From the archives: Jacques Cousteau shows off his underwater film technology

From the archives: Jacques Cousteau shows off his underwater film technology thumbnail

To mark our 150th year, we’re revisiting the Popular Science stories (both hits and misses) that helped define scientific progress, understanding, and innovation–with an added hint of modern context. Explore the Notable pages and check out all our anniversary coverage here.

When Jacques Cousteau penned a story for Popular Science in February 1969, NASA was months away from crossing 240,000 miles of space to land a man on the moon, but marine technology was barely capable of sustained underwater exploration. To many, Cousteau, a French naval officer during WWII, is remembered for his nearly decade-long TV series, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, which broadcast into millions of homes the wonders of ocean life and exposed the devastation of human activity. Cousteau was also an inventor whose contributions to marine-exploration technology were as great as his dedication to marine conservation. The latter profited from the former, beginning with his invention of scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) in 1943. His Diving Saucer, which debuted in 1959, set the standard for nimble underwater exploration subs.

In his 1969 Popular Science story, Cousteau proudly describes his many vessels and sensors–all customized, including his beloved ship Calypso. Cousteau tells the story about Sea Fleas, tiny subs fitted with “jet propulsion” as well as “side nozzles” to allow for “extreme maneuverability.” His narrative also highlights his love of invention and seafaring, and also reveals his sexist social conventions. “Practice makes [Sea Fleas] easy to handle,” he writes, “though at first I found them a bit like women–seductive and unpredictable.”

Despite considerable technological advances since the 1960s, even today Earthlings have mapped more surface area on Mars and the moon than Earth’s ocean floor, which is remarkable considering that the ocean is one vast, contiguous, surface feature that dominates earthly life and livelihood. Led by Cousteau’s extraordinary example, however, the siren call of Earth’s oceans continues to inspire explorers and documentarians like Sylvia Earle, James Cameron, and Victor Vescovo. We can now dive to the depths of our planet. But can we save them?

“How we film under the sea: Amazing one-man subs bring you eye-dazzling pictures from the deep” (Jacques Cousteau, February 1969)

How can you show the world the breathtaking views beneath the ocean? I have loved the ocean my whole life. It is my passion. We were given the opportunity to share this love and source of inspiration with the world via television a few years back.

To date, millions have seen our [“The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,” ABC-TV], programs, which were produced by me and Alan Landsburg, Metromedia Producers. With the help of my best team of divers, and other underwater experts, we tried to show the viewer the amazing and bizarre forms of life found in the ocean and its immense natural riches. We tried to convey the excitement that we felt at being the first to explore the last great frontier of man’s existence.

Tools for exploring

Not least of all the reasons I am embarking on this great adventure are the new, fascinating, but expensive, tools that allow us to capture some of the wonders and beauty of the ocean on film.

The main ones are the pair of small one-man submarines we call the “Sea Fleas.” Our scuba divers usually operate them as handheld units.

We also designed the scuba gear. Every outfit includes a helmet radio transmitter that allows the diver to communicate with the Calypso when he surfaces. The outfit also includes a sonar transmitter that allows underwater communication between divers and the ship. The outfits include compasses, lights, emergency signals that can be heard from a mile away, as well as emergency signal rockets. A shark billy is included to push the sharks away if they become too numerous.

The Calypso is worth mentioning. A former minesweeper which we first outfitted for oceanography in 1950, she includes such things as a built-in underwater observation station in her bow, closed-circuit TV monitors, laboratories, and living facilities.

The Sea Fleas

The tiny subs, which take anywhere from 10 to 100 percent of the film for our “specials,” are a story in themselves. They are small and easy-to-use. They don’t require a large, specialized vessel to be used as a tender. They are a unique new tool for oceanography, for they can be deployed out into the ocean like a school of fish–with all the maneuverability and observational capabilities of small underwater creatures.’

The basic features of the Sea Fleas were proved in my 1959 Diving Saucer–which, by the way, has been the ancestor of all modern underwater vehicles. The most important of these features are jet propulsion with two side nozzles; extreme maneuverability through 360-degree rotation of these nozzles together or separately; static buoyancy finely adjustable both ways; safety devices such as an inflatable hatch “tower” for exit in heavy seas; mercury ballast to instantly tilt the sub; extreme streamlining to avoid entanglements; and hydraulic controls.

The Sea Fleas proved themselves magnificently during their more than 100 hours of operation in some 50 dives. Although they are easy to handle with practice, I initially found them to be a bit like women–sexy and unpredictable. This was due to their extreme miniaturization.

Inside the subs

The pilot lies down in the three-by-6 1/2-foot hull looking out through the porthole at the lower end. His instruments include a barometer, a CO2 meter, clock, gyrocompass, two F (fathom) meters, tape recorder, radio for surface communication, pinger (for pinpointing the sub’s location), echo sounder, and underwater telephone.

The operator can be both pilot or observer with a single control stick and rationalized controls. The control stick moves the sub up, down and forward, backward, or sideways. It controls the rudder by moving from port to starboard. The mercury trim system is activated by back-and-forth movements. The stick also contains switches for the propulsion pump motor and camera. As you can see, the pilot quickly becomes a cameraman, working in perfect harmony and synergy with the sub to capture any interesting things he sees in deep ocean depths.

Cameras, lights, action

Energy for the Sea Fleas comes from 62 two-volt lead-acid cells in four battery boxes beneath the outside fiberglass covers. These batteries are open to the sea pressure and can be topped with oil. These batteries also power the two-hp. The batteries power the propulsion motor and the instruments. They also provide light for photography and sailing.

Looking like giant eyes, three 750-watt iodine lamps mounted in the front of the sub give enough light for color pictures. Two lights can be used simultaneously to illuminate the ocean depths for the two movie cameras below them. They make good pictures possible at ranges up to 20 feet in clear water. Two other lights are also used: a 150-watt searchlight for sailing and a 60-watt lamp to light the ocean bottom.

Diving the subs

With the pilot in the sub and hatch closed, the two-ton vessel is lifted by a winch over the Calypso’s stern. To free the line from the water, a scuba diver rides down to the sub. A 55-pound weight carries the Sea Flea to the bottom and is then dropped. To pinpoint buoyancy, the pilot can then admit up to 44 pounds of water into a ballast tank or drop, individually, a number of the small two-pound weights carried for this purpose.

The mercury trim system instantly adjusts sub’s longitudinal angle. This works by shifting 143 pounds of mercury between the front of the sub and the back. To surface, a “standard” 44-pound weight is dropped. In an emergency, this can be supplemented by dropping the mercury and another 110-pound safety weight. The Sea Fleas carry a tank of oxygen adequate for 20 hours underwater. Special compounds absorb carbon dioxide exhaled by pilots. The barometer is a convenient way to monitor pressure. The supply tank replenishes oxygen as the oxygen content drops.

The Sea Fleas can do more than just take pictures. They can mount a claw and a mechanical arm to bring back biological and geological samples. My tiny subs are small, but they are helping us to test the principles for future submersibles. Built at a cost of $750,000 by Sud Aviation and in operation for over a year, they are the forerunners of go-anywhere underwater vehicles that will use fuel cells for unlimited range and mobility.

I have lived my entire life with and in the ocean. I have accumulated many feelings and impressions. These are things I want to share with you to help you understand why our work was worthwhile and why we must continue our exploration and research. I hope to continue my work as an elderly director of an institute before I am reduced to a desk.

From the archives: Jacques Cousteau shows off his underwater film technology
The February 1969 cover of Popular Science featuring underwater adventures.

Some text has been modified to conform to current standards and style.

Read More