Book Review: FROGMEN

One man’s memories of life aboard legendary Cousteau ship Calypso

Author: Pat
4th February 2012
 

Ask the man in the street: name a famous astronaut? Neil Armstrong. Famous mountaineer? Edmund Hillary. Ask him to name a famous diver – he’ll almost certainly say Jacques Cousteau.

That’s because the Cousteau name is synonymous with the undersea world. Widely credited with inventing the Aqua Lung during the 1940s, Frenchman Jacques-Yves Cousteau went on to exploit the technology, bringing diving and marine conservation into the public consciousness at the same time. This was largely thanks to high profile expeditions aboard his ship, Calypso.

Richard Hyman can tell you a thing or two about it… and now he has – in his book ‘FROGMEN – The true story of my journeys with Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau and the crew of Calypso.’ Based in Connecticut, USA, his account begins in 1973 when 18-year old Richard was a young man with just a high school education to his name. But he knew an opportunity when he saw one, and this was as big as they come: delivering equipment for the Cousteau filmmaking team overland from California to Canada.

a young American on his first foray into the wider world

And so the tale begins with a young man’s odyssey into the wilderness – literally – as the lorry load of supplies makes its way northwards to Native American Indian territory. Although this is the thick end of 40 years ago, Richard has resisted the urge to write retrospectively and avoids rose tinting his experiences. Indeed, he must have been a meticulous note-taker at the time, since the book is rich in description throughout. Everything is included, from hitchhikers they pick up along the way, towns they pass through, down to the food eaten for dinner.

Expecting a book about diving, at first this can feel like a drag, since Richard hasn’t even got wet yet. The Cousteau team shoots their film about beavers, and struggles with inclement weather, technical glitches and personal disagreements. Daily life within the Cousteau camp would be strangely challenging enough for anyone, let alone a young American on his first foray into the wider world with only French people for company.

Yet for the author it kindles a love for the natural world, and ingratiating himself with the team, in short shrift Richard finds himself employed at sea aboard the Calypso. Naturally he catches the diving bug, and finds himself working underwater in places most of us can only dream of.

The book conveys a lot of affection for Cousteau, known as ‘The Captain’ and referred to as JYC. Although much has been written about him before, FROGMEN details the minutiae of life on the oceans with this unique man, including the media attention, and even celebrity: John Denver spent time aboard before writing his hit record ‘Calypso’ in 1975.

Its frustrations are laid bare too: nature rarely plays ball, and a long wait to film a spiny lobster migration is nearly missed entirely. And stuck in port for repair work for the umpteenth time leads members of the Calypso’s crew to question whether this is really the life for them.

Today, learning to scuba dive, exploring wrecks and descending to great depths can almost be considered routine, so it’s easy to forget just how pioneering Cousteau and his team were. For instance, Richard describes a (frustrating) trip to the USS Monitor, the Civil War-era ironclad sunk off North Carolina in 1862. Lying out to sea and upside down in 70 metres of water, she poses no great challenge to today’s hi-tech wreck diver, but do you fancy it breathing air in 1970s gear? No, me neither.

After retiring to Paris, JYC died of old age in 1997. Perhaps it’s inevitable that as time passes, Cousteau and his exploits will become embellished, re-assessed, and repackaged for a new generation of conservationists. Yet Richard Hyman hasn’t shied away from telling it like it was back in the day: if the team weren’t studying or filming the marine life, they were eating it for dinner. His time as crew aboard Calypso studying the ocean seems a world away and yet, given the state of our planet, somehow more relevant than ever.

‘FROGMEN’ is a sensitive, insightful and detailed account of one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable figures. Today’s divers and those who care about the sea owe Cousteau a debt of gratitude.

Footnotes

Richard Hyman’s book ‘FROGMEN: the true story of my journeys with Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau and the crew of Calypso’ is available now for Kindle and iPad, and in book retailers published by Iron Press.

www.richardehyman.com

 
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