired, bleach-blond, California skater dude who might be just a little too wild looking for the Calypso sailor’s tastes.

So I cut my hair (unlike Neil Young, who only almost cut his hair). I was willing to compromise my ideals a little (I have very strong opinions about individual freedom of expression) but when I cut it, the tips were still bleached. (Of course, I wasn’t going to shave my head!). It was then that I decided to try another strategy for making my individuality known so  I dyed the tips green. (I probably wouldn’t have thought of this except that my roommate at the time had dyed his hair green earlier and we had some extra green hair dye floating around.)

At our next meeting to prepare for the expedition, which was getting very close to our time of departure in December 1986, Murph informed me in no uncertain terms that the Cousteau people would definitely not like green hair. Now I have to give Murph credit because he was really a good sport about all this. He is wonderfully diplomatic which is probably one reason why he gained such a high position with Cousteau. And it became clear to me that if anyone was worth changing my look for, then it was Jacques Cousteau. He was my #1 hero after all.

So I went to the drug store and picked up a black hair dye and went home to fix my hair. Only I wasn’t that smart about hair dyes and while I didn’t know it at the time, it turns out that the hair dye I had chosen was only a rinse, and as I discovered too late, rinses aren’t permanent.

I flew to Tahiti with Kiefer, Murph and Rocky Booth, the man who developed the optical instrument for measuring natural fluorescence. We arrived at the French Naval Base where Calypso was docked and I entered the world of my dreams. I met Madame Cousteau and Captain Falco and Bertrand Scion and all the divers and cameramen and ship’s personnel who made Calypso work.  Commander Cousteau (as Jacques Cousteau was called on board) was to meet us in New Zealand, our destination, a three-week journey across the South Pacific Ocean.

I had arrived four days prior to departure to prepare our scientific gear and as I worked in the bright Tahitian sun and swam in the warm Tahitian sea, the inevitable happened: my hair started turning green. Not so much at first, but after a couple days those green tips were noticeably peeking out from beneath my fading black hair.

The night before our departure I returned from one of our cultural explorations of the local bars and met Madame Cousteau in the galley. An outspoken woman, she confronted me about my appearance.

“Why do you do that to your hair?” she demanded. “It’s unmanly. You would never catch a French man doing that to his hair?”

I asked her “Why do you wear earrings?”

I told her that colored hair was no different than wearing earrings or any other apparel. I explained that it was just something that guys in California did: colored their hair, wore earrings, that kind of thing.

“It’s just the way we dress,” I tried to explain.

I don’t think she was convinced but at least she didn’t pursue the issue any further. We set sail on the voyage of my life, sailing across the violet-blue waters of the South Pacific, on my way to meet the man I had wanted to meet since childhood.

As we sailed, I got to know the crew quite well. They loved the fact that I tried to speak French to them and the few words I knew impressed them enough to say “You speak French without an accent. Que bon!” The crew of Calypso were magnificent; they were the most helpful and high-spirited crew I have ever sailed with. If you needed something, they went out of their way to get it. If something in the water had a problem, they practically fought for the opportunity to dive in and fix it. These were men of the sea, playful, skilled and dedicated to their work.

Sean Chamberlin at the wheel of Calypso in the South Pacific
Sean Chamberlin and “Mr. Tahiti” at the wheel of Calypso in the South Pacific Ocean.

One of the ordinary seamen on board was a South Pacific Islander who had won the Mr. Tahiti contest and who was named after the island where he was born, which sounded something like Mon Petit, meaning in French “my little one”, something he definitely was not but the crew got a kick out of me calling him that. He was quite the joker and about a week into the cruise he came to me with a bottle of bleach.

“I want to bleach my hair,” he explained. “Then I want to dye it green. Like you.”

When I stopped laughing, I tried to tell him that regular bleach wouldn’t work and even if it did, I didn’t have my green hair dye with me. He asked me then how come my hair kept getting greener. And that’s when I explained to him the tale of my fading black hair, as I had discovered to my horror only a few days after I arrived in Tahiti.

Mr. Tahiti was the first person I told about my hair but soon the whole crew knew the story. They ribbed me constantly and by the second week, we all got along famously. Even Madame Cousteau got a chuckle out of it and we soon became good friends.

By this time Murph breathed a sigh of relief. Kiefer pretty much ignored the situation and Rocky was busy keeping instruments in check.  So everything was rosy aboard Calypso and we went about our work conducting optical measurements and performing carbon-13 incubations, which is a scientific story best told elsewhere (see Kiefer et al, 1989). But one of those incubation experiments involved staying on station (at one location) during the entire daylight period and that afforded us an opportunity for a swim call.

Vew from the bow of Calypso towards bridge and cobalt blue water.Swim calls aboard Calypso were like watching dolphins play at the bow of a boat. These guys practically had gills and any chance to frolic in the warm, transparent, cobalt-blue liquid of the open South Pacific was met with glee. The scientific crew leaped in wearing masks. We explored the wooden underside of Calypso and marveled at the tiny jellyplankton that made a living even in these desert-like waters. The color of this ocean was absolutely stunning. It almost hurt your eyes to look at it. If there ever was a purer shade of violet-blue, I’ve never seen it. The sunlight danced in white wrinkles at the surface, diffused to a cobalt blue around 100 feet and radiated violet from the bottom of the euphotic zone, the lighted waters of the ocean.

While marveling at this splendor, I heard a yell from the ship. Next to me Murph had taken a deep dive to check out a jellyfish. A second yell and the sight of several crewmembers swimming for the ship as fast as they could made me suddenly realize that the crewmember was yelling “shark”. The first thought that entered my mind was “I’m glad Murph just dove because the shark will get him first.” Instincts play morbid games with the mind where survival is involved. I got the hell out of there.

Upon surfacing, Murph got the news and he started swimming for the ship. Played back in the slow motion of my mind, I realize that I was thinking if the crew of the Calypso was swimming from a shark–a creature they are more apt to play with than fear–than it must be one bad-ass shark. Fortunately, everyone made it safely on board, including Murph, much to my relief.

It turned out to be a 6-foot gray shark (as I recall), relatively harmless as sharks go. But in the desert of the open Pacific, any disturbance brings a hungry mouth, and the shark arced a careful pass around us and headed on its way. Needless to say, we didn’t swim any more that day.

Soon thereafter, about midway through the cruise, we encountered some rough seas. I never had a problem with sea sickness but it was too rough to work. It was in those moments that my Sony Walkman and cassette tapes came in real handy. (I was listening to Husker Du and Sisters of Mercy in those days.) Those long stretches of time at sea when a man gazes for hours at the endless rolling sea, follows the albatross sweeping across the waves, wipes the salt spray from his face, those are the moments that an oceanographer lives for. The moments when you get to know the sea, to listen to her story, to ponder her inner mysteries and fathom for a moment that we and the sea are one and the same.

Storms at sea also bring moments of comedy and I can think of nothing more comic than a French chef trying to work aboard a heaving ship. The French, having what they say is a refined palate, make no compromise when it comes to eating on board Calypso. Every dinner started with a fantastic homemade soup, some kind of salad or relish, and an appetizer. The main courses were equally extraordinary and all meals except breakfast were accompanied by scrumptious red French wine. What made this stormy day memorable was watching the chef make potato chips from scratch. Never in my life before and never in my life since have I seen someone make potato chips but there he was slicing the potatoes, punching a gridwork of holes in them and dropping them into a boiling vat of hot oil. As the ship took a particularly nasty roll, pots and pans flew everywhere and the chef was screaming French obscenities at the top of his lungs. I’m sure he wasn’t amused but I found it hilarious. And I ate every one of my homemade potato chips for lunch and they were delicious.

Only too soon we were nearing New Zealand and on the final night of our work, after three weeks at sea, the crew of Calypso honored us with one of their famous celebrations. Down in the hold where the submersible lived was a special compartment where they kept the French champagne. At Madame Cousteau’s command, the steward lowered himself below decks and emerged with several cases. We toasted, we sang, we made speeches, we drank. Lots and lots of champagne we drank. At least I did. I couldn’t stand champagne but this was French champagne and the best champagne I had ever tasted. Even though I was still finishing an experiment–trying to filter several two-liter bottles of seawater thick with phytoplankton–I threw caution to the wind and celebrated as if there were no tomorrow. And as if touched by the gods, the sea grew calm and we watched black-and-gray squalls shower rain on the red-and-yellow horizon as sun slowly set on our South Sea adventures.

Sunset off the coast of New Zealand aboard Calypso

And that’s the last thing I remember about that night. Because soon after the champagne ran out, Mr. T and I raided the chef’s pantry and proceeded to finish a bottle of Johnny Walker red while the rest of the crew wisely slept.

The next morning I awoke with a start, not remembering how I got into my bunk, which involved going outside along the rails of the ship where a drunken sailor could easily have fallen overboard (!). After a moment to let the fog clear, I remembered my experiments and dashed to the stern, ten-thousand-pound head and all. The pump was flooded and the filter rack was a mess. I had ruined a part of the experiments!

The problem stemmed from the fact that we had been working in crystal blue waters where phytoplankton concentrations were low, a sort of oceanic desert. When we got to New Zealand, we were working in coastal waters, where concentrations of phytoplankton were higher. Not taking this into account, I was trying to filter the same amount of water and because there was so much stuff in it, the filters clogged quickly and it took hours instead of minutes to filter it. I learned my lessons: filter less water in coastal environments and don’t drink French champagne while filtering.

Finally, the day I had been waiting for arrived. The ship sailed into Auckland with great fanfare. Bustling crowds hugged the dock as Calypso eased alongside. One of the first persons helped on board was the man carrying the boxes of fresh French croissants. The crew didn’t complain much while at sea but the one thing they did get grumpy about was the lack of fresh croissants. They were as happy as children in a candy store as the first morsels of buttery baked dough crossed their lips.

I was also feeling a little more chipper by this time, having cleaned up my mess and finally completed the experiment. My eyes scanned the dock furtively; I didn’t want to give away the fact that I was dying to see the MAN! Soon, a throng of reporters gave away his position. And there on the deck of Calypso, I was introduced to my hero #1, Jacques Cousteau, the man who inspired me to pursue a career in oceanography and who gave me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live my dreams.

Cousteau and press aboard Calypso docked in Auckland, New Zealand

A press conference was held in the galley that afternoon. Cousteau talked about the Rediscovery of the World Expedition, the work they planned while in New Zealand and the importance of protecting the ocean for our children. Afterwards, he had newspaper interviews and we had gear to pack so I didn’t get to see much of the man. But that all soon changed.

Right at 5 pm, the dinner bell rang. I was pretty hungry after the previous night, having not eaten much for breakfast and lunch, so I dropped what I was doing and rushed immediately to the galley. To my surprise, no one was there except Madame Cousteau and I hesitated. The dining area in the galley consisted of one long table bordered by fixed stools on one side where the crew sat and one long padded seating area–like a booth in a restaurant–where everyone else sat. I knew from the press conference that Cousteau would sit at the head of the table, his wife or Captain Falco would sit on the crew’s side and some science member or officer would sit on the padded side right next to Cousteau. I hesitated because I thought one of the more “distinguished” science members would want to sit next to him.

Madame Cousteau immediately sensed my dilemma and motioned me forward.

“It’s okay,” she said. “You can sit next to God.”

I was all smiles as I scooted my way along the padded chair to the place setting right next to Jacques Cousteau. I was now his right-hand man!

Soon he and the rest of the crew arrived and dinner was served. We had soup for starters, as we always did. I engaged Cousteau in some small talk and while we were chatting, he poured some of his red wine into his soup.

“That’s interesting,” I said. “I’ve never seen anyone put wine in their soup before.”

He smiled. “Well,” he replied, “You color your hair green. I color my soup red.”

Everyone laughed at this remark. I put an even larger smile on my face and took my glass of wine in my hand.

“Well,” I answered in kind, “If I color my soup red, will you color your hair green.”

Dead silence. For a brief moment, everyone held their breath. Not a peep.

Cousteau laughed and toasted my glass. “Of course!” he replied. Whereupon everyone laughed and joked and got a good buzz on watching this crazy green-haired American kid go head-to-head with the MAN. How was I supposed to know you shouldn’t talk to him like that?

After dinner, the stories started coming out. I learned that Cousteau knew about my green hair before we even left Tahiti. He was told “There’s someone with green hair aboard your ship.” I also learned that Bob, the helicopter pilot and the only American on board, had come up with the nickname “chaveaux vert” for me, which means green hair in French. They had been calling me that since the third day at sea and I didn’t even realize it.

Finally, when it was nearing bed time, Madame Cousteau brought me a present. It was a white t-shirt with the green Cousteau Society emblem printed on it. It was the same shirt worn by all crew members of Calypso. It meant a lot to me.

As we were saying good nights, Kiefer, half-jokingly, made apologies to Madame Cousteau for bringing someone with green hair on board their vessel. She waved him off. “Oh, he’s just like a Frenchman, very independent. Every man has to ride his own bicycle.”

The next morning we headed to a hilltop outside Papeete. The Maori people had prepared a traditional welcoming ceremony for Cousteau and the crew of Calypso. I stood in a line with the other crewmembers behind Cousteau and Falco. Cameras rolling, a Maori warrior, traditionally dressed, beat his chest and beckoned threateningly. With his decorated spear, he swiped at Cousteau: once, twice, two whooshes of the spear narrowly missing Cousteau’s head. The warrior placed a knife on the ground at Cousteau’s feet and turned his back. Cousteau picked up the knife and held it. He stood very still. With a nod of his head, the warrior understood Cousteau’s intentions to be peaceful. With a pat on his butt, the warrior led us down the hill.

Cameras rolling, I followed Cousteau. I, among his crew, wearing my brand new Cousteau Society t-shirt, my green hair waving in the breeze. I, with the men I came to admire deeply, with a man who I treasured as a hero, in a moment that I had dreamed about for as long as I can remember. I walked down the hill, in front of the camera, and forever into the annals of Cousteau cinematic history. It was only two seconds, but it was the most momentous two seconds of my entire life.

The Maori’s treated us to a tremendous cultural feast. The woman danced and sang. The men beat their chests in their traditional song-making. They talked about their love for the sea and its importance to their culture. And then Cousteau gave a speech.

He talked about how the most important people on our planet are our children. That they are the only ones who can be taught the right way to live on our planet. Adults are not able to change their ways. He described how the waters of the ocean touch all shores, how the waters of the ocean connect us to each other, how we live not as separate people, but as one people, sharing one planet.

At the end of the speeches, more than 50 Maori people formed a long line outside a traditional lodge for a traditional Maori “handshake.” Only the Maori form of handshaking has nothing to do with hands. Like the Eskimos, the Maoris welcome their visitors with a rub of the nose. So I marched down the line rubbing noses with more people that I ever imagined rubbing noses with, much to their delight and mine.

After feasting on traditional food and bidding my new friends goodbye, we headed back to Calypso. When our work was done, we still had some time before our flight, so Murph and I took a hike uptown to have a beer. We stumbled into a low-slung kind of place, smoky and a bit rank, but they had beer and tables, so we ordered up and set a spell. Near us, a couple Maoris were playing pool and getting quite excited over the game. A somewhat full-figured Maori woman sitting with them noticed us and came over to greet us.

“You Americans?” she asked.

We nodded.

“Oh, I must give you a big hug and kiss. I love Americans.”

She showered us with kisses and practically took us off our feet with hugs. We had made a new friend and since it was Christmastime, she insisted on singing us a carol. She belted out a rousing chorus of Silent Night, then passed out.

Murph, ever the diplomat, persuaded her friends to help her up and put her in a chair. We paid our bill, wished everyone a Merry Christmas, and crossed back into the real world from whence we started.

It was, perhaps, a fitting finish to a journey that will be with me the rest of my life.