Invisible Ecologies: Cousteau’s Cameras and Ocean Wonders

Janine Marchessault

York University

The geopolitics of World War II shattered the world into pieces, just as, through technology, it rendered that world increasingly visible and unified. Jacques-Yves Cousteau was a naval officer in World War II. He insisted on his title “Captain,” throughout his long career. Cousteau developed pioneering photographic technologies that served new forms of militaristic surveillance. Cousteau was intent on expanding our experience of the planet, on opening up a new world, a hidden world beneath the oceans that he would explore in more than 120 films and television programs as well as 50 popular books throughout his long career.

Lorraine Daston has underlined that wonder is historically opposed to reason, it is “the barometer of ignorance….The more we know, the less we wonder.” [1] Even though for Daston contemporary forms of wonder are reduced to childlike fascination, paling in comparison with previous centuries, I would argue that the ocean continues to carry a deep sense of wonder precisely because it is an essential and ongoing mystery. If we learned anything from the tragic disappearance of Malaysian flight 370, it was that the earth’s oceans were largely unknown and inaccessible to us. Despite the knowledge of the oceans that we gradually gain – whether of its polluted condition or the tentative mapping its depths – the mystery is continuous and generative. I want to understand how this sense of wonder was produced and marketed through Cousteau’s documentaries and how it continues to grow.

Cousteau’s lifelong inspiration for this popular enterprise was the 19th-century science-fiction writer, Jules Verne, whose stories were published under the rubric Voyages Extraordinaires. The most successful of these include Voyage au centre de la terre (Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1864); De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon, 1865); Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, 1869); and Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (Around the World in Eighty Days, 1872). Verne’s influence extends far and wide, and authors as diverse as Rimbaud and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry found inspiration in his imaginative tales of adventure. For Roland Barthes, however, Verne’s works constituted bourgeois narratives of appropriation. He maintained that Verne “in no way sought to enlarge the world by romantic ways of escape or mystical plans to reach the infinite: he constantly sought to shrink it, to populate it, to reduce it to a known and enclosed space, where man could subsequently live in comfort.” According to Barthes, the image of the ship – central to all of Verne’s utopian science fictions – underpins this ‘appropriation’ and imperialist thrust. Verne’s ship is the “emblem of closure,” which always signifies “having at one’s disposal an absolute finite space.” Evoking Rimbaud’s “drunken boat,” Barthes maintained that the only way that Verne could have created a “genuine poetics of exploration” would have been to “leave the ship on its own,” thereby transforming it into “a traveling eye, which [would come] close to the infinite, … constantly beget[ting] departures.” [2]

In what follows, I consider Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle’s film Le Monde du Silence (The Silent World, 1956), situating it, and the expeditions it represents, alongside Barthes’ reflections on Verne. Barthes was critical of Verne’s construction of the natural world, accusing him of an appropriation of space that collapses the outside world into the commodified space of a conventional, bourgeois imagining. Using Barthes’ juxtaposition of spatial appropriation with the utopian possibilities of Rimbaud’s “drunken boat” – a boat literally filled with and thus at one with the sea – I intend to read Cousteau’s environmental films of the 1950s dialectically. I argue that after WWII, the oceans, made newly visible through popular media, underwent an incredible process of territorialization. Such changes were in part facilitated by changes to the long-standing laws pertaining to the seas as well as to advances in media and recording technologies.

I am particularly interested in locating The Silent World in the context of a new experience of mediatic space in the post-war period of the 1950s. This new sense of space as open and infinite and at the same time enveloping and immersive, comes about in the context created by World War II (though WWI is also part of the story [3]). This context was defined by the destructive capacity of the atomic bomb, which was widely seen on American television, as well as by the extensive reach of communications technologies –television and computers, and, in particular, radar and sonar. The Silent World celebrated Cousteau’s boat, Calypso, which was equipped with both radar and sonar, as a technologically advanced research laboratory and film studio. [4] The film thus helped to inaugurate a technological humanism and environmental ethos that, while pointing towards the future of the planet, revealed its previously undisturbed and unseen depths in ways both utopian and imperial.

Cousteau’s explorations led to many technological innovations in cinema, especially in underwater photography, to which Cousteau devoted his life. Yet his early ‘research’ was not disinterested; it was supported by the ideological and capitalist agendas of companies such as British Petroleum (BP) and the National Geographic Society, whose magazine also documented and publicized his expeditions. Moreover, as we shall see, Cousteau’s discovery and filming of the underwater world cannot be considered apart from the Nazi Occupation of France during World War II or from France’s long-standing colonial and capitalist ventures in the Mediterranean.

Cousteau’s project was oriented toward the future. Referring to his divers as “oceanauts,” he wished to uncover a new world through “space exploration,” to link inner and outer space. His environmental ethos concerned not so much humankind as it did planet Earth, the oceans in particular.

Cousteau: Commandant or Man Fish?

Throughout his fifty-year career, Cousteau developed two public personas that were seemingly at odds with one another. On the one hand, he was the ‘Commandant Cousteau,’ the captain. This figure was first reported on the pages of Life Magazine in November 1950, in a photographic essay that featured “underwater wonders.” Here, a forty-year-old French naval commandant was introduced to the American public as a free diver and filmmaker whose seven films would soon be released. Cousteau, according to the accompanying commentary, intended to make “oceanographic studies around the world.” The text went on to explain that “He does not expect to encounter any difficulties…because like any well-bred visitor, he usually respects the inhabitants of the watery world he invades and in turn is usually unmolested.” [5]

While this might well have been Cousteau’s general approach, the wonders of the sea occasionally featured dramatic and violent interactions with fish. One encounter with an octopus showed Cousteau’s close collaborator Frédérique Dumas being sprayed in the face by ink. In another film, Cousteau and his team encountered a “deadly” shark, pictured head-on through Cousteau’s lens in “a nose-to-nose close-up.” The caption to this image in which the shark eerily resembles a submarine, reads: “‘It was not until this moment,’ says Cousteau solemnly, ‘that I realized the seriousness of the situation.’” [6]

In contrast, one year later, in 1951, France’s Paris Match magazine would introduce a decidedly different Cousteau to the French public, describing the retired naval officer as l’homme-poisson – the man-fish – who, in his efforts to connect with the ocean’s inhabitants, was learning to imitate and swim like fish. Paris Match published Cousteau’s first color photographs of the ocean floor – indeed, the first such photographs in the world, according to the article. Cousteau would play up this anthropomorphic identity in his 1952 article for National Geographic, “Fish Men Explore a New World Undersea.” [7]

Arguably, one of the reasons for Cousteau’s success might well lie in the movement between these two figures, one of knowledge (the commandant) and the other, l’homme-poisson was a kind of composite being. These two figures provide a mediation between ground and water, stable and unstable worlds. As Daston and Katharine Park explain, hybrid beings are “exotic races.” They are not singular aberrations that would make them monsters. They hold fascination because of their meaning rather than their form.” [8] In Cousteau’s case these beings represented the future of the planet. Indeed, in their lightweight costumes and their high tech gear – featuring underwater scooters and diving saucers, specially designed cameras and sonar – they pointed toward a new mediated mobility as our future world. Cousteau’s advanced technology was always a signature of his enterprise.

According to Cousteau’s biographers, he was (like Disney) inspired to create underwater explorations for film by Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Though neither a scientist nor engineer, Cousteau was devoted to both science and engineering, which came together in cinema. He began experimenting with diving gear and underwater cameras during the war and, in 1943, he co-invented, with Émile Gagnan – the Aqualung – the first successful self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (scuba), which revolutionized both diving and deep-sea photography by creating compressed and regulated portable air. His innovations in diving equipment were motivated by his desire to film underwater, which required an ability to descend to greater depths and to remain underwater for longer periods of time. Of course, his innovations in both diving and cinema also enabled him to provide valuable information to the French Underground and the military during WWII. [9]

This combination of engineering, science and filmmaking would define the ‘commandant’ in the red-knit cap, a persona that Cousteau would present consistently in the following decades. From the beginning of his early documentaries, Cousteau had worked with Philippe Tailliez and Fréderic Dumas; they called themselves “les Musquemers.” Underwater films had always been plagued by lighting problems, and they struggled with light from early on, in Par 18mm de fond (1942) and in the award-winning Epaves (1943), which, with its sunken ships, shark fishing and underwater choreography, was in so many ways a rough draft of The Silent World. Cousteau took inspiration from the underwater photographs of Louis Boutan, which had been published in 1893, and by the underwater photographs and films created by the English journalist John Ernest Williamson, whose images were created through a deep-sea tube. He was equally admiring of the beautiful surrealist documentaries of his contemporary Jean Painlevé who documented anthropocentric animal movement in water tanks. Yet Cousteau was singled minded in his desire to film life underwater, and his team recorded at greater depths than any of his predecessors.

In order solve the problems with lighting that prevented him from filming at greater depths, Cousteau visited MIT in 1953. Seeking a solution to his difficulties, he began a collaboration with Harold Edgerton, a pioneer in high-speed photography and inventor of the strobe light and other photographic devices. Edgerton spent several summers aboard the Calypso, outfitting the ship with a sonar camera that skimmed along the ocean floor on a sled (creating 800 exposures per hour) and produced low-resolution, ghostlike photographs of deep-sea creatures. While Edgerton’s innovations in lighting technology helped Cousteau with conceptualizing his forms of lighting synchronized with the camera, he was less interested in remote sensing (though this is represented in the film) than in direct contact with life in the sea.

To better record the rapid movements of fish and water, to explore the depths of the ocean floor, Cousteau and Edgerton experimented with stop-motion photography. Cousteau’s awareness of the density and changeability of the ocean as a living, interactive world drove him to continuously revise the design of his camera throughout the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s. Like Uexküll’s use of chronophotography to photograph small sea animals in context, i.e., in their umwelts, Cousteau’s experimental methodology allowed him to constantly adapt his techniques and technology as he learned more about cameras, as well as about the ocean and its inhabitants. Cousteau oversaw the design of a special camera that could handle sixty meters of film – enough to last for the duration of a single dive. He experimented with film stock, choosing Eastman Color over Kodachrome because it was more sensitive to light. A Hublot prototype of an ultra-wide-angle lens of 18mm focal length with a diaphragm opening of f.7 was devised in order to correct underwater distortion. Some parts of The Silent World were shot at 48 frames per second in order to capture the movement of fish. [10] Eventually, Cousteau began to shoot with fully open apertures, and he created new forms of lighting able to illuminate depths of more than 100 meters. All of these techniques helped to reproduce the experience of being under the sea and allowed him to photograph animals in their natural environments. These innovations inaugurated a radical era in expedition films, with, as Bazin pointed out, le documentaire sous marin.

The Silent World

Noted as one of the first films to use underwater cinematography to show the ocean world in color, The Silent World garnered a Palme d’or, an Academy Award and worldwide attention when it was released in 1956. Cousteau brought together a team of people who were both skilled cinematographers and scuba divers. This included a young Louis Malle, who, at twenty-two, had recently graduated from the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques and, fortuitously, knew how to scuba dive. Given the role of co-director, Malle worked with Cousteau to create the script for The Silent World, and the two worked on other, shorter documentaries that preceded the feature film as well. The Silent World opens with an explosion – a phosphorous torch lights up the dark depths of the ocean below. Half a dozen divers, their torches guiding them, make their way down to the ocean floor, 115 feet below the surface. There is something timeless and undeniably otherworldly about these opening images; as the male narrator describes it, we are “in a mysterious realm, the silent world.” According to the shooting script, these images, glowing gold in deep blue water, were to be reserved for the film’s final scenes, but Cousteau and Malle apparently changed their minds. Clearly, they recognized the power of leading with an image of the ocean being cracked open by light and by human divers. This was accompanied by the sound of breathing and images of bubbles and foam. Not only do the film’s images reveal an ephemeral beauty, but, more significantly, and as Bazin emphasized, the film gives us – liberates us into – water not as metaphor, “superficial, mobile, rustling, lustrous”, but instead, “the Ocean, water considered as the other half of the universe, as three-dimensional milieu, more stable and homogenous than air and whose envelopment frees us from gravity.” It offers us “a science…stronger than our imagination.” In contrast to the cosmos, the film presents the space beneath us, a life-world reflected through radar. From this perspective, we are but one grain of sand among others on the ocean’s beach. [11] Indeed, from The Silent World’s opening images, it is impossible to orient ourselves in this space of darkness in which the near and the far cannot be fathomed – a space at first seemingly devoid of animals, a safe space for humans outfitted as fish, a space that is completely foreign. The central theme of the film is the human exploration of the ocean environment, which includes non-human animals and plants. Penetrated by the phosphorous torches of the divers, this silent and liquid world envelops and overwhelms them. Though we have no sense of where we are, we are inside something that appears to be beyond the confines of culture and society—it is a space that exceeds the humans who study it. As Bazin declared, the film materializes a mythology of water and sets up a deep and secret encounter between the sea and humankind: “Humans, say biologists, are sea animals who wear the sea on the inside” The film thus creates the sense of a return to origins. [12]

The Silent World, 1956, dir. Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Louis Malle, film still, © Columbia Pictures. (Fair use.)

The Silent World, 1956, dir. Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Louis Malle, film still, © Columbia Pictures. (Fair use.)

It is vital to underline the new visibility and increasing presence of the oceans in the popular culture of North America and Europe in the 1950s and 60s. This visibility was tied, on the one hand, to changes in the law of the seas that followed World War II and, on the other, to new modes of representation, which Cousteau and his team were instrumental in helping to launch. American President Harry Truman’s Proclamation of 1945 challenged the long-standing freedom of the seas by declaring that national sovereignty extended to the resources of the continental shelf. Other nations soon followed, claiming jurisdiction over as much of the sea as two hundred miles from shore. As R.P. Anand has pointed out, new marine technologies had revealed a new world under the sea; oceanographers had uncovered underwater vegetation that could benefit humankind and, more importantly, had discovered that the sea floor was an abundant source of natural resources and minerals. Technology made accessible oil and gas resources that lay buried under the seabed off the shores of various countries. [13] Furthermore, technology was transforming the fishing industry, and the maritime and military great powers (the U.S., the Soviet Union, France, the U.K.) were claiming the seas in order to test modern weapons. Not long after WWII, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Venezuela and some Eastern European countries, departing from the traditional three-mile limit, laid territorial claim to twelve miles of the sea off their respective coasts. [14]

In Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture, Kristin Ross reminds us that France exhibited particular contradictions in the postwar period: it was an “exploiter / exploited country, dominator / dominated exploiting colonial populations at the same time that it was dominated by, or more precisely, entering more and more into collaboration or fusion with, American Capitalism.” [15] Certainly, we must understand The Silent World in these terms, as well as in terms of the new visual culture of the Cold War, which embraced the figure of Cousteau. His image of the ocean as escape and adventure complemented the burgeoning of images of exotic locales that, thanks to innovations in commercial aviation—especially the introduction of the Boeing 707 jet in 1958, which enabled mass travel—were bolstering the explosion of the tourism industry in the 1950s and 1960s.


  1. Lorraine Daston, “Wonder and the Ends of Inquiry,” The Point Magazine 8, Summer 2014, accessed December 12, 2014, life/wonder-ends-inquiry/
  2. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1973), 66–67.
  3. See Marcus Krajewski for the emergence of ‘The World’ as a concept and project in science and government bureaus in the late 19th century: World Projects: Global Information Before World War I, trans. Charles Marcrum II (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).
  4. In July 19, 1950, Cousteau, with the financial assistance of the family of his wife, Simone Melchior Cousteau, was able to purchase the now legendary Calypso, a British Royal Navy minesweeper that he would convert into a scientific laboratory for oceanic research and a floating film studio.
  5. Jacques-Yves Cousteau, “Photographic Essay: Underwater Wonders.” Life Magazine, vol. 29, no.22, November 1950: 119–126.
  6. Ibid, 124.
  7. Jacques-Yves Cousteau,“Fish Men Explore a New World Undersea,” National Geographic, vol. 102, no.4, October 1952: 431–472.
  8. Lorraine J. Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750 (New York: Zone Books, 1998).
  9. Richard Munson, Cousteau: The Captain & His World (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1989), 33; Brad Matsen, Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King (New York: Pantheon, 2009), 40.
  10. Franck Machu, Un cineaste nommé Cousteau (Monaco: Rocher, 2011).
  11. André Bazin, Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1956), 36.
  12. Ibid., 35.
  13. Ram Prakash Ananad, Origin and Development of the Law of the Sea (Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1982), 162.
  14. UN website,
  15. Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 7


Janine Marchessault is a Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at York University where she is the Inaugural Director of Sensorium: Centre for Digital Arts Research and Technology. She is the author of McLuhan:Cosmic Media (Sage, 2005) and Ecstatic World: Media, Humanism, Ecology (forthcoming). She is co-editor of numerous books including Cartographies of Place: Navigating the Urban (McGill- Queen’s Press 2014), Reimagining Cinema: Film at Expo 67 (McGill-Queen’s Press 2014), and 3D Cinema and Beyond (Intellect Press/University of Chicago Press, 2013). For over twenty years she has been part of the Public Access Collective, which curates public art in non traditional spaces and seeks to understand the new civic cultures that artists are shaping. In 2012, she was awarded a Trudeau Fellowship for her public art projects.