The year is 1973 and the French explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau is nearing the end of a 4-month expedition in Antarctica aboard the 141-foot research vessel Calypso, a converted British Royal Navy minesweeper. Cousteau departed for Antarctica from Marseille, France, in September of 1972 to observe the fauna and ice formations, and to capture footage of the frozen continent from land, air and sea, using a helicopter, hot air balloon and the diving saucer SP-350 Denise.
During the expedition, Cousteau found that while Antarctica was the least polluted place in the world, there was evidence of contamination in the water, as well as insecticides and heavy metals in the wildlife. He noted other hazards to the continent’s wildlife as well, including litter, sled dogs, the growing number of helicopters flying over the region, and overhunting of whales and seals. Despite these findings, Cousteau was impressed by the “beauty of the landscape, the sea and the penguins,” and the transparent air reminded him of “the clear atmosphere of my infancy,” he told the New York Times in 1973.
While beautiful, Antarctica was also remarkably hostile, and Cousteau’s expedition was cut approximately 10 days short when, on February 9, heavy snow reduced visibility to zero in Hope Bay, where Calypso was surrounded by icebergs. Within 5 minutes, the wind increased from 0 to 65 mph, and the expedition crew found themselves in the middle of a blizzard. Calypso was struck twice by ice floes, which smashed a 2-foot hole in her hull and broke her port propeller shaft. She spent the next three days circling near land in 80 knots of wind, until the weather let up and the crew was able to navigate her to King George Island and then across the Drake Passage, to the tip of South America, all on one propeller and loaded down with 30 tons of ice and snow that had collected on deck through the storms. Cousteau then flew to the United States, leaving the vessel in Argentina to continue a filming trip along the Chilean coast.
Cousteau documented this expedition in his 1976 film Voyage to the Edge of the World, the first-ever film to show extreme-depth footage of Antarctic waters. In 1990, Cousteau launched an international petition to safeguard the continent in order to protect the unique plant and animal life, proclaiming, “Antarctica is an inestimable treasure that we must preserve intact for future generations.”
This article was originally published in the February 2022 issue.