Book review: ‘Frogmen,’ by Richard E. Hyman
Special to the Daily
Just as Carl Sagan’s name is synonymous with having once brought the beauty of outer space into people’s living rooms, the name Jacques-Yves Cousteau conjures memories of console televisions filled with bubbling blue scenes of the mesmerizing world beneath the ocean’s waves. Author and diver Richard E. Hyman had the rare privilege of observing Cousteau’s commitment to the watery realm in person, and he shares his story in his recent book, “Frogmen.”
It is a real treat to have the opportunity to get a glimpse of the behind-the-camera world of the famed Calypso research vessel’s glory days. In 1973, Hyman stumbled upon the opportunity of a lifetime, when, fresh out of high school and traveling with his father, he had the privilege of meeting Jacques-Yves Cousteau and his team of divers and film-makers.
With the spontaneity of youth, Hyman volunteered for an expedition with the famed captain, which set him on an adventure that carried on over six years. Of all things, his first experience came as part of the crew for a rare land expedition, a study of beavers in the heart of the Canadian wilderness.
Cousteau’s numerous and varied explorations were financed by the television shows that made the Frenchman a household name and the public face of the marine environmental movement. The book is an homage to the man who fueled a generation’s fascination with the sea. Jacques-Yves Cousteau is to the oceans what Rachel Carson, John Muir and Jane Goodall are to the advocacy and advancement of the well-being of the wild places and endangered animals of the planet.
Not only was Cousteau an inspiration and an educator, he was also an innovator and the father of modern scuba diving. He first inspired with his 1956 Oscar-winning documentary, “Silent World,” and many accolades followed, though Hyman points out that the scientific community often berated Cousteau for being a “showman, not a scientist.” But few can doubt his dedication to bringing the mysteries of the oceans into the mainstream.
The career of the Calypso is almost as extraordinary as that of its famous captain. Built originally for mine-sweeping in the 1940s, the ship served its time during World War II, and then was essentially put out to pasture until Cousteau got ahold of her and reworked her as a research vessel. Hyman’s story is as much about the famed Calypso and his own unforgettable time aboard her, as it is about Cousteau’s achievements in bringing marine ecology to the fore. Written in a very free-flowing, journal-style format, “Frogmen” is easy reading, and the many photos that accompany Hyman’s memories are delightful. After becoming enamored of the possibilities offered by signing on with Cousteau’s team, Hyman worked to become certified for diving, for he was determined to be a part of whatever expedition was next. With college commitments and traditional adult pathways looming, Hyman nonetheless endeavored to ride the Cousteau wave as long as possible.
He made his first official dive with Cousteau’s film team off the coast of Florida, documenting stone crabs, and he learned, first hand, the destructive reach of humans on marine habitats. Seeing a chance to apply his real world experiences to his college career, he managed to continue aboard the Calypso while gaining college credit through research.
Thus, during the winter of the same year, he worked on the Calypso on an expedition off the coast of Mexico to film the unique migratory habits of spiny lobsters. The Calypso relied heavily on data gathered from NASA satellites regarding weather and global water conditions, and Hyman calls this collaborative diving experience with the space agency as “symbiotic,” given how Cousteau often referred to the glories of the ocean as akin to the mysteries of the universe. As the Calypso continued to sail into bluer waters, toward Belize, Martinique and eventually Venezuela, Hyman’s own personal universe of unforgettable experiences expanded.
The most captivating moments in the book come when Hyman pulls back the curtain, revealing the egos and tempers that often governed the intense and ambitious personalities who crewed the ship. He notes a pervasive cultural tension on board, between the predominantly French veteran team and the few Americans.
Hyman weaves those unavoidable troubles and pitfalls of life into the larger narrative, giving the reader a real sense of the wonder and magic of his time as part of Cousteau’s crew. “Frogmen” brings the life and contributions of Jacques-Yves Cousteau back into the limelight, in a time when the world’s oceans are on life support and in need of all the protections of Cousteau’s endearing legacy.
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