9. Coust to Coust

By no means a real diver I do, however, have a genuine passion for the sea. There is a sheltered bay a decent hike from my place where I recently tested out my brand new snorkelling gear (visibility: zero; sea colour: green). Now that the weather is getting cooler I will doubtless turn once more to my Jacques Cousteau DVD box set – surely one of the most magical and romantic documentary series ever made (premise: Princess Grace launches the Calypso from Monaco – you and the crew proceed to sail and dive around the globe, several times, re-supplying yourself with local hooch and pipe tobacco at friendly ports en route).

Grub's up

One of my favourite episodes involves not a ‘real diver’ in the sense of a workaday industrial diver (and God knows, they take enough risks) but one of those aquatic mavericks to which us landlubbers are so often drawn. In season 1, episode 31 of Cousteau’s odyssey we meet Recco, a gruff, middle-aged coral diver who – with scant regards for the bends, or indeed any of Radiohead’s work – plunges into the abyss off Corsica each day to retrieve tokens for his bikinied partner, Nadine, who is responsible for keeping his equipment maintained and spirits up. We see her waiting patiently for Recco to surface, selecting decorous pieces of petrified plant-life for posterity. Sometimes she jumps into the water and they blow bubbles at each other. It is a touching tale, but one you sense can only end in tragedy. Will Recco’s health give out? Will he drown while chipping away at one last chunk of lucrative seafloor? Perhaps Nadine will find a younger diver to hang out with? No, in his hypnotic tones – tones that reverberate sonorously over almost anything worth detecting above and below the waves – Jacques informs us at the end of episode 31 that Recco has just been killed by a neighbour in a dispute over a garden fence…

Before you buy the DVD set – and you really, really should buy it – you can watch The Coral Divers of Corsica here, albeit broken up by regionally appropriate adverts.

Free dive

These days, the organisations Cousteau helped inspire (let’s not forget that he both co-invented the aqualung and, like David Attenborough, advocated world population control for the sake of the planet – two very different forms of life-saving) take a dim view of coral collecting for profit. However, one activity that is growing in popularity is free diving; and it isn’t restricted to those born and raised on remote coastlines, or with the mythical lungs of the pearl divers of Hawaii. You may have seen this moving piece in the New York Times, about Nicholas Mevoli, a gregarious native of the city who lost his life in competition two weeks ago. There are no huge profits to be made in this business – no massive sponsorship deals (at least not yet); Mevoli scrimped and saved to fulfil his dream of challenging for a world record. Like others before him (though the organisers insist the sport sees few casualties) he is likely to have succumbed to nitrogen narcosis – a potentially fatal drunkenness that affects decision-making at depth. In many ways, Mevoli sounded like a typical New York hipster – of the type I strive to emulate (despite consistent denials mixed with the irreversible aging process) – yet he dared to do far more than exhibit in Greenwich Village, or recite some beat poetry on the Lower East side; instead of trying to encapsulate his love affair with the sea, he simply embraced it, and it him, and not an irate neighbour in sight…


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