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Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King Hardcover – October 20, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In his latest research effort, Matsen (Titanic's Last Secrets) aims to produce a "respectful, honest remembrance" of beloved oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, with admirable results. An adventurer, inventor, explorer, environmentalist and filmmaker, Cousteau, along with his talented crew and family members, developed groundbreaking tools for diving and filming underwater. Matsen traces Cousteau's career and personal life from his 1911 birth throughout the twentieth century, as he pursued military and, later, civilian life, two marriages, attempting to answer questions about the individual beneath the public figure: "How could a man of such immense power have allowed his children... to turn against each other? Was he a tragic character hidden behind the veil of celebrity? Does he deserve our enduring love?" While he doesn't uncover all the answers, Matsen examines Cousteau with a sensitive eye, qualifying his astounding career and lasting legacy (just in time for 2009's anticipated restoration of Cousteau's vessel Calypso). Readers will learn the particulars of Cousteau-designed Aqua Lungs and wetsuits, as well as the underwater living experiment and nonprofit corporations that Cousteau founded, without neglecting the challenges of funding his adventures. Environmentalists, divers, and armchair ocean lovers will all soak up this work.
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Advance Praise for Jacques Cousteau

"Like the subject of this book, Brad Matsen has found his true milieu; the deep ocean. Now he brings his very special brilliance to illuminate the undersea world of Jacques Cousteau. He has done a masterful job in this much-needed, revealing biography of the ocean's most illustrious adventurer, filmmaker, conservationist, and advocate."
—Richard Ellis, author of Tuna: A Love Story and On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear

"Jacques Cousteau was a genius who became an icon that became a legend. His legacy continues every time anyone dons a scuba tank, or even thinks of an undersea image. Matsen's book, perfect for beachside or bedside, is a worthy chronicle of a truly whale-sized life."
—Carl Safina, president and cofounder of the Blue Ocean Institute

"A marvelous story. Matsen's biography made me realize I knew almost nothing about the incredible inventor, scientist, businessman, explorer, and environmentalist that was Jacques Cousteau. I owe my career as a professional diver to him. Undoubtedly, this biography will inspire a new generation of divers to take to the water."
—John Chatterton, celebrated scuba diver and cohost of the television series Deep Sea Detectives

"I have looked into the sea all my life, and Cousteau has always been there, leading and guiding my journey. But the heroic image of the French explorer who informed, enlightened, and entertained us was as mysterious as the depths he plumbed. Now Brad Matsen shines light on the man behind the icon. A fascinating exploration of a true legend of the sea!"
—Richie Kohler, celebrated scuba diver and cohost of the television series Deep Sea Detectives

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1st edition (October 20, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 037542413X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375424137
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #289,205 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I published my first short story in 1972 and have been making most of my living as a writer ever since. I was in the Marine Corps from 1966 to 1971 and have also worked as a merchant seaman, charter pilot, commercial fisherman, lecturer, and magazine editor. I have a BA in English from the University of North Carolina and a Master of Fine Arts in fiction from the University of California at Irvine. I will be seventy in July, 2014. I am the author of Death and Oil: A True Story of the Piper Alpha Disaster on the North Sea; Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King; Descent: The Heroic Discovery of the Abyss, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2006; the New York Times bestseller Titanic's Last Secrets; Planet Ocean: A Story of Life the Sea, and Dancing to the Fossil Record with artist Ray Troll; the Incredible Ocean Adventure series for children, recipient of the National Science Teachers Award for 2004; Go Wild in New York City on urban ecology for children; and many other books. I was a creative producer for The Shape of Life, an eight-hour National Geographic television series on evolutionary biology, and wrote the accompanying book. I have written on marine science and the environment for Mother Jones, Audubon, Natural History, and dozens of other magazines. I have been awarded two fellowships at the MacDowell Colony and a residency at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. Like so many mid-list authors in the new age of celebrity publishing, I have not sold a book since the collapse of the industry five years ago. No complaints, though. It's been a wonderful life. I now live with my sweetheart, Barbara Manchester, and my standard poodle, Lucky, in Port Townsend, Washington.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By John Grissim on October 27, 2009
Format: Hardcover
To cut to the chase, Sea King is a wonderful fast-paced, very entertaining read, a lively unauthorized, carefully researched biography of a 20th Century world icon, warts and all, skillfully told by arguably the best author on marine topics writing today (Matsen's two most recent books: Descent and Titanic's Last Secrets, both terrific). With Cousteau, the author had his work cut out. The man was a complex, formidable personality: inventor, self-taught scientist, filmmaker, adventurer, explorer, visionary, charmer, canny marketer, environmentalist, and celebrated world citizen. With his pitch-perfect narrative voice, Matsen delivers in spades, revealing Cousteau was also a bit of a con, self-absorbed, not a little sociopathic, a tireless ladies man (reportedly he slept with 10,000 women), and oh so French. He also had a secret life: a second family with a devoted mistress who bore him children and who following his death, emerged as the controversial controller of the Cousteau estate.
What surprised me is that Cousteau's life story is only now being told-amazing considering Cousteau's decades-long celebrity and profound impact on both scuba diving and the conservation movement. Matsen plunges in with gusto. It's all here: the invention of the double-stage regulator (replete with near fatal experiments), the breakthrough documentary The Silent World, behind-the-scenes tales of the Calypso voyages (groupies and all), the tragic death of Cousteau's son Philippe, Cousteau's quirky successful partnership with media mogul Ted Turner, the meteoric success of the Cousteau Society and its long messy public unraveling.
Great stuff, all of it.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By urbaneye on October 21, 2009
Format: Hardcover
An exciting and well written biography of an amazing man. The author tells the story of Cousteau with a nonsensational but highly engaging voice. Although I'm a big fan of all things Cousteau, Matsen reveals many aspects of him I was not even remotely aware of.

One of the remarkable things about the book is that it wasn't written a long time ago - as far as I know this is the only English-language detailed account of Cousteau's life and work: a man that not only revolutionized how we look at and engage with our watery planet, invented Scubadiving - but also had a fascinating (and thoroughly complicated...) personal life. This makes for a real page-turner, and Matsen delivers the goods with style.

I reccomend it to all people who are interested in the oceans, diving - or just want an entertaining read!
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Eric Wilson on April 10, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I grew up watching Jacques Cousteau on TV. He was a forerunner in the movement to protect our seas and our planet, and he was always entertaining as a filmmaker and storyteller. I can still hear his voice-overs in my head.

The appearance of "The Sea King" had me excited. I wanted to find out more about this man's life, his family, career, secrets, and more of the playful and dangerous experiences from his colorful life. The book starts at a snail pace. We wade through page after page of dry facts, told with little imagination or style. This reads like a textbook on the inventor of the Aqua-Lung, lacking that spark of storytelling prowess that infused Cousteau's own work. I plugged away, skimming well-researched but tedious details about the early efforts to perfect the Aqua-Lung. In between, I caught a few glimpses of Cousteau's background, including the conflict in the family due to his brother's collaboration with Nazis during WWII.

After the first few chapters, the book picks up a bit, giving us insights into the emergence of the Calypso ship--thanks to an heir of the Guinness Beer empire--and Ted Turner's part in helping the Cousteau Society press on in the changing times. It's sad to read how "Happy Days" and "Laverne and Shirley" (fun shows, in their own rights) pushed Cousteau's groundbreaking work into obscurity. Nevertheless, the man's face remained one of the most recognizable in the world until the late 1980's, and his impact is hard to measure.

The author gives only snippets of Cousteau's personal life, only peeks at his philandering ways, his family struggles, and his reactions to tragedy. I'm sure this was intentional, to protect the family legacy, but it only blurs the three-dimensional complexity of a man so many admired.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By David J. Lanteigne on March 27, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Much of this biography is engagingly written, especially the middle section dealing with Cousteau's part in the early days of scuba diving and the new worlds that it opened up. The latter part is more dreary, largely due to the tragedies of Cousteau's family, and his personal choices, and perhaps also because some of the principals from this phase of Cousteau's life are not talking, at least to the biographer.

From the first pages of this book, the author displays an incomprehension of background facts. On page 12, he speaks of the Romans "creating the city now called Bordeaux with the profits from sugar, tobacco, indigo, cotton, ebony, cocoa, coffee slaves, and oysters..."; certainly the Romans did not have the products of the New World like tobacco and cocoa yet. When it comes to the vital role of the Air Liquide company in the development of diving equipment, the explanation of liquefying gases is terribly confused. For example, he says that "as pressure increases, the boiling point decreases," (p.53), which is exactly backwards, and his whole discussion reflects this confusion. The explanation of the formation of nitrogen bubbles in blood and tissue with the bends is similarly muddled. Aside from history and physics, the attempts at psycho-analyzing Cousteau do not seem entirely credible. The unattested claim that the presence of women became as "essential as oxygen" due to early fears of maternal abandonment just seems like literary foreshadowing. These inclinations are all apparent in the early pages of the book. leading me to a skepticism about the remainder.

Still, I'm glad to have read it, and intend to seek out the primary sources, like Cousteau's "The Silent World."
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