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Book Review of "The Silent World" by Jacques Cousteau and F. Dumas

An Account of the Early Days of Scuba Diving

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I read Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Frederic Dumas's "The Silent World" with equal sensations of wonder and horror. "The Silent World" is a collection of essays recounting Jacques Cousteau and Frederic Dumas's early days of scuba diving. The chapters are filled with charming accounts of the pair's enchantment with the underwater world, but they also describe behavior that may seem foolhardy or cruel to modern divers. One example is the capture and dissection of a dolphin, followed by the observation that its brain has just as many convolutions as a human brain -- a sign of great intelligence in the animal they just sacrificed. I felt nauseated reading that story, but I tried to remember that Cousteau's actions were motivated by a scientific curiosity of an unknown world, and not by malicious intent. As long as the reader understands that "The Silent World" was written over fifty years ago by men who were discovering and exploring the underwater realm for the first time, the book is an enjoyable journey of discovery.

Cousteau Shares His Delight in Scuba Diving

"The Silent World" covers topics such as the design and use of the first "aqualung" diving system, the first diving unit that allowed divers to swim freely underwater without being limited by a long hose supplying air from the surface. Cousteau recounts the emotions of his first "naked" dive without a heavy helmet and diving suit. Divers will empathize with his childlike delight in his first scuba dive, his descriptions of the feeling of swimming freely like a fish, and the joy of weightlessness. Cousteau writes, "To halt and hang attached to nothing, no lines or air pipe on the surface, was a dream. At night I had often had visions of flying by extending my arms as wings. Now, I flew without wings." Reading "The Silent World," one realizes that before Cousteau became a world-famous personality, he was first and foremost a diver. His simple love of the underwater world comes though in his clear, vivid descriptions and enthusiastic stories.

Cousteau Discusses the Development of the Diving Guidelines and Limits

Cousteau was also an innovator. He pushed for the creation of the Undersea Research Group in the French Navy, and later used this group to advance human exploration of the underwater world. Cousteau and his group were instrumental in testing the limits of scuba diving. Nerve-wracking chapters of "The Silent World" are devoted to descriptions of testing gear, determining the aqualung's weaknesses, discovering the perils of impure air, and learning about the depth limits of air diving. The book also explains fundamental diving concepts used by the Undersea Research Group in simple language that even non-divers will have no problem comprehending (such as the relationship between pressure and depth). Cousteau, in his typical subtle humor, describes early incidents and mistakes made by the Undersea Research Group and argues that in the end, every mistake was for the best. "In testing devices in which one's life is at stake," he writes, "such accidents induce a zeal for improvement."
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Cousteau on Marine Life

Perhaps my favorite part of "The Silent World" is the chapter entitled "Monsters We Have Met." In this chapter, Cousteau describes swimming with sharks, squid, octopi and other sea life popularly portrayed as dangerous to humans. He learns, much to his shock, that most marine life wants nothing to do with divers. In fact, the majority of underwater animals seem to fear humans. Cousteau writes passionately of the gentle nature of underwater life, and of the need for humans to understand and protect marine creatures instead of fear them. He concludes his chapter on marine life stating, "Such are the monsters we have met. If none have eaten us, it is perhaps because they have never read the instructions so generously provided in marine demonology."

A Enjoyable, Poorly-Edited Book

My main disappointment in "The Silent World" is the poor editing and (my guess) poor translation. Some sentences appear to have been translated directly from French without much thought to coherency. The edition I read is the 2004 edition by the National Geographic Society by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers Inc. This book is wrought with typos more typical of a high school essay than a publication by a world-renowned organization. The typos and grammatical mistakes become more frequent as the book progresses, cumulating in misspellings and random letters in the last chapter. My guess is that the book was edited last-minute, and that some exhausted editor was on his fiftieth cup of coffee by the last chapter and just gave up. If you can get past the less-than-professional copy (and I will admit, this was hard for me) this book is worth a read.

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