The ship used by famed French explorer Jacques Cousteau is ready to sail once again after sinking 20 years ago. Now completely restored, it is hoped that Abu Dhabi will be one of the vessel’s first ports of call.
More than 60 years after its role in the oilfield development that powered Abu Dhabi’s growth, the world’s most famous underwater exploration ship, Calypso, is ready to embark on a new phase of a colourful but troubled history.
The Cousteau Society, presided over by maritime adventurer Jacques Cousteau’s widow Francine, has announced that the painstaking, stop-start restoration of the 42-metre vessel is almost complete.
This brings to an end a painful saga of neglect and uncertainty, spiced with bitter wrangling between different branches of the Cousteau family, that has kept Calypso out of action since a calamitous accident just over 20 years ago.
On January 8, 1996, while anchored in Singapore, Calypso was about to depart for an expedition along China’s Yellow River when it was rammed by a barge, puncturing its hull so severely that water overwhelmed its evacuation systems.
As the society’s website recalls, “the grand lady who had travelled through so many challenges heeled over and sank”.
Less than 18 months later, Cousteau, the much-decorated French naval officer who became one of Earth’s most celebrated explorers, died at age 87.
But he had already made clear his wish that his ship should be restored for use and “remain at the service to science and education”.
Now the society promises that vessel will resume work “as an ambassador for the seas and oceans”. This is just what Cousteau wanted for a ship “born of war that became the messenger of peace and of protecting the water planet for future generations”.
If the relaunch goes to plan, the ship will sail from the French port of Concarneau, where the work has been carried out, before the end of next month.
Exactly what role lies in store is unclear. There has been talk over the years of turning the vessel into a floating museum or making it part of a US-financed environmental theme park in the Caribbean. Francine Cousteau’s recent announcement specifically refers to the Mediterranean.
The society says that full details of Calypso’s refurbishment and future should be known by the end of this month.
But whatever the society has in mind, the completion of the repairs signals a mighty development in the ship’s story.
At times, since the sinking, it has seemed destined for a sorry end in a breaker’s yard or, in the more romantic finale envisaged by the late explorer should the ship become unusable, to be towed into the Atlantic and scuttled.
In one gloomy spell of doubt, Albert Falco, a crew member on many of Cousteau’s missions, was quoted in 2006 as saying: “Everything that is not rusted is rotten and everything that’s not rotten is rusted.”
There seemed little hope for the ship that had starred in the long-running television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, watched by millions in the 1960s and 1970s.
The vessel also inspired a hit record by singer John Denver, a four-part work by composer Jean-Michel Jarre and a number of films including The Silent World, directed by Cousteau and Louis Malle, which won the Palme d’Or at the 1956 Cannes film festival.
It was perhaps merciful that Cousteau did not live to witness the ship’s decline and legal tussles that threatened the extinction of his dream.
But the successful if long-delayed renovation of his ship is a moving testament to a life devoted to investigating the deepest reaches of the world’s oceans. It also preserves for a new generation a vessel that has served a rich variety of needs.
Calypso began as a minesweeper, built in the US but lent to Britain for Second World War service with the Royal Navy. Surviving the conflict, it was bought by a Maltese ferry operator in 1949 to ship mail between Marfa and Gozo.
Cousteau renamed the vessel, which had sailed prosaically as BYMS-2026 in military service, choosing Calypso after a nymph linked in Greek mythology.
But only a few months after entering commercial service, the ship was sold to one of Cousteau’s friends, the Irish millionaire and politician Loel Guinness, from the brewing family.
Guinness leased it to Cousteau for a symbolic annual payment of one French franc and two promises: the arrangement should remain private, as it did until after his death, and Cousteau would never ask him for money.
Much of the world was still at war when the French seafarer and the engineer Emile Gagnan invented the aqualung, the first open-circuit, self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, or Scuba, to gain universal popularity.
On acquiring Calypso, Cousteau set about turning it from top to bottom into an oceanographic vessel that would allow him, in the words of the society, “to use his inventions as a pioneer in unveiling the continental shelf”.
Four years later, when commissioned by what is now the Abu Dhabi Marine Operating Company and using Calypso as a base for drilling operations, Cousteau was credited with discovering one of Abu Dhabi’s largest oilfields.
Opinions differ on the true importance of the captain’s work.
“Among Jacques Cousteau’s many expeditions, his expedition to the Arabian Gulf stands alone,” wrote author Michael Quentin Morton.
“At first glance, the choice of Cousteau to lead an oil survey – he was neither a geologist nor a geophysicist – seems a curious one.
“Undersea techniques were still evolving and his divers struggled to extract rock samples from the seabed. Perhaps the survey was not as significant as he later claimed, only a colourful footnote in the oil history of the region.”
But UAE Interact, the news and information portal run by the National Media Council, takes a more positive view, hailing Cousteau’s “important but little recognised role in the development of the modern UAE”.
Using new technology allowing exploration wells to be drilled in shallow offshore waters, the adventurer investigated the seabed off Abu Dhabi.
On March 28, 1958, at the spot identified by Cousteau and his team, an exploration rig struck Abu Dhabi’s first oil well. Total proven reserves of oil at the field have been put at just under 4 billion barrels.
When Cousteau’s widow met Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed, Ruler’s Representative in the Western Region, to discuss plans to restore Calypso as “a roving Eiffel Tower” for the environment, she said she hoped Abu Dhabi would be one of its first ports of call.
Mrs Cousteau had fought a protracted legal battle over the vessel’s ownership with Jean-Michel, Cousteau’s son from his first marriage, finally winning a French court’s blessing eight years ago.
Calypso’s contribution to public awareness of environmental issues is beyond question. To Denver, who wrote his song after boarding the ship and meeting and befriending Cousteau, a voyage was “to sail on a dream on a crystal clear ocean / to ride on the crest of a wild raging storm / to work in the service of life and living / in search of the answers of questions unknown”.
Yet life aboard the ship could, as the Cousteau Society acknowledges, be harsh.
“This is not a pleasure cruise. Night and day, calm seas or raging storms, the ship must be tended, cleaned, piloted, maintained. From the hold to the helm, the crew works for the success of the expedition,” it says.
And now, the vessel “will be getting a whole new life”, the society says. After what Mrs Cousteau calls “a 20-year struggle against adversity and mishaps”, the ship is set to return to sea powered by two Volvo motors.
Cousteau once said “impossible missions are the only ones to succeed”.
For many still fascinated by Calypso’s exploits, there is great interest in the coming details of what the future holds for one the world’s most famous small ships.
Source: uae news