20th Century Treasure Hunt: An Adventure With Jacques Cousteau

Screen shot of Cousteau.
Screen shot of Cousteau looking at a found object.

In the early 1970s, Jacques Cousteau and his team made a series of programs entitled The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Each episode takes a closer look at Cousteau’s favorite subject: the ocean. The Indiana University Libraries Film Archive received ten of these titles as part of the Oregon Collection including Those Incredible Diving Machines, The Water Planet, Coral Jungle, and The Water Planet. Cousteau was well known as a leading expert in oceanic life, and his many television programs all take a closer look at some form of ocean life or adventure. He began making films in 1942 and continued, almost non-stop,  until his death in the mid 90s. His first film was shot with his own 35mm Kinamo Zeiss camera that he put into a waterproof brass box with external cables to control the focus and aperture. In 1943, with the help of engineer Emile Gagnan, Cousteau developed the aqua-lung, one of the first incarnations of modern scuba diving equipment. This apparatus, which advanced technologically over the years, enabled Cousteau to breathe underwater while filming. Cousteau went on to create many other inventions, all of which were based on a passion for underwater filmmaking.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s2E34QrDzAg

A closer look at the episode Sunken Treasure with Jacques Cousteau reveals an inside look at a 20th century treasure hunt. Note the difference in time between the full episode and our classroom version, which was catered to fit a specific lesson plan: 50 minutes compared to 20.  Rod Serling narrates the treasure hunt for silver and gold worth over one million dollars believed to be aboard the The Lady of the Conception, a ship from the Spanish Armada fleet which sank after crashing into a coral reef in 1641. Cousteau and his crew, while aboard his ship, Calypso, use maps to navigate the choppy seas of the

Placing markers next to artifacts.

Caribbean to the site of the wreckage. Scuba divers are seen swimming down to the sea floor and raking through sand and coral debris. In time, pieces of the rigging are found along with other items from the ship. Using a 200 horsepower air compressor to suck up and then disperse sand, silt and debris, the crew can get to pieces of the wreckage more easily. When Serling describes the machinery as “so powerful it can suck up a man’s arm. The airlift could literally suck out a man’s blood through his skin,” he sounds like he is back in time, narrating The Twilight Zone. In total, 300 tons of coral debris were sifted through to find cannon balls, a ceramic jug completely in tact with the stopper still in it along with a syringe, a metal plate, tin and pewter plates, soup bones, cups and bowls stacked together. Additionally, cups made of Chinese porcelain, which had been transported to Spanish ships via the Philippines, were found along with the remains of a hand guard to a sword. The crew also discovered that, when the ship crashed, the cannons were loaded and ready to fire.

Treasure map screen shot.

This film gives a great insight into what life was like at sea for these men: afternoon lunches in the hot sun with plenty of wine, Cousteau with the youthful energy of a kid on Christmas morning, and the crew clad in red caps, breaking up huge pieces of coral with sledgehammers. Mostly portrayed was the sense of camaraderie these men shared in their hunt for treasure. It can easily be seen how Wes Anderson’s film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a tip of the hat to one of his heroes, Jacques Cousteau. At the end of the episode, we discover that the ship is in fact not La Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion (which actually sank close to the Philippines) and carried no silver or gold. Although we do not get a glimpse of the Jaguar Shark, Cousteau’s films leave us with a closer look into his love of the ocean and his deep passion for wanting to share its beauty and mysteries to the world through film.

~Asia Harman