Science & Nature

Jacques Cousteau on Our Impulse to Explore

The motivation for exploration is but the sophistication of a universal instinctive drive deeply ingrained in all living creatures.

(From the Editor: As a child, I absolutely loved watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. So imagine my delight when I came across a 1976 panel discussion that was held in conjunction with the Mars Viking mission. The members of the “Why Man Explores” panel included explorer, oceanographer, and environmentalist Jacques Cousteau, science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, author James Michener, and physicist/cosmologist Dr. Philip Morrison. Below is an excerpt from that panel discussion, recounting Cousteau’s thoughts on the spirit of exploration.)


Underwater Man by Raakehl. CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0.


Mr. Cousins

It has been my privilege for at least 6 months now to be associated with the gentleman at my right, Captain Cousteau, in the sense that we both work for the same magazine. And I would hope, Captain Cousteau, that we can come to you in your role as an explorer. Why do you do it? What leads you to these vast watery wastes? What is it in your soul that makes you want to do things that have never been done before?

Mr. Cousteau

If I want to answer your question, I have to turn the clock quite a bit, because of the 40 years that this has been going on, at the beginning as an amateur and then as a professional. Then, I shall recall a story. This is the story. After an exhausting day that was interrupted by two air raid alarms in our Marseille apartment, my wife and I had hastily packed all our belongings in trunks and suitcases. Our two boys, aged 6 and 4, were fast asleep. We were to leave the next day for Lisbon, where I had been commissioned as an assistant naval attache. Suddenly, over the radio we heard the announcement that close by in Toulon the French fleet had been scuttled rather than have it fall in the hands of the invading Germans. Our tears were for the loss of our fleet-the last trace of independence, of pride, and of hope. The next day my nomination to Lisbon was canceled, my diplomatic career was aborted, and I became a sea explorer. In my case, I could simplify the answer to the subject of this symposium, “Why Man Explores”: I was cut out for exploration by tragic events. Others become explorers by rivalry, by despair, or to get away from their wives. And I wonder if anyone can seriously pretend that he always steered his life the way he wanted it to go.

One of the most exciting expeditions of my life to date is the current archaeological exploration of Greek waters, where we are looking for remains of lost civilizations as well as looking for archaeological lessons from antiquity generally. I am going to recall this because I think it is typical of the mental mechanism of exploration. Our research vessel Calypso arrived in Crete and we docked in the harbor of Heraklion on the north coast of Crete near Knossos. A violet North Sea storm, the wind named “Meltem,” made our situation almost intolerable inside the harbor, in spite of the fact that we were sheltered by a modern jetty built of concrete. Then, as a sailor, I started reasoning that in antiquity the tiny primitive harbor of Knossos could not have protected the ships of King Minos from Meltem. Looking at a map, I deduced that the only safe anchorages in case of Northern winds were to be found on the south coast of Dhia, a small island lying only 8 miles north of Crete. That was a deductive standard mental process called vertical thinking.

We explored the waters around Dhia, in depths ranging from 20 feet to 300 feet, with divers and our exploration submarine. We discovered six ancient shipwrecks ranging from the 16th century A.D. to the first century A.D. The ships were carrying bronze guns, copper and silverware, hundreds and even thousands of amphorae, and dozens of large blocks of marble, some of them ornate or sculptured. They may have been the remains of a stolen palace or a stolen temple transported in parts, like the famous Hearst Castle.

We were about to leave when my chief diver, Albert Falco, asked me to let him have a last swim near shore. He snorkeled in the bay of St. George in Dhia while we were warming up the motors to sail away. He came back reporting that he found a strange heap of stones of colossal stature-nothing much after all, a few stones or maybe . . ., maybe something unexpected. This last-minute find, vague and dubious, did not fit into our program. We were to explore the southern coast of Crete. I hesitated for one minute and then I stopped the motors. There was no committee I had to report to for a change of program.

There was no logic for abandoning our initial program. Falco’s hesitant report appeared to be uncorrelated with our aims. Forty years of exploration had repeatedly proven to me that the deductive process of thinking – vertical thinking – although it is a powerful tool, rarely leads to a breakthrough discovery. Independently, lateral thinking, the process by which the mind scans events or facts that are apparently uncorrelated to investigate whether in reality they could be even remotely correlated, has often led us and many others to important breakthroughs. What followed is endless. The heap of stones proved to be a large submerged manmade harbor of probable Minoan origin. Then-back to vertical deduction this time-we thought that if there had been a harbor on that desolate piece of rock (the island of Dhia), then there also necessarily had been human settlements. Our helicopter made a photomosaic coverage of the island, revealing several villages or towns and a huge Cyclopean fortification system, totally erased today-we could only see traces of its foundations on the photographs, taken with low Sun for contrast. Minoan fragments of pottery and at least one Minoan idol on land were found before an excavation was made.

A full-scale underwater excavation of the harbor-a 3-month effort-confirmed all our theories. Five thousand years ago the island of Dhia was a paradise covered with woods and refreshed by large rivers, a paradise where Theseus eloped for a famous honeymoon with Ariadne, daughter of Minos, after he killed the Minotaur. Then the island was progressively deforested to build or repair ships and to cook dinners in the thousands of homes. Dhia succumbed, probably 4000 years ago, from overpopulation – a lesson of ecology from antiquity. Then 500 years later, the explosion of the volcanic island of Thera, better known as Santorini, raised a 300-foot-high tidal wave that washed clean the island from its fortifications, villages, towns, walls, harbors. Ever since, Dhia has remained a desolate rock. This major discovery is going to lead, certainly, to decades of very difficult and systematic excavations on land. Then it was no more our business and we went on to some other discoveries.

When man explores for resources, his motivations are clear. They are what we call, superficially, logic. But why would we spend one full year of our lives and over $2 million just to raise a tiny corner of the veil concealing a few episodes of our past? What is the origin of the devouring curiosity that drives men to commit their lives, their health, their reputation, their fortunes, to conquer a bit of knowledge, to stretch our physical, emotional, or intellectual territory? The more I spend time observing nature, the more I believe that man’s motivation for exploration is but the sophistication of a universal instinctive drive deeply ingrained in all living creatures. Life is growth-individuals and species grow in size, in number, and in territory. The peripheral manifestation of growing is exploring the outside world. Plants develop in the most favorable direction, which implies that they have explored the other orientations and found that they are inadequate.


The more I spend time observing nature, the more I believe that man’s motivation for exploration is but the sophistication of a universal instinctive drive deeply ingrained in all living creatures.


Some plants send feelers at great distances; they send avant-garde shoots before they invade the space that has been acknowledged propitious. For young animals the world is to be explored and discovered from their birth on, and that exploration only ends with death; for the young fox, wilderness is unlimited; for a tuna, the oceans are infinite. Still in the animal world, the physical need for exploration develops as well in individuals as in collectivities-tribes, schools, swarms, packs. In fact, if the baby human being shows the same motivation as a young cat, to explore with all his sensors the strange environment he was born into, the big difference is that the little baby soon stands erect. That radical change came in evolution the day described so well by Ovid, a few years after Christ was born. “God elevated the forehead of Man,” wrote Ovid, “and ordered him to contemplate the Stars.” Nobody has better described the advent of the mind. The little boy’s drive for exploration is soon curtailed temporarily by language. The human species is the only one that has the ability to transfer to the new wave of men, through language, printed material, and electronic media, the results of the exploration of the world performed by previous generations.


Most individuals find their hunger and their thirst for discovery satiated by learning. Learning and experience are factors that often extinguish curiosity, but for those who suffer from an unquenchable intellectual thirst, of course, learning is a fabulous springboard. The exploring part of a plant, of a creature, of a crowd, is always the most vigorous, the most enterprising. When the shoots of a plant, a wisteria, for example, slowly creep over a wall, they are the privileged parts of the plant – those that are favored with the largest circulation of sap. From a purely physiological standpoint, in the American conquest of the West, the American pioneers, who often were originally European outlaws or very rough adventurers, were biologically the cream of Europe; and it took Europe more that a century to recover from that loss of substance.

When the impulse to explore built in each individual human being is confined or antagonized by a rigid social or familiar structure, it may be forced into unnatural drives – exploring alcohol, drugs, or sexual perversions. Drug addicts are perverted explorers. Today, most of the modern explorations are protecting the mind inside out. They need collective efforts, being no more at the scale of an individual. When the tools are not there – money, technology, instruments – some human minds, on the contrary, turn themselves outside in, looking towards immediate knowledge through contemplation. The exploration drive, pure and natural, is associated with risk, freedom, initiative, and lateral thinking. The enemies of the exploration spirit are mainly the sense of security and responsibility, red tape, and exclusive vertical thinking.

To conclude, if you allow me, as a man who has dedicated his life to exploring the water world, it is a special satisfaction for me to turn to the etymology of the word “to explore”: from ex-plorare – to make to flow.

Mr. Cousins

Captain Cousteau, we’re all in your debt for the privilege of being able to explore that junction where science, philosophy, and poetry meet in the modern world.
100th Anniversary of Jacques Cousteau


[Featured image: NASA]


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