Reviewed 3/20/2008

The Human, the Orchid, and the Octopus, by Cousteau & Schiefelbein

Access to this book courtesy of the
Santa Clara, CA City Public Library
Exploring and Conserving our Natural World
Jacques Cousteau
Susan Schiefelbein
Bill McKibben (Fwd.)
New York: Bloomsbury, October 2007




ISBN-13 978-1-59691-417-9
ISBN 1-59691-417-3 305pp. HC/FCI $25.95

This book is the result of a long-term collaboration between Jacques Cousteau and Susan Schiefelbein, a writer for the Saturday Review who eventually joined the team aboard Calypso, Cousteau's exploration vessel. She provides a 25-page Introduction which amounts to a mini-biography of the ocean explorer.

The rest of the book shows us the quintessential Cousteau. Published ten years after his death, it amounts to his memoir and his manifesto. In it he recalls the birth of his passion for swimming and the later love for the oceans of "our water planet" — a phrase I believe he originated. It takes us along on early exploits which taught him to manage risk and to lead his crew. Fruitful collaborations with scientists like Harold Edgerton are also described, as are the decidedly non-fruitful encounters with certain bureaucrats, politicians and industry types: practitioners or condoners of what he called saccage — wanton exploitation of the environment, without regard for the consequences. Cousteau was justifiably frustrated with such practices, because he saw how shortsighted was the attitude that drove them.

Nowhere is his frustration more in evidence than with the deplorable practices of the fishing industry. He documents in Chapter 7, Catch as Catch Can, how scarce and fragile are the pastures of the sea, and how much less animal protein they produce than the same area of land. Yet the fishing fleets deploy bigger boats with more advanced technology to chase ever-larger catches, driving one fishing ground to exhaustion before moving on to the next — heedless even of the obvious fact that they are destroying their own livelihood by such rapacity.

Only a small portion of the sea can produce phytoplankton, the basic food on which all ocean life depends. Phyroplankton pastures bloom, and fish grazing on them proliferate, only in the few corners of the sea where sunlight penetrates and nutrients abound—shallow continental shelves, island wakes, sheer underwater cliffs against which rare upwellings spew their rich bottom broth up toward the sunny surfaces. An acre of even these fertile waters produces a smaller crop of plant life than an acre of land; thereafter, each ascending stage of sea life, from plant to more complex animal, is smaller still. The cod, salmon, and flounder that are prizes for fishermen occupy the upper reaches of the food chain; tuna preside at the very top. While it takes only 15 pounds of grass to produce 1 pound of beef, the ocean must supply some 1,000 pounds of plant life—so relatively rare in the sea—to feed all the creatures that will ultimately feed 1 pound of tuna.

Into this fragile marine world forges the modern fishing industry, with its advanced technology and primitive mentality. It chases the sea's scant creatures with light airplanes, helicopters, satellites. No hunter would track rabbits with radar; yet, in the sea, industrial armada use the equivalent of armored tanks and automatic weapons to eliminate a population of squirrels.

For what?

Fish does not now—nor can it ever—feed the world.

– Page 153

And yet, despite this, the organizations that regulated fishing proclaimed their hope of feeding the world's hungry billions with food from the sea. They do so today. Still, fisheries collapse. Still, the wealthy pay ever higher prices for luxury fish like salmon and tuna, for steaks and sushi.

But saccage is not just over-fishing. It is also destruction of mangrove swamps, building dams or other structures that cause beaches or river deltas to erode away, or the dumping of radioactive wastes. Nothing better exemplifies what Cousteau was fighting than a conversation he had with a marine science "expert"1 about this last practice.

We relaxed around the table and shared our thoughts, leaving behind the angry exchanges of the lecture hall. Someone mentioned ocean dumping. Our celebrated guest expert settled back comfortably in his chair.

"The sea," he began, "being obviously the natural receptacle for atomic wastes..."

Now my heart raced. I'd spent years diving among the oceans' astonishing life, fragile life; but this great marine scientist had devoted his entire career to examining the most minute intricacies of the wonders I'd seen. How, I asked, could he even imagine allowing the seas to steep in radioactive poisons?

"Be realistic, Jacques," the man interjected. "There is only one problem ahead—the population problem. Soon we will have billions of people. We will have to feed them. We will have to develop nuclear energy without limit to run factories that will produce enough protein to feed humankind." He shrugged imperiously. "We must clearly accelerate the nuclear program even if disposal means eventually closing the seas to navigation." He looked my way and gave a dismissive wave of his hand. "Even closing the seas to all human activities."

– Pages 207-208

The last chapter reprises Cousteau's lifelong voyage of discovery and celebration of the miracle of life, as symbolized by the human, the orchid, and the octopus. While these are not the only life forms discussed in the chapter, each is most highly evolved in particular ways; as such, they represent forms which are worth preserving.

The book reflects what was important about Cousteau's life: early exaltation at the wondrous life in the seas, followed by distress (but never despair) at the ways the heedless portion of humanity was threatening that life. It is thus a worthy tribute to the man whose name most of us recognized, but whom we knew not well enough. An Epilogue by Susan Schiefelbein brings the reader up to date on certain developments in the ten years since the Captain left us. A Selected Bibliography contains 33 entries. There is no index, unfortunately.

1 Ever mindful of diplomacy, the book does not identify this man.
Valid CSS! Valid HTML 4.01 Strict To contact Chris Winter, send email to this address.
Copyright © 2008-2016 Christopher P. Winter. All rights reserved.
This page was last modified on 23 August 2016.