Albert Falco, diver and ship captain for Jacques Cousteau, dies at 84


Albert Falco, center, in 2010, celebrating a successful dive with former crew members to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of commander Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s birth, in the Grand Congloue island near the town of Marseille. (GERARD JULIEN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
April 28, 2012

Albert Falco, who sailed alongside Jacques-Yves Cousteau for almost 40 years as the French underwater explorer’s principal diver and as captain of Cousteau’s ship, the Calypso, died April 21 at his home in Marseille, France. He was 84.

An entry on Mr. Falco’s French-language Facebook page said he had “a long illness” but did not specify the cause of death.

Mr. Falco, who learned to swim almost as soon as he could walk, was known as a master diver, mariner and ecologist long before he teamed with Cousteau in 1952. They joined forces that year when Cousteau was leading an underwater excavation of two ancient shipwrecks near Mr. Falco’s native Marseille.

“Cousteau needed me for my natural instinct,” Mr. Falco later said, according to London’s Telegraph newspaper. “There were things I knew about the sea that he did not.”

From then on, the two Frenchmen were constant companions on oceangoing voyages that took them around the world the equivalent of 12 times. The angular, patrician-looking Cousteau became internationally celebrated as the public face of oceanography and marine conservation. But the stocky, unflappable Mr. Falco was the sunburned seafarer who efficiently kept Cousteau’s mission afloat.


Albert Falco in 2010. (GERARD JULIEN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

“In many ways, he was an equal to Cousteau,” Paul Watson, founder and president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, said Saturday in an interview. “He was Cousteau’s chief diver and captain of the Calypso. He was really the cornerstone of the whole Cousteau enterprise.”

Mr. Falco was featured in “The Silent World,” the 1956 Academy Award-winning documentary made by Cousteau and director Louis Malle that introduced much of the world to the wonders of ocean life.

The film was an early call for ecological awareness, although Mr. Falco said he and Cousteau were not conscientious stewards of the sea at the time. He said they sometimes killed vast numbers of fish with dynamite and allowed other animals to die in order to get better footage. By the late 1950s, however, Cousteau and his crew became more sensitive to the environmental dangers facing animals and plants in the sea.

“I killed a lot of fish in my youth,” Mr. Falco said in a documentary under preparation by French filmmaker Sylvain Braun. “But later I went with Cousteau, and with a team of scientists, and through them I understood what was happening to the world. It was then that I completely changed my tune. I threw away my harpoon to take up a camera.”

More than anyone else, Cousteau was able to draw attention to threatened marine life and to the beauty of the deep through scores of books and a television series, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,” that was broadcast around the globe. He made almost 100 films, including three that won Academy Awards.

When Cousteau devised watertight capsules to descend to the ocean floor, including the diving saucer, Mr. Falco was usually at the helm. In 1980, he piloted a submersible vessel that found a U.S. warship that had sunk in Lake Ontario in 1813. On other expeditions, he descended to the ocean floor, capturing remarkable images of little-known species of plants and fish.

In 1962, Mr. Falco and another diver spent a week underwater in a Cousteau experiment of living on the ocean floor. Their underwater house contained beds, a toilet, kitchen, electric lights and a television, and doctors went down each day to check the divers’ health.

Mr. Falco was also the longtime skipper of the Calypso, the wooden-hulled, 141-foot converted minesweeper that was Cousteau’s seagoing laboratory. Once, while piloting the Calypso up the Potomac River in 1985, he exuberantly commented on his years of waterborne adventure: “Fantastique life with Captain Cousteau!”

Albert Falco was born Oct. 17, 1927, in Marseille, and within 18 months had learned to swim. He and his father often went boating and diving in the nearby turquoise inlets and coves.

“Ever since then, water has been a natural element for me,” he said.

There was almost nothing under the surface of the ocean that Mr. Falco hadn’t encountered at one time or another, including sharks, which he described as his “best friends.”

“But they circle,” he told The Washington Post in 1987, “and when the circles get tighter and tighter, I’ve been in situations where I had to leave.”

Mr. Falco retired in 1990 but continued to make environmental films and work with conservation groups until shortly before his death. Cousteau died in 1997.

Mr. Falco lived in recent years in Marseille and on the Caribbean island of Martinique. Survivors include his wife, Maryvonne; a daughter; and four grandchildren.

When a Washington Post reporter asked Mr. Falco whether he was recognized on the street in Marseille, he admitted that he was, then added: “It is the fish who recognize me more than the people — the fish, the birds and the sea.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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