• U.S.

Sport: Poet of the Depths

23 minute read

(See Cover)

From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free. Buoyed by —water, he can fly in any direction—up, down, sideways—by merely flipping his hand. Under water, man becomes an archangel.


The water may be the turquoise Mediterranean, an ice-skimmed quarry in Vermont, the translucent waters off Bermuda, the Pacific rolling in majestic rhythm toward the shores of San Diego. Around the world and across the nation, swimmers are sinking beneath the surface to fly like angels through an alien realm. This fascinating new playground, alive with beauty and tanged with danger, belongs to the skindiver.

Off Cannes, skindivers soar around beds of jeweled coral—reds, violets, purples, yellows—in pursuit of sea bass and mullet. In Australia they prowl the caverns of the1,250-mile Great Barrier Reef, or play tag with the gregarious seals that frolic off Carnac Island. Near London, divers happily muddle through the ooze of a dank lake in Black Park.

But the surrounding seas and inland lakes of the U.S. are the world’s stronghold of skindiving. Since World War II, U.S. swimmers have created a mass sport out of a pastime that once belonged to an adventuresome few. This week some 1,000,000 dedicated U.S. skindivers are getting ready for their biggest year. They are pro halfbacks, harried housewives, gawky teenagers. Detroit tycoons, retired schoolmarms sunning in Miami. For skindiving has the great virtue of letting each swimmer make his own terms with the deep. With no need to compete or excel, the skindiver can choose a way to have fun beneath the surface that suits his nerve and pocketbook.

Mask & Fin. Since the naked eye is all but blind under water, the basic equipment is a good face mask that will transform the murk into a wonderland. With the addition of a simple snorkel tube poking above the surface, the swimmer can cruise indefinitely on the surface with his face buried under water. So equipped, swimmers can peer for happy hours into the depths of the Gulf of Mexico or forest-bound lakes in Wisconsin, study the toadfish that fusses like an old lady off Long Island. Ducking beneath the surface, the strong-lunged pry abalone from the California shallows, or spear unwary fish that hover near the surface. Experts like Miami’s great Pinder brothers. Art, Fred and Don (see SHOW BUSINESS ), can easily go as deep as 70 ft., stay under for up to 60 sec., and have individually landed catches as big as an 804-lb. jewfish.

But the sport’s aristocrats are the ”free divers.” Spurning any line to the surface, they go down with tanks of compressed air strapped to their backs, a rubber mouthpiece between their teeth, and froglike fins on their feet. Experienced free divers-some prefer the term “scuba,”‘ for “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus'”—can cruise as deep as 130 ft. for up to 15 min. or at 40 ft. for two hours.

Prince & Pugilist. Drawn by the deep, the elite free divers range from Lord Louis Mountbatten and his royal nephew Prince Philip to Heavyweight Champion Ingemar Johansson, from Russian Nuclear Physicist Bruno Pontecorvo to Gary Cooper and U.S. Rocketeer Wernher von Braun.

In prince or pugilist, the underwater world stirs strange rapture. Writers of ages past, from the author of the Book of Jonah to Matthew Arnold, few of whom had ever been under water in their lives, have been inspired to imaginative fantasies about life in the depths. One modern writer who has been there is Clare Boothe Luce, playwright turned diplomat. In a memorably lyrical series for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, she reported her experiences: “What fishes like flowers, what stones like trees. The coral reefs are a golden girdle of dead and living cities, which dwarf in their age and beauty all the cities of man.” Says Ray Hoaglund. a 34-year-old electrician and one of the nation’s 200,000 free divers (world total: 350,000): “We’re looking for something—God knows what it is. It’s not adventure and thrills. There are certain words that come close to describing it—mystery, intrigue, beauty, silence, freedom. Diving has a hold on its adherents as no other sport does. It’s almost hypnotic.”

Pioneer & Prophet. As any skindiver will readily admit, his sport is almost the singlehanded creation of a lean (6 ft., 154 Ibs.). visionary Frenchman named Jacques-Yves Cousteau. He is, all in one. its pioneer, foremost promoter, prophet, and poet. As the developer of the Aqua-Lung, he set divers free to roam in the kingdom of the fish. With his book The Silent World (1953). he became diving’s foremost philosopher. The prizewinning film made from the book opened the world’s eyes to the magic world under the sea, sent both scientists and pleasure seekers hustling for masks and fins to see for themselves. When 130 delegates from 17 nations met in Barcelona last week for the second annual meeting of the World Underwater Federation to exchange scientific data and draw safety rules, the president and presiding officer was, naturally, Jacques Cousteau.

Under Pressure. At 49, Cousteau looks as if he might be either an esthete or an ascetic, and he is somewhere in between. His face, hollow-cheeked, cleft by the lean curve of an aristocratic nose and scoured by furrows, might have been carved by the sea itself. His body is gnarled. “My!” said one fluttery female admirer, “have you been shrunk by pressure?”

But pressure has done nothing to repress his spirit. Cousteau can delight in eccentric garb ranging from crimson sweaters to Russian astrakhan hats. Or he can turn serious, hold an audience rapt as he talks of his vocation: “I used to dream of flying—the classic attempt to get away from the reality of earth. But since I have been diving, I have not had the dream. Diving is the most fabulous satisfaction you can experience. I am miserable out of water. It is as though you had been introduced to heaven, and then found yourself back on earth. The spirituality of a man cannot be completely separated from the physical. But you have made a big step toward escape simply by lowering yourself under water.”

Womb & Mother. Given openings like these, psychiatrists are studying skindiving and making of it what they will. One common theory: water is the great mother symbol; divers are only trying to get back to the womb. Another: divers get an omnipotent superman sensation from playing with danger. Whatever the lure, Freud or fun, U.S. divers are going down to the sea or the backyard pond as never before. More than 200 Y.M.C.A.s now teach free diving; more than 500 teach skindiving with held breath alone. Students at the prestigious Horace Mann School in The Bronx get classroom credits in diving, can pick up pointers by watching Sea Hunt, a television underwater adventure series starring Real-Life Diver Lloyd Bridges. Equipment sales of U.S. Divers Co., American licensee for Cousteau’s Aqua-Lung, tripled from 1957 to 1959, are expected to soar another 75% in 1960 alone.

At Death’s Door. Fastest-growing U.S. area for skindiving is the Northeast, despite water cloudy and cold enough to dismay a mackerel. For warmth, New Englanders may pull on foam-rubber “wet” suits,* will even chip a hole through ice to get at water. In the landlocked Midwest, divers gang together for long trips to Death’s Door—a channel off a Wisconsin peninsula jutting into Lake Michigan, where, tucked among hidden reefs, lie more than 200 ships dating back to the 17th century. In parched New Mexico, a club called the Dusty Divers makes weekend round trips as far as 600 miles to find water, has even sought out places that just sounded wet, e.g., Fence Lake, which turned out to be completely dry.

U.S. diving has quality to match quantity. At Malta last year, the world’s spearfishing championship (done with held breath alone) was won by California’s rangy (6 ft. 2 in., 180 Ibs.) Terry Lentz, 22, who landed 15 fish weighing 106 Ibs. One of the finest free divers in the world is Security Analyst Peter Gimbel, 32, husky, Yale-bred scion of the department-store family. As a boy, Gimbel sat on the bottom of his parents’ pool with a five-gallon can over his head, gulping air from a garden hose. He grew up to become a crack ocean diver, swam on the first team to reach the Italian liner Andrea Doria, 42 fathoms down off Nantucket.

On the Road. Last month a few lucky U.S. skindivers got a firsthand look at the great man himself. Jetting in for a business trip and lectures to scientific societies, Jacques Cousteau found himself surrounded by skindivers who plied him with questions far into the night. (Sample: “Can you compress air into tanks lots smaller than the ones we have now?” Answer: “Yes, but it is too expensive—the demand will have to be greater.”) Typically, after one late night the irrepressible Cousteau was up at 7 o’clock, woke his traveling companions by bursting into their rooms shouting “Whoo-up!”—a cry he uses to rouse his divers at sea.

Skindiving’s patron saint was born in Saint-André-de-Cubzac, a small town (pop. 4,000) near Bordeaux, which was picked for the occasion by his parents because they had both been born there. No sooner did he enter the world than the squawling Cousteau was bundled up and hustled back to the family home in Paris.

Cousteau has been traveling ever since. His father, Daniel P. Cousteau, is a witty, urbane lawyer whose job consisted in being factotum and traveling companion to a pair of itinerant U.S. millionaires. The first was James Hazen Hyde, high-living son of the founder of Equitable Life Assurance Society. Back in 1905, as an Equitable vice president, Hyde had given a $200,000 costume party in Manhattan that put the whole insurance business under outraged public scrutiny, brought on an investigation by the New York State legislature. In anger, Hyde sold his stock, huffed off to self-exile in Europe with Cousteau père as company. “One day I argued with him,” says Father Cousteau. He soon found another U.S. client: Carpet Millionaire Eugene Higgins, famed as New York’s most eligible bachelor. The athletic Higgins demanded that Cousteau match him in tennis, golf and swimming, once blithely entered him in a chess match with the Polish champion.

Panting around the world in father’s wake, the Cousteau family covered so much ground that Jacques’s earliest memory is of a tossing train hammock. At the age of ten, Jacques spent a year in a Manhattan apartment on the corner of 95th Street and Broadway. He and his older brother Pierre played stickhall in the streets, gained local fame by introducing two-wheeler European roller skates, and went to summer camp in Vermont.

A Theory Proved. Against all odds, young Cousteau became a powerful swimmer. For six years he suffered from chronic enteritis; in his early teens he contracted anemia, and doctors advised him to avoid all strenuous activity. He also developed a technical flair that produced a three-foot, battery-powered automobile and home movies at the age of 13. But studies were a bore until Jacques, a sophomore in a French lycée, found a novel use for his school. Demonstrating his theory that a strongly thrown stone makes only a small hole in glass, he broke 17 of the building’s windows.

Expelled in disgrace. Cousteau was shipped to a rigorous pension in Alsace ruled by a former German schoolteacher. The change was instantaneous. Under challenge and discipline, Cousteau turned scholar. He easily passed the tough exams for the naval academy, where he graduated second in his class (“I even studied with a flashlight in bed”). He set out to learn how to fly, had soloed and was about to graduate from the navy’s air academy when he borrowed his father’s Salmson sports car to go to a wedding. Rounding a curve, the headlights suddenly flickered out. When Cousteau crawled from the wreck, his left arm was broken in five places, his right was paralyzed. The doctors wanted to amputate his left arm. “I refused, thank God,” says Cousteau. “You are always owner of your body.”

A Jungle Discovered. To recuperate, Ensign Cousteau was assigned to shore duty at Toulon, spent hours working strength back into his arms by swimming in the Mediterranean. There in 1936 a fellow naval officer named Philippe Tailliez gave him a pair of goggles used by pearl fishermen. Cousteau put his head beneath the surface. Instantly his life was changed: “There was wildlife, untouched, a jungle at the border of the sea, never seen by those who floated on the opaque roof.”

Exploring their jungle, Cousteau and Tailliez learned to spear fish with curtain rods and knitting needles. Says Cousteau: “It fascinated me to do something that seemed impossible.” But, like other little knots of skindivers around the world, they were still tethered to the surface by the need for air.

The problem had badgered divers as far back as 5000 B.C.. when the Sumerians spun the tale of a swimmer who sought the weed of eternal life beneath the waves. Down through the centuries, woodcuts show submerged men hopefully sucking on bags full of air or puffing on tubes reaching to the surface. Looking for something better, Cousteau tried an oxygen lung based on a design developed by the British as early as 1878. He almost killed himself. He did not know the fatal flaw of oxygen: it becomes toxic at depths below 30 ft.* Twice Cousteau had convulsive spasms, was barely able to drop his weights and make the surface.

Laughing Matter. Cousteau allowed World War II to distract him only briefly and at intervals from his search. He served as gunnery officer on the cruiser Dupleix. After France’s surrender he stayed in the navy in Occupied France, but worked for the underground; once, posing as an Italian officer, he led a party into the Italian headquarters at Sete and spent four taut hours photographing a code book and top-secret papers. Cousteau will say little about his experiences: “I have always hated espionage and secret-service work, and I still do. I think it is unfair.”

Under the eyes of the indifferent Germans, Cousteau worked with a brilliant engineer named Emile Gagnon to develop a lung that would automatically feed him safe compressed air so that he could swim with both arms. To be safe, a diver must have air in his lungs at the same pressure as the surrounding water. With less pressure, his lungs may be crushed; with more, they may expand until they rupture. To survive. Cousteau required a device that gave a diver air at pressures that matched the changing weight of water as he sank and rose.

Finally the two experimenters hit upon the heart of the Aqua-Lung: a valve the size of an alarm clock, which lets highly compressed air escape from a tank until it balances the water pressure, then feeds it to the diver through a mouthpiece. One day in 1943 Cousteau posted Skindiver Frederic Dumas as a lifeguard, waddled out into the Mediterranean under the 50-Ib. Aqua-Lung, and realized his dream. He was free: “I experimented with all possible maneuvers—loops, somersaults and barrel rolls. I stood upside down on one finger and burst out laughing, a shrill, distorted laugh. Nothing I did altered the automatic rhythm of the air. Delivered from gravity and buoyancy, I flew around in space.”

Fear on the Reef. Cousteau could scarcely wait for the war to end to develop his new discovery. He sold the French navy on the virtues of the Aqua-Lung, soon got leave for government-backed oceanographic work on the 360-ton Calypso, a converted minesweeper from the British Royal Navy. Aboard the Calypso, Cousteau gathered the material and shot the films that were to bring sudden fame to diving and himself. The Silent World, written originally in English, was published in the U.S. in 1953, sold more than 486,000 copies (worldwide sale: 5,000,000). His 86-minute color film of the same name won the Grand Prix at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, and an Academy Award in 1957.

As his horizons expanded, the naturalist in Cousteau soon became disgusted with spearfishing, and he gave it up (“We have a tremendous responsibility to nature”). He noted that the fish quickly became wary of the spearfisherman. “An atmosphere builds up in a reef that is understood by the younger fish,” says Cousteau. ”The fish learn to avoid the man with the gun. The longer the gun, the farther away the fish keep.”

Web & Wine. For new sport, Cousteau turned to prowling about the skeletons of ships on the ocean floor. Unless the ship is ancient, he has no interest in salvaging anything. He just wants to look: “I am absolutely enraptured by the atmosphere of a wreck. A dead ship is the house of a tremendous amount of life—fish and plants. The mixture of life and death is mysterious, even religious. There is the same sense of peace and mood that you feel on entering a cathedral.”

His greatest find is a 1,000-ton Roman freighter owned by one Marcus Sestius, which sank in 140 ft. of water ten miles off Marseille about 205 B.C.-the oldest seagoing vessel ever found. It had a cargo of 10,000 amphorae filled with Greek and Roman wine, and a great store of black dinnerware of untold value to modern archaeologists.

In recent years Cousteau has put himself more and more at the service of science. He resigned from the navy in 1956 with the rank of capitaine des corvettes, now sits at the center of a bewildering web of profitmaking, nonprofit and governmental enterprises. He is director of Monaco’s first-rate Museum of Oceanography, founded in 1910 by Prince Albert I of Monaco, the great-grandfather of Free Diver Prince Rainier. Cousteau is also head of France’s Underwater Research Center. He is backed in part by the French government, and in part by Washington, D.C.’s National Geographic Society, takes up the slack with profits from his business firms. In addition to controlling the Aqua-Lung patents, he runs on the side a film company, dubbed Associated Sharks as his own wry commentary on the ethics of the trade. Even so. Cousteau’s wife has sold many a belonging to hold the spider web together for the sake of science.

Cousteau’s main concern is getting information from the deep, not interpreting it. His most recent invention is a two-man diving “saucer”‘ that operates free of the surface, maneuvers by electrically powered jets of water, can go down to 1,000 ft. In the works: an improved saucer that will reach 3,000 ft.; a tiny, two-man submarine that will stay down four days at 15,000 ft. Though he insists he is no scientist, Cousteau has the warm support of scientists around the world for his ceaseless searching of the sea. Concedes Director Roger Revelle of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who calls Cousteau the founder of undersea archaeology: “Cousteau’s patron saint should be Ulysses, not Aristotle.”

Surrealistic Sailor. Cousteau and his wife Simone, a pert, green-eyed blonde with a lineage of French admirals, have a sprawling mansion in Monaco, a Paris apartment, a hideaway on the Riviera. “I have no home. My clothes are spread all over the world.” says Cousteau cheerfully. Nearest thing to home is the bare cabin of the Calypso, where they may spend months at a time. Simone has become an expert Aqua-Lunger, tags along when Cousteau goes diving with their two sons, Jean-Michel, 21, and Philippe, 19. Cousteau declares that neither of them has ever gone swimming without mask and fins. ”They consider it infirme, and I think they are right.”

Over the years, Cousteau has become as complex as any phenomenon he finds in the sea. He has tried his hand at painting (his pictures turn out vaguely surrealistic), relaxes aboard the Calypso with an accordion. Despite his scholarly air, accented by amber, half-lens spectacles, Cousteau is a man with an antic turn of mind, loves to improvise wacky film scenarios (a nearsighted bull gets contact lenses, routs the matador and escapes, only to starve because he cannot see the grass). But Cousteau is also a leader of men. When an inexperienced diver drowned trying to find the anchor of Calypso, Cousteau pulled on the dead man’s Aqua-Lung and told his shaken crew: “I’m going down for the anchor. Those of you who want to help, follow me.” The men followed. Cousteau found the anchor.

Records & Rapture. Cousteau maintains that he had no idea what he had started when he first stood on his finger and laughed aloud in his Aqua-Lung. Whole new fields are opening up for free divers, who, like Cousteau, soon tire of skewering fish as too easy (cracks one Frenchman: “It’s like chasing elephants in a sports car”). The move is toward wreck-hounding, tracing underground springs through black and frigid waters, studying rock and reef, and taking underwater color movies. Equipped with Aqua-Lungs, divers are gradually taking over much of the work of the traditional helmeted diver. They hunt for jade off California, sink oil derricks off Louisiana, scrounge for sponge and pearl in the Mediterranean, raise cannon, coins and crucifixes from Spanish galleons sunk off Florida, and hoist history from ancient submerged towns such as Epidauros, which disappeared in a tidal wave off Yugoslavia in A.D. 365. Last week a Methodist minister and sometime oceanographer from Kansas City donned an Aqua-Lung and plunged into the Dead Sea—avowedly in search of the lost cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

With everyone getting into the swim, Cousteau and his fellow experts fret about safety. They deplore any attempt to set records, either with or without an Aqua-Lung.* Snaps Cousteau: “It does not depend on your ability as a diver. You are just finding out what your physique can stand that day.” Last year the Portuguese spearfishing champion, a top-flight French diver and two strong Americans drowned because apparently they blacked out while swimming with held breath, and gulped water. In place of spearfishing competition, Cousteau would like to see surface races between swimmers wearing masks and foot fins, hopes to start such meets in Italy this summer.

Bends & Bubbles. For the untrained or careless diver, Aqua-Lunging presents a host of dangers: swimming too long in cold water can subtly bleed off his body heat until he finds himself suddenly exhausted ; holding his breath during the last 30 ft. of ascent can rupture his lungs as they expand under the rapidly decreasing pressure; successive deep descents can cripple him with the old diver’s disease of the bends unless he decompresses the nitrogen bubbles in his blood by lingering at graduated stages on his way up.

Most treacherous of all is nitrogen narcosis—”rapture of the depths.” Below 140 ft. the buildup of nitrogen in a diver’s body somehow drugs his senses as alcohol does. Magnificently drunk, the diver becomes an underwater god. He may offer his mouthpiece to a passing fish. Maurice Fargues, a great diver on the Cousteau team, was brought up dead from 394 ft., his mouthpiece hanging loose around his neck. “I personally am quite receptive to nitrogen narcosis,” says Cousteau. “I love it and fear it like doom.”

Calm in the Deep. In contrast, Cousteau has no fear at all of the manta ray and the barracuda, two overrated killers of the deep. Sharks are a more puzzling matter. “There is a threat from sharks,” admits Cousteau, “but it is very, very small. The last thing for a diver to do is to flee. The good diver stays and faces the shark.” Cousteau’s men never use knives or guns on sharks because of the danger of provoking attack, shove away intruders with clubs made of broomsticks cut in half. Cousteau himself once routed a shark by socking it on the snout with his camera. But Cousteau readily concedes that sharks can be unpredictable; one once nipped Art Pinder’s stern black and blue. The safest place when sharks prowl by is under water; as scavengers, they are used to snapping up anything floating on the surface.

To make the sport as safe as a Saturday-night bath, Cousteau recommends a rigorous training course that, among other things, requires two divers to exchange all their equipment in 15 ft. of water. The best divers are reflective, methodical men who calmly do all the right things in a jam. They need not be especially powerful—in the weightless, silent world, a twitch of a flipper can provide all the power needed. Cousteau is convinced that nearly anyone with adequate training and common sense can learn to dive with an Aqua-Lung. Says he: “Free diving is safer than motorcycling.”

Men into Fish. In fact. Cousteau looks forward to the day when free diving will be so commonplace that farmers in Aqua-Lungs will harvest crops of fish and plants cultivated in special concrete shelters. Peering far into the future. Cousteau predicts that surgery will give man gills, enable him to “breathe” water, set him free as a fish for years beneath the sea. A second operation could easily return him to life in the air. “Everything that has been done on the surface will sooner or later be done under water,” says Cousteau. “It will be the conquest of a whole new world.”

In the meantime, with free diving still a new sport, Cousteau urges swimmers to take down an underwater lamp (“The colors that will emerge are incredible”), suggests a descent in open ocean for the more experienced (“Nothing above, nothing below, nothing on either side—it is an astonishing impression”). Beyond that, Skindiver Cousteau does not presume to pinpoint the pleasures of his sport. “What would you advise a baby to do when it is first born?” asks Cousteau. “When a person takes his first dive, he is born to another world.”

* The wet suit deliberately admits water, but fits snugly enough to prevent it from circulating. After the diver’s body warms this thin layer of water, the suit prevents heat loss to the surrounding depths. The “dry” suit is usually made of thin gum rubber, is in theory (but seldom in fact) watertight.

* Oxygen lungs have one great advantage: they recycle the diver’s carbon dioxide through a purifier, let no bubbles escape to the surface. For this reason they are used by military frogmen, who would be betrayed by the telltale stream of bubbles from a compressed-air lung, which discharges spent breath into the water.

* In a field of conflicting claims, skindivers believe that the deepest descent with held breath was made by a Greek sponge diver named Stotti Georghios, who in 1913 swam down 200 ft. to put a line on the lost anchor of an Italian battleship. Dumas’ dive to 307 ft. with an Aqua-Lung is regarded as the record fro free diving.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com