IT IS A KALEIDOSCOPE, AND I am suspended, weightless, in the midst of the crystals. Jewel-like fish of gold, lavender, and magenta swarm in every direction, while crystal bubbles rise from the divers below, and multihued corals sway in the underwater breeze. “Don’t blink,” I command myself. “Commit this to memory.”
As I watch in awe 20 feet below the water’s surface, the frantic activity of the divers 40 feet below me drives the fish to my vantage point. They flee the awkward motions, curious eyes, and probing camera flashes to the shallow calm atop the coral head. In black and yellow “killer-bee” suits, the Cous-teau divers work like so many bumble bees attending to a coral flower garden. I feel like a dragonfly soaring over the scene.
Abruptly the cumbersome orange-and-black Nikon underwater camera in my left hand brings me to reality. It is the 10th day of a two-week adventure sponsored by those legendary undersea explorers, The Cousteau Society. Gliding over this coral head off Vanua Levu, Fiji, I have 36 opportunities in my camera to preserve pieces of my experience. I prod myself, “Get with it!”
Ironically, my Cousteau voyage began six months earlier as I sat in a hair salon, my hair coated with conditioners designed to undo the effects of sun and salt water. Browsing through my copy of The Cousteau Society’s members1 magazine, The Calypso Log, I was jolted. There it was, the adventure I had been looking for: the 19th annual “Project Ocean Search,” Cousteau’s sea/land field-study program, this year in Fiji. I bolted from the dryer to a phone, interrupting my husband Phil’s meeting. Did he want to go? (Of course!) Then I panicked. How long had that magazine been sitting in the stack next to my bed at home? Was I too late?
In the two months that followed, we answered questions, wrote essays, and underwent medical examinations in a process reminiscent of applying to college-and equally fraught with anxiety. What direction should the essays take? Were we too old? Would we be picked from the eager thousands who would write for information about this tantalizing opportunity? Like high school sweethearts, we made a pact that if one of us weren’t accepted, well, no hard feelings, the other would go alone. On May first, we celebrated our acceptance.
A SEA/LAND FIELD-STUDY PROGRAM IN FUI WITH JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU is not to be confused with a diving vacation in the South Pacific. The Cousteaus have committed their lives to protecting the environment and enhancing our understanding of the aquasphere, but with limited staff, time, and finances, they can’t undertake all the projects needing attention. Project Ocean Search is designed to infuse people with the Cousteau ethic and perspective, in the hopes that they will, in turn, carry on with the mission.
My journal and class notes reflect how seriously the Cousteaus take their commitment. To take 70 divers ranging in age from 16 to 70, divide them between two 14-day sessions, put them on a remote part of Fiji, and have them share accommodations with people they have never met requires months of planning, advance team work, personnel, and equipment.
Our days began at 6 a.m., juggling bathroom arrangements with housemates. We lived with two other expeditioners in a “bure,” a house woven of palm leaf and bamboo, on a copra, or coconut plantation, about 15 paces from a beach on Savu Savu Bay. Rough seas quickly taught me the virtue of a simple breakfast of dry toast, New Zealand jam, and ginger tea (chunks of ginger steeped in boiling water)-a native herbal concoction that doubled as a seasick remedy. It came in handy. Our boat, the “Tui Ni Wasaba,” (King of the Seas) was known as the seasick boat. Its 80-foot flat metal hull rolled unrelentingly in the swells as we headed to our dive sites outside the bay.
The group was divided among two or three boats. By 8:30a.m., submerged with underwater cameras, lights, and lenses, we were working in pairs investigating sea life in a small area of the reef. Between dives we would rest and reload our cameras, the crew offering fresh coconut meat and milk before moving to the next dive site. Sometimes all three boats would rendezvous in the calm waters of the bay. Here Dr. Richard Murphy, a 21-year veteran Cousteau scientist affectionately known as “Murf,” would discuss specimens he’d collected, then return them to the reef.
After the morning dives, on land again, we had time to soak our cameras in fresh water and turn in our film to be developed. After lunch, lectures might continue on a powdery white beach. Other days we sat under a thatched roof, sharing slides and a discussion of ecology. Drifting by in their graceful sulus (wrapped skirts), shy Fijians often stopped to watch, but seldom spoke.
The late afternoon offered underwater photography lectures led by Nikon photographer Scott Frier. Photography is a pivotal part of the project-without slides, we’d have no images to share-and a Cousteau tradition as well. Jacques Cousteau was taking photos with a homemade underwater camera soon after his First dive in 1943. Frier, whom I dubbed “Great Scott,” was given to hyperbole. But when he said that diving would never be the same after one of his photography lectures, he was right.
We dined by iridescent sunsets as bats swept the evening sky for insects. The Fijians who prepared our food provided great quantities of hearty fare; with our activity level, we made fast work of the buffet line, stocked with familiar and exotic dishes, from spaghetti to a local spinach-like taro leaf soup. Because it was winter south of the equator, many fruits and vegetables were out of season, but every meal was accompanied by some version of pineapple-pineapple in garlic vinaigrette, pineapple and onions, pineapple chunks, pineapple slices, pineapple juice.
After dinner, we would watch a film under the stars or hear a lecture delivered by lantern-light on a nearby beach. A slide projector, hooked to an unseen generator, cast mythical images overhead while we lay on blankets under the clear Fijian starlight.
By 10 p.m., the slides taken during the morning’s dives were ready for critique. Adjusting for our errors, we would plan strategy for our next dive. Then, cameras and flash units disassembled and cleaned, film loaded, and batteries checked, we headed for our bures. Writing in my journal, I’d often fail asleep in midsentence.
On our last evening, to the ooohs and aaahs of a Fijian audience, we presented our slides. Many saw a part of their world that they had never seen: supple sea anemones contrasting with the geometric perfection of coral; underwater seascapes beckoning to verdant coral canyons; brazen clownfish, menacing lionfish, and reclusive filefish are captured for all to see. Georgia O’Keefe would have had much to paint.
IN OCTOBER, I RETURNED TO THE HAIR SALON to repair the added sun and saltwater damage. (Scuba diving is not compatible with “The Dallas Look.”) Again, under the hair dryer, my reading was interrupted-this time by an “urgent” call from the Cousteau Society. We were being invited to meet Captain Cousteau-the senior-himself! We would be sharing a conversation with Cousteau to be taped for a video report to certain Cousteau donors.
That weightless feeling again. Now I am soaring on the dragonfly, surveying the human reef that is New York City. From the air, the similarities between human and coral reefs are apparent. Both are beautiful constructions; both are vulnerable to man’s destruction.
The four hours we spent with the Captain and his son were as exhilarating as any dive. At 80, the senior Cousteau is electric, eyes sparkling, moving quickly through a room or a conversation. Jean-Michel, who grew up with a scuba tank on his back and a camera in his face, is the perfect counterpart: the visionary and the pragmatist. Jacques discussed overpopulation and diminishing resources; Jean-Michel emphasized the importance of the hundreds of thousands of Cousteau Society members, who have petitioned governments-ours and others-to rethink the future of our “water planet.”
Since the early 1950s, Phil and I have lived the Cousteau adventure on our TV sets. Now we have experienced his world in real life. We share Cousteau’s disappointment that the undersea is not the pristine environment it once was. Cousteau believes that we protect what we love. He has made it possible for a generation to sec and share his love-and for us, to touch it as well.