National Geographic : 1955 Aug
Calypso Explores for Underwater Oil the dangling flash cameras if they were to get close enough to tell us of the coelacanth's environment. I decided that the cameras were to be expended if necessary. Edgerton, the indefatigable "Papa Flash," was back in Cambridge, Massachusetts, building better ones for a forthcoming National Geographic Society-Calypso expedition. Now, off Grande Comore, we were going to drop the camera against a jagged reef 2,500 feet down and abuse the unit further by hauling it up level as Calypso drifted toward shore. Two men held their hands on the taut wire to feel the vibrations of the camera bumping the reef. When it bumped, they winched it up 15 feet and felt for the next collision to haul the camera 15 feet farther. In this methodical fashion it stumbled up the reef stairs, flashing every 17 seconds in the abyssal dark-an agent of men seeking a footnote on a fish. Diners Rush to Free Camera After two hours the winchman popped in at dinner and yelled, "The camera is trapped!" The diners rushed to the afterdeck; the mess man entered with a platter of steaks and goggled at a deserted table. I went to the bridge and got power from the engine room to attempt to free the camera. I heard a chorus from aft: "The camera is free!" We went back to cold steak. Presently the camera, still flashing, came back like a phosphorescent squid surfacing in the night. Its struts were bent, tubes were scarred, and clamps displaced, but nothing vital had been damaged and Professor Millot had some new photographs to study. Homeward bound in the Red Sea, we stopped at Marmar Island, a submerged coral table with a small crescent of burnt land above water. Around the island lie the ruins of a fringing coral reef, broken down in places like a neglected garden wall. The encircling reef is shallowly submerged, so that navigat ing through the breaks is delicate work. The table and the toothy reef fall vertically 600 feet, and they have some of the Red Sea's most extravagant coral gardens. That we had learned in 1951.* Now we wanted to go very deep for color photographs with powerful lights carried down on trailing cables from the ship. It was the deepest color work we had ever attempted, in the blue zone around 230 feet, and required the dispatch of five or six divers at a time-a photogra- pher or two, a team to hold lights, and one or two others who served as actors (page 181). We conned Calypso inside the stockade, and sailors took the stern anchor away in a boat and dumped it on the brilliant table, where blue and gold surgeonfish wandered among yellow antlers of fire coral. It was a blissful anchorage. The cook, not usually eager to dive, donned snorkel and mask and thrashed away from the diving platform with a can opener to pry up souvenir shells. Diving deep, we fetched up specimens of enormous Tridacna, the "man-eating" clams of undersea fiction. Half shells of these bivalves, usually more than three feet long, sometimes serve as holy-water fonts. A west wind rose in late afternoon. As the last diving party came aboard, we were rolling in a stiff breeze. Then the anchor cable parted, leaving a good anchor on the desolate reef. We manned a launch and a dinghy to recover it while Saofit reversed screws against the wind to hold Calypso in place. I was up on the after crane watching the boats in the failing light and felt the unusual sensation of spray over the stern. We were in danger of being swept on the rocks. Out in the dinghy, a sailor was clinging to the lost anchor. Others roared around in the dark in the launch, shining a flashlight on the rim of the coral table to guide Saofit, who was holding the ship in place at half-speed astern. Second Anchor Planted The wind blew harder. The moon would not be up for two hours. I realized that we could not recover the anchor. I called the launch in, and we lowered another anchor into it. We fed the cable out as the launch plunged into the waves. Somehow the second anchor was planted on the shallow coral. If this anchor did not hold, Calypso was in great peril. We could not drop bow anchors; the water was too deep. The ship would be left struggling in the wind between the island and the treacherous reef wall. It was too steep to register on the echo-sound ing apparatus before we crashed. If the an chorage failed, I planned to circle Marmar all night as tightly as possible, using a radar fix on the island and playing the searchlight on the table reef. If the radar failed, we would * See "Fish Men Explore a New World Undersea," by Capt. Jacques-Yves Cousteau, NATIONAL GEO GRAPHIC MAGAZINE, October, 1952.