Customer Reviews: Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King
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on October 27, 2009
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. Matsen never gets in the way, steering an even-handed course, allowing the darker revelations and less-flattering aspects of the man speak for themselves. A bonus: the book's photos, many provided by family members and never before published, are excellent. Highest recommendation.

John Grissim, author of The Lost Treasure of the Concepcion and Pure Stoke
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on October 21, 2009
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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on April 10, 2010
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. And we are robbed of deeper understanding of his wife, Simone, who stood by him through many tough years relationally and financially. I wished for more humor, more tidbits, more insight. True, I came away with more facts about this man I once adored, but little heart connection. Sadly, "The Sea King" didn't go deep enough.
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on March 27, 2010
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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on November 2, 2014
I grew up on Jaques Couseau, Wild Kingdom and all the rest of those iconic wildlife shows.

The Sea king was a great way to delve more into what made the iconic Cousteau tick

Great background to a legend.
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on October 30, 2012
Ive been reading this wonderful book about one of my childhood heroes and surprised to learn that many children dont know about Jacque Cousteau. Im buying up copies from amazon to give as Christmas gifts. Apparently there is whole new generation who haven't had exposure to this great adventurer.

Im savoring every page and planning to read all of Brad Matsen's books!
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on February 21, 2010
Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King provides a powerful biography of the seafaring naturalist, following his early days as a pilot in the French Navy until an accident forced him to recover by swimming to build his strength. His inventions, increasing passion for undersea exploration, and growing reputation that led to the gift of his world-famous boat Calypso makes for a vivid story, hard to put down.
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Fast reading and informative book about Jacques Costeau's 20th century inventions and discoveries. It is startling to learn that the undersea explorations and diving equipment inventions were due to Cousteau's desire to dive deeper and search the world's oceans.

There is enough information in this book to learn about ocean explorations in the 20th century without getting too detailed. Every person should read this book to understand that ocean exploration and space exploration are equally important and that space was done by countries' funding and ocean was done by a few good, curious adventurers! Very interesting insight into the personal life and personality of Jacques.
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VINE VOICEon June 6, 2012
Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King, by Brad Matsen, is another book in a series I am reading on the founders of the modern environmental movement. Cousteau never started off as a conservationist. The ocean and diving were his entry into film making, but the decades turned him into an ocean advocate. As Cousteau was discussing the purchase of a boat (it would eventually be Calypso), Cousteau wondered aloud whether the ocean, "...long thought to be impervious to destruction by man, might be more fragile than everyone believed" (p. 108). And later, "I am not optimistic that the destruction can be reversed, but I am embarking on a four-year expedition to film the oceans and their inhabitants so future generations can know them as I have known them" (p. 177). And then, simply and powerfully, "The oceans are in danger of dying" (p. 191).

His adventures were many, including having Calypso caught up in the Egypt-Israel war, developing deep exploration and long-term residency under the ocean, and changing his mind regarding keeping dolphins in captive, which he once tried to do: "It is useless to pretend that captivity in any form is less than cruel... I detest the idea of training and conditioning animals and teaching them tricks as people do in zoos and circuses" (p. 187-188).

Did Cousteau believe in God?
"If there is anything like God, it is so complex that we have no idea of what it is like. The concept of God is separate from ourselves. We have no importance to a God if there is one" (p. 7).
"If there is a god and He's interested in life, He's just as interested in a French poodle as in you or me" (p. 250).

What did he believe in?
"We must go and see for ourselves" (p. 116).
"I believe in the instant. I am going to give you a quote that has guided my life. I don't like quotes, but this one enlightens me. It's a Spanish proverb" 'The road to paradise is paradise'" (p. 7).
"Our films have only one ambition... to show the truth about nature and give people the wish to know more. I do not stand as a scientist giving dry explanations. I am an honest witness" (p. 186).

What did author Matsen think about the influence of The Cousteau Society? "The Cousteau Society was a dramatic alteration of the power balance in the environmental movement that had taken hold in America and Europe in the early seventies. The Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and dozens of other international, national, and local groups had created a landscape of advocacy in which they succeeded in fund-raising with single-issue campaigns such as the slaughter of baby seals for their fur, overfishing, nuclear energy, destructive mining practices, and ocean pollution. The Cousteau Society weighed in on most of those issues but concentrated on its overarching mission of convincing the people of the world that they are dependent upon one another for survival" (p. 195-196). I remember being a member! And Ted Turner (WTBS and Turner Broadcasting) said, "If there is a mother of the environmental movement it was Rachel Carson. If there is a father, it is Jacques Cousteau" (p. 235).

My diving adventures have me agreeing with this comment by Cousteau: "When a person takes his first dive, he is born to another world" (p. 151).

Interesting stuff. Cousteau was less than perfect as a husband and father, and that shows. But he was dedicated to the core to bringing oceans into our living rooms, and our conversations.

I think he succeeded.
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on January 7, 2010
I've had two heroes in my life - Garrison Keillor and Jacques Cousteau. I've been fortunate enough to meet and spend more than few minutes with both of them(Jaques surprised me with his warmth and friendliness). This book is a truly inspiring account of a man who lived his dreams, whose work was not work, but a joy. The other major theme, which was the huge marketing effort that went into creating and managing the Jacques Cousteau brand, is not inspiring, but a good lesson. The final theme (a familiar one) is of a womanizing celebrity. What makes this aspect of Cousteau's life different is his decision to betray his oldest son. This is a real bombshell without much explanation. I suppose in the end, only Jacques Cousteau knows why he made this decision, which he evidently took to his grave. I enjoy biographies and this was good one.
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