Living in a World without Sun: Jacques Cousteau, Homo aquaticus, and the Dream of Dwelling Undersea

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Author: Jon Crylen
Date: Fall 2018
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 11,755 words

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Abstract: This article examines Jacques-Yves Cousteau's 1960s concept of Homo aquaticus in relation to three documentaries. A Utopian variant of Homo sapiens that Cousteau forecast would evolve to live and work undersea, Homo aquaticus also appeared at a time when Western nations regarded the sea primarily as an exploitable resource. Cousteau's films give expression to this idea aesthetically, in the undersea life they depict and in the array of diving technologies and underwater habitats they showcase, apparatuses that extended human reach underwater. By emphasizing Cousteau's vanguard figure of the underwater man, this article shifts scholarly focus from Cousteau's celebrity, his conservationist stances, and his films' representations of wildlife to a central paradox of his early films: a poetic vision of freedom from the surface that is bound to a project of ocean domination.


"I think there will be a conscious and deliberate evolution of Homo aquaticus, spurred by human intelligence rather than the slow blind natural adaptation of species. We are now moving toward an alteration of human anatomy to give man almost unlimited freedom underwater." (1) So Jacques-Yves Cousteau told a baffled audience of ocean scientists at the World Congress on Underwater Activities in London in October 1962. Although Cousteau based his claim on American scientists' research into surgically implantable artificial gills that would allow divers, like fish, to regenerate the oxygen in their blood without breathing air, his ultimate vision was of "future generations born in underwater villages, finally adapting to the environment so that no surgery will be necessary to permit them to live and breathe underwater." (2) In other words, Cousteau believed that the human body would evolve to perform organically functions for which it had hitherto relied on prostheses.

Although Cousteau's dream of a race of surgically and later evolutionarily enhanced water people who live and work undersea remains unfulfilled, both his films and television shows and the diving technologies that enabled him to make them--the Aqua-Lung he developed with Emile Gagnan, as well as his fleet of submersibles and undersea habitats along the continental shelf--were instrumental in shaping popular ideas of what human life undersea might be like. Not only is "undersea film" synonymous with Cousteau, the aquatic life he epitomized in his media work influenced countless subsequent films of ocean space, including both documentaries and fiction films by the likes of James Cameron, Luc Besson, Al Giddings, Wes Anderson, and Cousteau's own progeny, who continue to advance the late captain's conservationist attitudes toward the ocean.

More an avatar of conquest than of conservation, however, Homo aquaticus was conceived of at a time when Western industrial nations increasingly turned to the ocean, the "inner space" covering more than 70 percent of the earth's surface, to solve the problems posed by the terrestrial limits to growth. They viewed the ocean as a potentially endless treasure trove of food and fuel and even as a dumping ground for nuclear waste. As John F. Kennedy put it in his March 29, 1961, letter to the US Senate:...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A598464372