The Silent World by Jacques Cousteau
Review by Dappered Arts and Culture Correspondent Ben Madeska. Above photo of Corsair airplane wreck also by Ben Madeska, taken in about 100 feet of water off the coast of Hawaii.
“One morning in June, 1943, I went to the railway station at Bandol on the French Riviera and received a wooden case expressed from Paris. In it was a new and promising device, the result of years of struggle and dreams, an automatic compressed-air diving lung conceived by Emile Gagnan and myself.”
-Jacques Cousteau “The Silent World”
These straightforward words lead off what I think is one of the greatest adventures in human history. It really is shocking how commonplace scuba diving has become. At dive sites around the world, a hundred bucks and an hour of training – or even less – will get you in the water, swimming along coral reefs with schools of fish.
Not too long ago this was inconceivable. Just seventy years ago, diving meant plodding along the bottom in a bulky, weighted suit, connected by air hoses to the surface. Reading these first efforts at scuba diving in “The Silent World” gives a sense of how entirely alien and unknown the underwater world remains and how the compressed-air lung continues to open it up. This book, Cousteau’s best, tells this story from the very start.
Captain Cousteau relates with almost comic understatement the dangers of their early trials with scuba equipment, the experimental dives that led to the virtually fool-proof systems and regulations in place today. He tells of blacking out at depth due to oxygen poisoning and floating unconscious to the surface, of a colleague trapped alone in a shipwreck, encounters with sharks and other sea life, clearing aquatic mines after the end of WWII, and the first, ultimately deadly, experiences with the rapture of the deep – nitrogen narcosis.
His experiments testing the effects of underwater explosions on the body can only be described as lunacy: “We went underwater in pairs while one-pound TNT charges were exploded at progressively nearer distances. When a burst caused too much discomfort, we stopped.”
But he also captures the simple wonder of it all, of being one of first people to enter this world so easily and the almost unlimited feeling of discovery that comes with that. I first read “The Silent World” years ago when I was beginning to dive, and it remains as compelling as ever.