February 4, 2013 by kittynh
Jacques Cousteau’s 1952 book, “The Silent World” documents his adventures developing and testing the first aqualung (free diving gear).
Starting in 1943, Cousteau and his brave friends tested free diving, which eventually led to not only a new way for scientists to explore the ocean but the very popular hobby of diving today. Many of us grew up watching Cousteau’s TV show, his French voice is still imitated, and the movie “The Life Aquatic” even has official blessing from the Cousteau family as a parody. Cousteau was an inspiration for children of my generation to go into science careers, and was also our first introduction to the importance of the conservation of our oceans.
Cousteau’s influence and long career almost never happened because of a lie. A lie that Cousteau refers to in his book as “overimaginative”. Cousteau was being kind.
Cousteau wrote “Our worst experience in five thousand dives did not come in the sea but in an inland water cave, the famous Fountain of Vaucluse near Avignon.”
Divers are well aware that diving in an enclosed space, such as a cave, is far more dangerous than open water diving. Cousteau had the two added dangers, using a very new technology, his aqualung, and most dangerous of all, bad information.
One of the mysteries of France, and the Avignon region, is the Fountain of Vaucluse, which is a small spring above the River Sorgue. Most of the year, the spring is quiet. The mystery is that starting in March for 5 weeks, the spring becomes a torrent of water and floods the river. No one for many years knew why, though this has happened every year throughout recorded history. The secret was only solved in 1985 by the use of a robot, and it is not known if the phenomenon is fully explained even now. The Spring is the only outlet for snow run off and an underwater collection basin for Mount Ventoux, once a year, it just builds up enough it has to drain out in a massive expulsion of water.
Cousteau felt with his new free diving gear, not being tethered to a land and encased in the traditional heavy diving gear, he and his friends would be able to solve this mystery.
Cousteau knew he was not the first person to try to solve the mystery of the spring. In 1878 an explorer named Nello Ottonelli had attempted to explore, using very primitive equipment. During the dive Ottonelli’s zinc boat had capsized and fallen into the depths of the spring. Ottonelli reported he had made it to 90 feet. Considering his gear and the dangers, this was indeed a major achievement. He did not solve the mystery of the yearly flooding from the spring, but was an inspiration to later explorers.
Cousteau, like any explorer and scientist, wanted as much information as possible before embarking on the dive. He studied the dive of Ottonelli, but also studied the more recent dive of a Senor Negri. Negri in 1936 had reportedly reached a depth of 120 feet. Negri had a microphone in his helmet and reported each exciting moment of his adventure. Besides many features described, Negri reported finding the zinc boat lost sixty years before by Ottonelli!
Negri was still alive, but he kept avoiding meeting with Cousteau and his friends. Still, Cousteau planned much of his dive based on Negri’s diving report. Everything from lengths of rope to weights were based on the topography described by Negri.
Cousteau and his co diver were quickly puzzled by the complete lack of any resemblance between the cave they were diving in, and Negri’s reports. While Cousteau battled a dangerous mixture in his dive tanks, which had been accidentally filled with a toxic level of carbon dioxide, he also was endangered by his completely false information from Negri.
Cousteau never was able to solve the mystery of the spring, but he was able to provide accurate information to future explorers at the site. Cousteau felt the solution to the mystery of Negri’s false report, was that Negri had just gone down to 50 feet and then made up the rest. At 50 feet he was out of sight of observers at the surface. It was good spot to rest while he made up an exciting tale for those listening above. He probably felt that no one would ever be able to go any further in the cave and prove him wrong. I imagine there were gasps of surprise on the surface when Negri claimed he had found the boat of the explorer Ottenelli. That was really a nice touch of drama, in a live report that was nothing but a fiction.
It’s no wonder Negri didn’t want to meet with Cousteau before his dive. I’m sure he was slightly nervous, knowing this new technology of the aqualung would allow Cousteau to go farther than 50 feet. He did not have the bravery to admit his hoax, and endangered the explorers by keeping silent. His false information put the divers at risk, and it shows how falsification of this sort is criminally dangerous. When I think about losing Cousteau so early in his career, before my brothers and I could grow up watching his oceanic adventures, I am glad Cousteau lived to discredit Negri.
Negri has now joined those ranks of people that have made something up and taken the easy way out, thinking they can never be caught. Why endanger yourself with a cave dive, when you can gain fame and glory by playing it safe and making stuff up? Technology advances have more than once shown up this sort of lie.
I’m reminded of the psychics that believed they were in communication with life on the dark side of the moon. It was safe to claim because no one ever saw the dark side of the moon, and imaginations soared. Much like Negri finding the zinc boat, the dark side stories were full of wonderful exciting touches. Why not be creative to truly captivate your audience?
While scientists weren’t able to say just what was on the far side of the moon, they assumed it would be much like the side of the moon we could see. When the dark or far side of the moon was finally seen by human eyes, and photographed, there were no moon inhabitants, no moon cities, and no moon civilization
As a skeptic, I enjoy working with UFO and alien believers. Sadly, photography and astronaut assurances that far side is really much like the side we see, is not enough for many fans of the “dark side” having life. Government cover ups, strange rock formations that supposedly look like pyramids, and sheer determination to believe keeps the dark side of the moon mysterious to many. The more extreme, and entertaining, stories of vast civilizations though are gone. No one anymore believes there are acres of crops, high rises and hover craft zipping around on just one half of the moon.
Sometimes a story that is too good, with a few too many details, such as finding the zinc boat of a former explorer, is a sign it might be made up. Exploration is exciting, and can be dangerous, often all you find is rocks. Having a geologist daughter, and being a fan of science myself, rocks are more than enough for me. Especially when someone has really done the work to get to those rocks.