Thursday, May 5, 2016

Diving Companions

Diving Companions: Sea Lion - Elephant Seal - Walrus
©  1974 Jacques-Yves Cousteau
304 pages

Before David Attenborough, there was Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who helped invent SCUBA gear and used it in expeditions across the globe to explore the unknown right here on Earth: the life of the oceans. The journeys of the Calypso and her exploring minisubmarine resulted in a series of books about whales, dolphins, and the like, but Diving Companion collects Cousteau's adventures with more far-flung creatures: sea lions, elephant seals, and walruses. The book combines a  travel diary and nature commentary, throwing in a little Eskimo anthropology as a bonus. Unusually for the series, there''s also a chapter on the coastlines and islands of Alaska, which were studied enroute to the Artic. There, sea otters receive some lingering and affectionate attention.

 The stars themselves are a related family, cow-like creatures which at some point took to the sea again. Most of them make their habitat in cold zones, protecting themselves with large sheaths of fat. Their diets vary from species to species; sea lions are quick enough to go for fish, while elephant seals are relegated to less-fleet-footed starfish.   Although they are all wary of human contact, being hunted species, the crew of the Calypso found them approachable from a crawl. (The humans literally crawled on the beach and became one with the herd.)  In an effort to see how they might adjust to living and working in humans, Cousteau's men attempted to capture test subjects and keep them on the boat, both in a cage and in a large pool. The elephant seals, the grumpiest and most intimidating of the three, thwarted every attempt at capture.  Two sea lions were brought on board the Calypso and seemed to adjust to captivity, even keeping near the boat when unleashed, but they exhibited a marked sadness and were eventually freed.  An orphaned walrus pup was also adopted, and because of its young age grew very much attached to the humans.    Although much of the book is certainly dated now, like the balance established between the Eskimos and the walrus population which nourished them, as well as the increasingly-dangerous state of elephant sea concentration onto one island,   these are creatures worth reading about -- especially the beautiful sea lions.

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