This is the fifth and final episode of Richard Hyman’s recollections of expeditions with Captain Jacques Cousteau and the crew of Calypso. Richard’s last episode described his 1975 adventures. Here he resumes in 1979.
It was the third of June in 1979 when I again rendezvoused with Calypso. She’d just completed yet another Atlantic crossing, sailed into Norfolk’s harbor, and docked at the NOAA pier off Brambleton Avenue. The Mayor greeted Captain Cousteau, as the U.S. Navy band played John Denver’s Calypso, which was now a hit song. We enjoyed a weeklong VIP welcome while also provisioning the ship.
Soon we’d journey to the Graveyard of the Atlantic and the wreck of the Civil War ironclad, the USS Monitor. There, once in the vicinity, we used side-scan sonar to find the unmarked wreck, which was protected within America’s first national marine sanctuary.
Historical note: The Monitor is considered one of the U.S. Navy’s most famous warships, and the Battle of Hampton Roads was arguably the most important naval confrontation of the American Civil War. On March 9, 1862, for three hours the Monitor and the Confederate warship Merrimack intensely battered each other, until the Merrimack withdrew, ending the attempt by the Confederacy to break the Union’s naval blockade of southern ports. The revolutionary design of the Monitor, iron clad with two very heavy guns mounted in a rotating turret, ended the era of wooden warships forever. (etching – Library of Congress)
Victory was fleeting however, within the year, on December 31, 1862 the Monitor sank in heavy seas off the coast of North Carolina with the loss of 16 of her crew.
After several days of exciting yet treacherous 230-foot deep dives we were hit by our own freak storm. In an hour the sea went from relative calm to 20 feet. As wooden Calypso pitched, she sounded like a matchstick about to snap. That’s when I asked where the lifeboats were! (Nobody had ever mentioned that.)
We were in some danger but could not leave before retrieving our buoys, which marked the wreck. Forced to abort the mission, we made a not-so-hasty five-knot retreat to the mainland; one of two engines was down due to sabotaged fuel. The fuel loaded in Norfolk was tainted with sugar. This did a number on the engines.
Monitor Turret Raised
In 2002, some 23 years after the Calypso team dove on the famous ironclad, the U.S. Navy and NOAA cooperated to raise the Monitor’s gun turret, which is now viewable in Virginia’s Mariners’ Museum.
Repairs and Tragedy!
We were in Morehead City, NC for a week of engine repairs before ‘sailing’ south. Once at sea again, the other engine went down. So we ‘limped’ down the coast, eventually into the tough industrial Bellinger’s Shipyard in Jacksonville.
As though it couldn’t get any worse, it did, a lot worse. We received the tragic news of Philippe Cousteau’s crash of Cousteau’s PBY amphibious aircraft in Portugal. Philippe was dead!
These were sad days but Captain Cousteau insisted that we carry on.
Diving Martinique’s Sunken Ships
We sailed to the Caribbean and eventually at midnight of July 14, we anchored off the French island of Martinique, the second largest island of the French West Indies. We’d hoped to make it in time for Bastille Day celebrations but no such luck. Soon, as the sun rose and the church bells rang, we approached Saint Pierre’s solitary pier. A small crowd greeted us, as did a heavy sunshower and a few big bang fireworks.
We were there to dive shipwrecks that were sunk by the historic 1902 volcanic eruption of nearby Montagne Pelée (Mount Pelée).
It was the most devastating natural disaster in Caribbean history, wiping out all but one of the thirty thousand inhabitants of Saint Pierre. A lone prisoner was saved by the thick rock walls of his cell.
Interestingly, although we were not far from shore, because the underwater vertical drop was so steep, many of the wrecks were quite deep at around 200 feet. We dove night and day, on wrecks including the 120-meter steel-hulled steamship SS Roraira, the Dalhia, Diamant, Gabrielle, Grappler, and Tamaya. Unfortunately, none of this footage, nor did the Monitor’s, ever make it into a Cousteau television show.
In Frogmen I share my journal entry from after diving Martinique’s Teresa de Vigo, saying, “Wow! I feel that if I died right now, I’d be satisfied with my life.” Little did I know the great joys of life yet to come.
In conclusion, serving Captain and Madame Simone Cousteau, as a member of Calypso’s crew, was life changing. I am forever grateful for the opportunity and the memories.
By Richard Hyman, Blue Ocean contributor
The True Story of My Journeys
Richard’s memoir, FROGMEN is a fascinating first-hand account of his experiences aboard the Calypso. It’s an inspiring story of a young man who pays homage to one of the greatest explorers and visionaries of all time.
You can find your copy at Amazon.com, available in eBook and softcover. To reach Richard for a speaking engagement, or for direct shipment of signed books contact him at email@example.com or check out Richard’s website at: www.richardehyman.com
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