The Silent World

A few months ago Les Fruits de Mer co-founders Madam J and Mark AuMarc were awesome enough to host a private screening of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s documentary The Silent World. The 1956 film follows the adventures of Cousteau’s oceanographic team aboard his research vessel Calypso as they explore the underwater world of the Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean. As one of the first feature-length films to use full-color underwater cinematography, The Silent World wowed audiences with its vibrant depiction of aquatic life, winning an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and the Palme d’Or award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival.

The jaw-dropping opening shot follows Cousteau’s team as they plummet headfirst down a coral reef wall, each teammate wielding a blinding red flare heralding the emergence of scuba diving as a recreational activity. Sixty years later, it’s a marvel how far the sport has advanced. The bulky, heavy three-tank configuration of Cousteau’s aqualung has been replaced by our standard lightweight, trim single-cylinder rigs. Avoiding the bends is less of a mystery; the reasons we get “drunk on nitrogen” is better understood; recompression no longer requires being strapped inside a tiny steel coffin for twelve hours while your co-workers taunt you and dine on your freshly caught lobsters. (Admittedly, one thing hasn’t changed: chamber rides still suck).

Thankfully for us, decades of scuba diving research has transformed the sport from ‘something-so-dangerous-it-should-only-be-attempted-by-insane-Frenchmen-(isn’t-that-a-tautology?)’ to ‘something-so-safe-even-hydrophobic-morbidly-obsese-American-cruise-shippers-(another-tautology?)-can-do-it’.

Jacques Cousteau: Eco-Lover, Pioneer and… Whale-Killer?

Based on the film, insane Frenchmen sixty years ago apparently have a lot in common with the morbidly obese American cruise shippers of today: they kick the crap out of the reef, touch everything they possible can, and molest the aquatic life whenever possible. Fortunately, the cruise shipper’s list of transgressions ends there. As for Cousteau and crew… well, here you go:

  • While showcasing the use of DPVs (Diver Propulsion Vehicles), one diver passes by large turtle and decides to pimp his ride. With one swift kick, he leaps from his DPV (which proceeds to crash into the virgin reef below) and grabs hold of the turtle’s shell. The turtle freaks out and struggles to the surface for a breath of air, obviously encumbered by the weight of the scuba diver. The diver rides the exhausted turtle back to his crashed DPV and takes off again. The scene concludes with Cousteau talking about how great the ‘empty parking lot’ is for DPVs as the divers once again crash their vehicles into the reef.
  • “Dynamite fishing is very illegal, but the only way to get a complete census of the reef,” Cousteau calmly narrates seconds before an enormous dynamite explosion rips through the water. The team ventures into the kill zone, scooping up hundreds of dead tropical fish from the surface. “Unfortunately, only 10% of the fish float to the top,” says Cousteau. Cut underwater to a coral reef littered with thousands of dead fish laying atop shattered coral. The scene ends as the team plays with a dead pufferfish fully inflated from the shock of the dynamite blast. As they puncture the pufferfish’s bladder with a gaff, the fish’s corpse comically deflates like a balloon, squirting water and guts across the boat deck.
  • In the film’s most horrifying scene, the Calypso comes across a school of whales and “accidentally” runs over a juvenile whale with the propeller. As the wounded whale struggles to keep pace with its pod, rivers of blood hemorrhage into the shark-infested waters. Oh, and the sharks do come! Dozens of them shred away the whale’s fatty layers, their eyes rolling back in their sockets as rows upon rows of teeth devour the dying baby—all filmed in beautiful full color from the ship’s underwater viewport. “The crew becomes angry with the sharks, and fight to avenge the baby whale,” Cousteau narrates as the crew proceeds to harpoon and gaff every last shark in the water—even the small ones. In a two-minute montage of murder, they fiercely slam the thrashing sharks on the deck and mercilessly hack them to death with axes.
  • In the final scene Cousteau and crew learn firsthand the downsides of fish feeding when a goliath grouper nicknamed “Ulysses” becomes a bit too friendly with the divers. How do you handle a hungry 800-pound fish when it decides it wants food right now? Well, you can try punching and kicking it when it approaches, but, when that fails, you can always put it in jail. Yes, jail. Cousteau’s crew brings down a giant cage and locks the grouper inside. The scene ends with a shot of scuba divers surrounded by swirling schools of tropical fish—as Ulysses looks on from his prison cell.

All this from a man Ted Turner called “the father of the environmental movement.”

(Thankfully, Cousteau became more environmentally conscious later in life and distanced himself from the activities portrayed in 1956’s The Silent World).

Merci, Jacques

I think of Ulysses as another black grouper darts from its hiding place inside a massive barrel sponge. I am gliding beneath an overhang at 100ft on Pablo’s Place, surrounded by dozens groupers and hundreds of creole wrasse. A forest of black gorgonian coral grows around immobile orange elephant ear sponges in the shadows of the overhang, their polyps waving like a million tiny fingers in the gentle western current. The visibility here is pristine. I stare down the wall at the coral shelves as they fall, step by step, into the darkness of the abyss. I look ahead at the enormous barrel sponges, each their own little ecosystem of miniscule life, protruding against the endless blue. I roll over and look at the sunlight spilling through the undulating soft coral overhead, a shimmering white smear peppered with black sunspots of fish.

And then there is the silence. For the first time in years, I hear only the sound of my breathing. No white noise of a dozen customers trailing my every move. No ‘clunk-clunk’ of an inexperienced fun diver crashing their first stage into the reef. No ‘woosh-woosh’ of a morbidly obese American cruise shipper huffing through their air. It’s just the rhythmic rush of enriched air nitrox into my lungs and the slow ‘bloop-bloop’ of my controlled exhalation. And silence.

I have to remind myself that I’m not solo diving. I look back to see Marc gliding behind on his closed circuit rebreather. He emits no bubbles at all. Except for the occasional ‘click-hiss’ of his solenoid firing more oxygen in his breathing loop, he is in complete stealth mode.

After 20 minutes of coasting the overhangs along Pablo’s Place, we drift up the wall to 80ft to the beginning of Texas, Roatan’s best dive site. (Why Texas? Because everything is bigger). Surrounded by hunting barracudas, the supremacy of Marc’s stealth mode is apparent: the closed-circuit rebreather allows him to approach the fish almost unnoticed. The yellowhead jawfish—notoriously skittish fish who retreat into their homes in the sand at first fright—hardly react to his presence. Even amidst my amazing immediate surroundings—yikes, was that a free-swimming moray eel?—, I find myself more transfixed by the fascinating machine on Marc’s back.

A few days earlier we sat at his apartment as he pulled out an endless array of hoses, regulators, tanks, and a whole slew of gear I’d never seen before. I watched as he slowly assembled the unwieldy unit, muttering to himself about “diluent” and “solenoid” and a bunch of other terms I’ve never associated with scuba diving. Two computers built in to the unit? Redundant oxygen sensors? It looked more like a space suit than dive gear. As he explained how the rebreather worked, the inelegant contraption made more sense—but only somewhat. I needed to see this baby in action.

A white horizon extends into the infinite blue. It’s the plateau of Texas. I love this part of the dive. The sandy shelf is speckled with man-sized barrel sponges interrupted by rolling coral mounds thriving with life. A Carolina blue oval flutters beneath me. Sargassum triggerfish! Beautiful fish, and only found on this part of Texas. And today they are swarming in schools! I drop down on the sand to observe the mascara-like lines on their faces. Then I notice a hawksbill turtle to my right calmly munching on a sponge and observing me all the same.

As we weave around a minefield of barrel sponges, I watch Marc vigilantly adjust his buoyancy control. I now have a clearer understanding of how the closed circuit rebreather works. Oxygen and air are blended in a breathing loop. On-board computers monitor the oxygen content and try to maintain a constant partial pressure of oxygen in the loop. You breathe the mix from one counterlung and exhale into another. A carbon dioxide scrubber removes the toxic exhalation gas from the breathing loop. Since humans only use a small fraction of oxygen with every breath, most of your exhalation is recycled into another breathable breath.

The end result? Insanely long bottom times (think 4-5 hours), incredible extended range diving, very short decompression requirements, and (the best part) you don’t have to carry multiple tanks. Oh, and then there’s the silence of absolutely no bubbles—a godsend for photographers and cave divers.

Oh how far scuba diving has come…

But, as Marc often reminds me, it’s a machine will try to kill you when you’re not paying attention. Oxygen toxicity or hypercapnia could be just a few breaths away. He carries a computer on each arm monitoring the oxygen content and decompression requirements, an extra computer for contingency, and has a heads-up display in the form of a blinking light that indicates his oxygen levels. Even so, his best option in the event of most emergencies is to switch to a bail-out bottle (an cylinder/regulator he carries along) and ascend independent of the rebreather’s air supply.

Marc is still fighting with the rebreather’s buoyancy as we ascend up the plateau to 60ft. It’s certainly an awkward unit, and diving on it has very few analogs to the open circuit diving I’ve done over my nine year career. As I watch this veteran of 5000 dives wrestle with him trim, I chuckle—and then remind myself how awful I will be on my first attempts!

One of my dive computers is quickly approaching decompression, so we decide to end the dive. The current sweeps us across the plateau of Texas and into the blue. We ascend into a shimmering wall of horse eye jacks. Hundreds of silvery vacant eyes glide past, hardly noticing our silent presence. Then they are gone, and only the silence remains.

I love my life. Merci, Jacques.

Dive Profile
Dive No.: 1958
Dive Site: Pablo’s Place to Texas
Max Depth: 100ft
Total Time: 74mins
Profile: 20mins@100ft, 20mins@80ft, 25mins@60ft, 9mins@15ft
Air: 210bar – 70bar
Mix: EANx31
Tank: 12L/80cu

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