Cousteau's widow wants explorer's ship preserved for France

John Lichfield
Thursday 10 June 2010 00:00
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The widow of the underwater explorer, Jacques Cousteau, wants the French government to mark the centenary of his birth by helping to refloat his celebrated ship, the Calypso.

The former British minesweeper, now rusting in Brittany after a series of maritime, political and legal mishaps, was the platform for the long-running television series, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, which started in 1966.

To mark Cousteau's centenary, his widow wants the ship to be declared part of French "national heritage". The Calypso has been at the centre of failed restoration projects and an acrimonious family squabble since it sank in Singapore harbour in 1996.

More than £6.6m is needed to repair and refit the ship, which is now in dry dock in Concarneau, awaiting a decision on its fate. Heritage status would allow the Cousteau Foundation to apply for public funds.

"The Calypso is, in its way, the Eiffel Tower of the oceans," said Francine Cousteau. "I feel a duty to restore its soul... so it can be an ambassador of the environment in the years to come."

A series of other projects has been announced by the Cousteau Foundation to mark the explorer's centenary. His youngest son, Pierre-Yves Cousteau, will be part of the crew of the foundation's scientific vessel, the Alcyone, which is to examine ecological damage to parts of the Mediterranean which still teemed with underwater life during the Undersea World series 40 years ago.

Since Captain Cousteau's death in 1997, his reputation has suffered a series of blows, including the revelation that he held anti-Semitic views and enjoyed friendly relations, during the 1939-45 war, with the Germans and the Vichy regime. It also emerged that he occasionally mistreated sea creatures in the course of his filming.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau, to give him his full name, remains an important scientific, environmental and cultural pioneer. He invented the aqua-lung in 1943. He was the first man to shoot a full-length movie under the ocean in colour, with the help of the film director Louis Malle in 1955. Their work,The World of Silence, was mostly shot in the Red Sea from the sides of the Calypso.

Cousteau's television series for the American network ABC is credited with helping to start the environmental movement. The stunning footage of sea-life, coupled with natural history lectures in romantically-accented English, helped to create a new awareness of the fragility and diversity of living things.

Ms Cousteau, the captain's former mistress who married him seven years before his death, hopes to refloat the Calypso by the end of his centenary year in May 2011. Once restored, she said, the ship would be equipped with mini-submarines and underwater scooters and depart on an exploratory tour of the world's oceans. How much would survive of the original Calypso – an ex-Royal Navy minesweeper given to Cousteau in 1951 by the Guinness family – is open to question. "Everything which is not rusted is rotten and everything which is not rotten is rusted," said a former leading crew member, Albert Falco, three years ago.

The ship was raised from Singapore harbour and towed back to France in 1998. It was eventually given a berth in La Rochelle on the Atlantic Coast.

Ownership of the vessel was then disputed in the French courts between the Equipe Cousteau organisation, run by Ms Cousteau, and the captain's son from his first marriage, Jean-Michel. Ms Cousteau won the dispute.

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