Wednesday, October 8, 2014

In Cousteau’s Footsteps

Anyone on the fringes of my generation will undoubtedly reference Cousteau as a catalyst, hero, or outright inspiration to be associated with the life aquatic. As with the masses, I remember dreaming of being onboard the Calypso at a very young age. “My Cousteau” was not the rail-thin, middle age explorer of mid ’50s, early 60s seen in films like Silent World  or World Without Sun. Mine was more of the aged, godfather of Calypso sending the young speedo clad French divers under the sea while he posed for the cameras. The mid to late 70s brought us Cousteau Odyssey, a series of slick, well-produced documentaries of the amazing underwater world. If he and his faithful sidekick Fredrick Dumas (who I always appreciated more because he was always working) were pioneering the underwater documentary with the 1956 release of the film Silent World, they had perfected the genre by the 70s with tremendous production value and glossy camera tricks to immerse the viewer. 

Although I can’t remember the exact day, I’m certain that as a boy of 7 years old in 1978, I undoubtedly sat Indian-style on the shag carpet in front of a thick, oak console television, enthralled by the episode The Cousteau Odyssey – Diving for Roman Plunder. How could I have possibly dreamed that three decades later I would find myself off the same Greek coast, diving the same Roman shipwreck, swimming past a feature we called “Cousteau rock”, and photographing the same broken amphorae as the legendary crew of Calypso?

Looking back, the thing that always fascinated me about Cousteau was the equipment used to explore our underwater world. Jacques’ thick French accent, his feeble, thin body, and advanced age didn’t create much of a super hero persona in a boy just shy of 10 (again, that was Dumas). But the gear, oh how I marveled at the gear. Didn’t we all? Underwater flying submersibles, diving bells, shark cages, observation towers, helicopters, and a flying boat all under the Calypso flag (the latter two still excite me as an adult). It seemed to be a world of unlimited resources with unlimited discoveries in a day when ocean exploration was occurring – and people actually paid attention.

The Calypso diving saucer

Cousteau with bronze statues recovered from the Antikythera site
While on Antikythera the comparison between the technology of the Cousteau’s dives and that of our own expedition was not lost on the team. To take it back a half-century more, the sponge divers who discovered the wreck in 1900 were also utilizing the latest diving technology of the day - surface supplied hardhat diving that originated in the mid/late 1850’s. After its discovery in 1900, the sponge divers reported the find to the Greek government (how long that actually took and how many precious artifacts of antiquities were salvaged prior to that reporting is still open for debate). By 1901 salvage work had begun. The depth of the site would push (and exceed) the limits of safe diving. As Joe Marchant illustrates in Decoding the Heavens, even by 1925 the US Navy only had 20 divers qualified to 100ft. The Antikythera site rests at 180ft and the 1901 salvage divers were attempting what few had ever done before – often with deadly or debilitating consequences. With a single hard diver dress among the eight divers, each spent just 5 minutes on the bottom, twice a day. 

Sponge divers from the 1901 dives
In 1978, the divers of the Calypso had 20 minutes of bottom time, twice a day. With our closed circuit rebreather technology we are doing a single 60-90 minute bottom time with 60-90 minutes of decompression – a concept lost on the divers who came before us. 

On the imaging front, just as Cousteau’s team produced a photo-mosaic of the site by physically taping photographs together, our autonomous underwater vehicle (or AUV) was deployed to photograph the seabed using stereo photography (two cameras) and create a 3D mosaic of the site linked to real world GPS data. Lastly, the current expedition is deploying a revolutionary single person submersible. This “Iron Man” of the sea as is called an ExoSuit. 

The Exosuit

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