The epic of Calypso – the legendary Cousteau’s Flag Ship


Jacques Cousteau was a French undersea explorer, researcher, photographer, and documentary host who invented diving and scuba devices. He had a vision to bring the beauty of the seas and oceans to the world. He spent his whole life working hard to ensure that people understand what is beneath this marvellous place to insure we take good care of it. One only wonders what Jacques will say today if he sees what has happened to a lot of the seas and oceans around the world. In 1948, Cousteau, along with Philippe Tailliez and expert divers and academic scientists, undertook an underwater expedition in the Mediterranean Sea to find the Roman shipwreck Mahdia. This was the first underwater archaeology operation using self-contained diving apparatus and marked the beginning of underwater archaeology. On July 19, 1950, Cousteau leased a one-time British minesweeper and converted it into an oceanographic research vessel he named Calypso.

Calypso was, according to Greek myth, the nymph who held Ulysses captive on the island of Gozo for ten years. Today, the name is linked to another legend, that of the Cousteau ship. This floating legend is known throughout the world and sailed the ocean planet for nearly half a century to reveal its beauty and fragility. She is the symbol of human hopes to understand nature, the better to protect it.

Calypso was originally a wooden-hulled minesweeper built by the Ballard Marine Railway Company of Seattle, Washington, USA for the United States Navy for loan to the British Royal Navy under Lend-lease. She was built of Oregon pine. She was a BYMS (British Yard Minesweeper) Mark 1 Class Motor Minesweeper, laid down on 12 August 1941 and launched on 21 March 1942. She was commissioned into the Royal Navy in February 1943 as HMS J-826 and assigned to active service in the Mediterranean Sea, based in Malta, and was reclassified as BYMS-2026 in 1944. Following the end of World War II, she was decommissioned in July 1946 and laid up at Malta. On 1 August 1947 she was formally handed back to the US Navy and then struck from the US Naval Register, remaining in lay-up. The Irish millionaire and former MP, Thomas “Loel” Guinness bought Calypso in July 1950 and leased her to Cousteau. He had two conditions, that Cousteau never ask him for money and that he never reveal his identity, which only came out after Cousteau’s death. Cousteau restructured and transformed the ship into an expedition vessel and support base for diving, filming, and oceanographic research.

Calypso left immediately for the shipyard in Antibes, France, where she was transformed into an oceanographic ship and a new Calypso was born. The vessel carried advanced equipment, including one- and two-man mini submarines developed by Cousteau, diving saucers, and underwater scooters. The ship was also fitted with a see-through “nose” and an observation chamber three meters below the waterline built around the prow and equipped with eight portholes for viewing and was modified to house scientific equipment and a helicopter pad. The Calypso underwater camera is named after this ship. Cousteau and his wife Simone also devoted a major part of their personal resources to the ship.

On November 24, 1951, the real adventure began. Calypso sailed from the Toulon arsenal, headed for the Red Sea to study corals. The crew brought back valuable topographic and photographic documentation and samples of theretofore unknown fauna and flora. Cousteau came back convinced that there was only one solution for understanding the sea: ” We must go see for ourselves. ” Calypso was the ideal tool for that challenge.

The Calypso Red Sea Expedition yielded numerous discoveries, including the identification of previously unknown plant and animal species and the discovery of volcanic basins beneath the Red Sea. In February of 1952, Calypso sailed toward Toulon. On the way home, the crew investigated an uncharted wreck near the southern coast of Grand Congloué and discovered a large Roman ship filled with treasures. The discovery helped spread Cousteau’s fame in France.

One of Jacques Cousteau’s big ventures was Conshelf Two, the first ambitious attempt for men to live and work on the sea floor. This was launched in 1963. In it, a half-dozen oceanauts lived 10 metres down in the Red Sea off Sudan in a starfish-shaped house for 30 days. They were among the first to breathe a mixture of helium and oxygen, avoiding the normal nitrogen/oxygen mixture which when breathed under pressure can cause narcosis.

The undersea colony was supported with air, water, food, power, all essentials of life, from a large support team above. Men on the bottom performed a number of experiments intended to determine the practicality of working on the sea floor and were subjected to continual medical examinations. Conshelf II was a defining effort in the study of diving physiology and technology and captured wide public appeal due to its dramatic “Jules Verne” look and feel. A Cousteau-produced feature film about the effort was awarded an Academy Award for Best Documentary the following year. Conshelf Two is still underwater today and can be dived to on any of scuba diving trips to Sudan.

On 8 January 1996, a barge accidentally rammed Calypso and sank her in the port of Singapore. Cousteau tried to raise money to build a new vessel, but died unexpectedly in Paris on June 25, 1997, at the age of 87. Clypso was raised by a 230-foot crane, patched, and pumped dry before being put in shipyard. Calypso was later towed to Marseille, France, where she lay neglected for two years. Thereafter she was towed to the basin of the Maritime Museum of La Rochelle in 1998, where she was intended to be an exhibit. For years after that, Calypso faced a long series of restorations. However, disputes and other delays kept any restoration work from the beginning. In September 2013, a petition was launched on that requested that the ship be saved and be added to the French patrimoine national (national heritage). Within three weeks the petition collected 6000 signatures.

For 40 years, Calypso carried Captain Cousteau and his teams to explore all the riches and the fragility of the oceans. At once a vessel, an operations base and a home, the ship sailed from the warm waters of the Indian Ocean to the ice of Antarctica. She towed the Conshelf structures, sailed up the Amazon River, housed film teams and became the symbol of a world to be explored and cared for.


In 1975, singer-songwriter John Denver released a song titled "Calypso" in tribute to Jacques Cousteau and his research ship. The song is a heartfelt homage to both the vessel and its mission, expressing admiration for Cousteau's dedication to exploring and preserving the world's oceans. The chorus of the song captures the spirit of the ship and its journey:

"Aye, Calypso, the places you've been to,
The things that you've shown us, the stories you tell
Aye, Calypso, I sing to your spirit
The men who have served you so long and so well"

Denver's "Calypso" reached number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1975 and became one of his signature songs. It not only showcased the cultural impact of Cousteau's expeditions but also highlighted how the spirit of exploration and environmental consciousness had permeated popular culture. The song remains a testament to the enduring legacy of Cousteau, Calypso, and their contributions to oceanography and marine conservation.
Song John Denver “Calypso” in tribute to Jacques Cousteau and his research ship.

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