Jacques Cousteau’s famed research vessel, the Calypso, has languished in a coastal French warehouse amid a dispute between the Cousteau Society and a shipbuilding company over its restoration.
CONCARNEAU, France — In its day, the Calypso was more than an oceanographic research vessel. It was the constant companion of the famed French explorer Jacques Cousteau, as the ship and its captain logged more than 1 million nautical miles from the Red Sea and the Amazon to Antarctica and the Indian Ocean.
Now, all that can be seen of it is a skeletal hull, extending outside a warehouse in Concarneau, a port town on the coast of Brittany in western France.
It is difficult to recognize it as the same boat that starred in award-winning films and televised adventures beginning in the mid-1950s and extending into the 1980s. During those years, the Calypso and Cousteau turned into icons of a vibrant ecology movement, raising awareness of the wonders and fragility of the world’s oceans. Their travels brought the duo fame and made them synonymous with the romance of marine exploration, as they pursued sharks, sea sponges and shipwrecks across the globe.
Today, the Calypso rots in the warehouse where it was brought to be repaired in 2007. Stripped of the metal and wood that once encased it, weeds curling among the wooden beams of its frame, the ship is now a symbol of how Cousteau has faded in the collective memory and how despite France’s sailing tradition, neither the government nor his heirs have found a solution for its restoration.
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Cousteau, the country’s premier oceanographer and environmental advocate, was as much showman as scientist, and he astutely recognized that to get funding, scientific research had to appeal to a popular audience. By refining underwater filming, he did just that, creating a wealth of documentation of life beneath the ocean waves.
But he left little clear direction about what should become of the vessel that accompanied him in his explorations for more than 40 years after he died at 87 at home in Paris in 1997.
In 1996, the Calypso was in the Singapore harbor when a barge accidentally rammed it, sinking the boat to the seafloor. It took days to bring it to the surface and much longer to bring it back to France.
Although the Cousteau Society, a nonprofit environmental organization founded by the explorer, set out to restore the boat after Cousteau’s death, there have been lawsuits and disputes that have left the boat’s wooden frame weathering and its famous false nose with an underwater chamber rusting away.
“It is depressing to see that no one has come to be its patron,” said Pascale Bladier-Chassaigne, managing director of the Association for Maritime and Fluvial Patrimony, describing the ship as “mythic” and “emblematic” for France.
In 2014, the association designated the Calypso as part of the country’s maritime cultural heritage, but it has yet to be considered a national monument by the state, which would give it a chance to compete for preservation funding.
The neglect is not surprising, said Gérard D’Aboville, captain of PlanetSolar, a solar-powered research vessel. “We are a country where the maritime heritage has great difficulties existing,” he said by phone from his boat.
The Calypso’s chances for government sponsorship have also diminished as its fame recedes, he noted. “If you ask the younger generation in France, they don’t know about it at all,” D’Aboville said.
The unresolved fate of the Calypso raises questions about what should happen to a ship when it reaches the end of its working life, especially a boat that was groundbreaking in its day. The frequent practice of chopping a boat into bits for recycling strikes many as a painful insult to a boat with such an august history.
No one was talking about such a dire option when the boat arrived in Concarneau for a complete restoration in 2007. Crowds thronged the quays to see it towed into port. The Cousteau Society handed out red caps in memory of those worn by the late Cousteau, and people applauded.
“When we learned that the workshop had succeeded in obtaining the order for the renovation of the Calypso, it was greeted with great joy and pride,” recalled Bruno Quillivic, deputy mayor for ports in Concarneau, referring to the workshop of Piriou Naval Services, one of France’s biggest shipbuilders.
All went well, initially. But by the beginning of 2009, the Cousteau Society decided the renovations were inadequate and stopped payment. Piriou stopped working on the boat and a series of court actions ensued.
A judge ruled in favor of Piriou, saying the Cousteau Society needed to pay the shipbuilder 273,000 euros ($300,000) and to remove the boat from the Concarneau warehouse. Piriou said this year that if the Cousteau Society failed to remove the boat by mid-March, it would take steps to auction off the Calypso.
That date has come and gone and no sale has taken place. No city or country has come forward to offer the boat a home.
The Cousteau Society has said it is in discussions with Monaco, where Cousteau directed the Oceanographic Museum for many years. The society said Cousteau’s widow, Francine, did not wish to comment on the boat.
On the docks at Concarneau, in the shipyards, and among the fisherman, there is little dispute about the right way to pay respect to the Calypso: It should be sent to the ocean floor.
Jacques Scavennec, 70, a sailor, spoke firmly: “It must be sunk 3,000 meters deep and not spoken of anymore,” he said.