Sir Peter Blake – Visiting the Caspian Sea with the Cousteau Society

Sir Peter Blake:

Visiting the Caspian Sea with the Cousteau Society

Interviewed by Lee Czerniak

You’ve just completed a voyage with the Cousteau Society to the Caspian Sea area. How did that come about, and what were you doing there?

The Cousteau Society was approached by the governments of Iran, Russia and the other countries bordering the Caspian Sea, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. These countries are concerned about the pollution and the diminishing numbers of sturgeon. They wanted to know whether the Cousteau Society could have a look around and maybe come up with some solutions, or just get a feeling for how much of a problem they have. The Caspian Sea is a big place and we weren’t going to be able to spend a lot of time there, so it was a snapshot visit really. We had to bring the Cousteau research vessel Alcyone, which is 33m long by 9.5m wide, up from Cape Town. I joined the boat in Istanbul, and there were five of us on the crew initially. We went up through the Bosphorus just after dawn. Istanbul has to be one of the dirtiest places in the whole world. Shocking, terrible, far worse than anything we saw in the Caspian Sea. You couldn’t go outside the boat because the city’s sewer outlet was nearby, and the water was thick, brown and stinky. We went to homes miles inland, and if the wind was blowing from the sea it was still like living next to a sewage pond. It was disgusting, just disgusting. There was oil in the water. People just don’t care – there’s a good flow of tide and it all goes away somewhere else eventually, and is someone else’s problem. Anyway, we went through the Bosphorus and right across the Black Sea, which is a big place. There’s a lot of sea life in the Black Sea, a lot of dolphins, which is good to see. There’s some plastic, but not too bad. We went into the closed city of Novorossijsk in the northeastern corner of the Black Sea. This is where the pipeline from Baku and the main oil-producing areas of Azerbaijan ends, and the tankers come in there. The Caspian Sea has the biggest gas reserve in the world, and it’s a really interesting place.

So is that what is causing most of the pollution?

I don’t think I can say ‘Yes, they’ve got a problem’, or ‘No, they haven’t got a problem.’ In Baku and Azerbaijan, the harbour had a fair bit of oil in it, and there were oil rigs everywhere. However, I don’t think that is the greatest of their worries. It’s a place where there is naturally a lot of oil, and it’s coming to the surface. Some of our photographers were out just walking along a track and there was oil squelching out of the ground. A few hundred years ago, the city burned down because the natural gas coming out of the ground caught fire. From what we could gather, the greatest issue is probably the Volga River, the biggest river in Europe. It is 4500 nautical miles long, and it picks up everything as it comes through Russia and dumps it into the Caspian Sea. It’s not just the sewage, buts the runoff of fertiliser from the farms along with general industrial waste which gets washed into the Caspian Sea.

Where did you go from there?

We picked up our co-captain, an English-speaking Russian, to join the French captain on the boat, and a couple of pilots as well, and we came up through the Sea of Azov. It’s very shallow in the Sea of Azov, a maximum of about 12m deep, and we came up a narrow channel about 100 nautical miles to Rostov. This is where we joined the Don River, which flows into the Sea of Azov. We changed pilots, got a couple more people, and got the river pilots to take us up the Don, all the way to Volgograd (previously named Stalingrad). There were huge battles here between the Russians and Germans in World War II, and millions of people died, so there are many monuments. Over the last 20 nautical miles or so, the Don-to-Volga Canal joins the rivers. We went through about 17 or 18 locks, which all had huge Stalinesque statues. It was a really fascinating place. You tend to think of the Russian people as a little bit dour, but they were the exact opposite. They are very, very friendly, some of the friendliest people we have come across anywhere in the world. At the moment in Russia, Cousteau movies are being shown in prime time on Sundays. So we were the stars, and here was this vessel which they had seen on television. They were totally enthusiastic, asking questions all the time, with our Russian captain interpreting, and were really interesting and nice people. The Don and Volga Rivers are beautiful. They’re sand rivers so there are beaches everywhere, and people having fun. Many were blonde, good-looking and all wearing the latest fashions.

Were your Russian colleagues easy to get on with?

Very easy; very nice people. There was a fair bit of political goings-on behind the scenes because we were the first non-Russian, non-Iranian vessel to get permission to go into the Caspian Sea since before the revolution, back at the turn of the century.

Was this due to being from the Cousteau Society?

Partly that, and partly being asked to go there. The Cousteau Society has no political affiliations and we just wanted to go there, have a look and show off the beauty more than anything else. It’s not a case of going there and saying ‘This is wrong, don’t do this.’ Most of it was ‘Wow, isn’t it just really pretty.’ Our aim was also to try and help them with some of the problems they might have, and that will be ongoing – to help unite the five countries to work together.

What came after Volgograd?

Past Volgograd, we went down the Volga River. From the start of the Don to the Caspian Sea is about 700 nautical miles, so it’s quite a long way. We stopped at Astrakhan, which is famous for carpets. When we stopped there, it was their holiday festival for fishermen, so we were the centre of attention for tens of thousands of people. We had a good time. There’s a lot of fishing done in the Caspian Sea. There is no netting allowed, but there are a lot of sardines in the south, so some of the ships at Reshteh-Ye-Kuhha are a reasonable size. But the way they catch them! To start with, we wondered what on earth these ships were. The sardines are down quite deep, 50m to 70m, and they catch them at night. They put lights down and great big vaccuum hoses, and they suck them up. The northern half of the Caspian Sea is basically fresh water, and the southern half is very saline. It used to be joined to the Black Sea, and there are still sea lions that stayed there while the geography changed over thousands of years. We went 300 or 400 miles down to Baku from the Volga delta which is 100 miles wide, and at the end of July, just after I left, it’s supposed to go into waterlilies blooming everywhere. It’s a beautiful area. In a storm it’s a very dangerous place to be, you might have seven or eight metre waves. In the estuaries there are turtles, and there’s a huge amount of bird life. I saw more herons in the delta than I’ve seen in the rest of my life put together, they were just everywhere and beautiful to see. But what you read about the water quality … well, you don’t go swimming.

And it was here that you were looking for the sturgeon?

There are fewer sturgeon than there used to be, and one doesn’t need to go to the Caspian Sea to work out why that happened. There has been a huge dam built upriver of Volgograd spanning the whole Volga River. The sturgeon used to swim thousands of miles up the Volga to spawn, and then come back down again. But now they can’t get past the dam. There’s been a lot of effort to make ponding areas, and some extraordinary engineering works. They dam the river at certain times of the year to make a spawning area for the sturgeon, and the ships have to go round through the lock systems. The dam is a couple of miles long, with concrete barriers that lower into place. They must have spent billions of dollars on it. At least they’re trying to do something, whether it’s working or not. Maybe they’re going to have to look at some sort of ladder system up the dam. There are four fishing stations right down at the mouth of the Volga, south of Astrakhan. They operate 24 hours a day, and they probably put the nets out into the river and bring them back in about 18 times in 24 hours. Each netting will get them between 30 and 70 sturgeon. These are big fish. Some of them weigh hundreds of kilos, and some may be over a tonne. They throw the small ones back, if there are any. When they catch them, the fish hardly move. I mean, they just pick them up by the tail. Try picking a kingfish up by the tail and it will scarper! These fish are not like that, they’re very docile. The fishermen put them into floating barges which have slots inside so the water can go through, and the fish are kept in there until the fishermen have enough. Then they take the whole lot down to the factory ship and club them. The fish are then loaded into baskets and go into the factory where they are opened up and the caviar is taken out, and the fish is cleaned. It gets packed in ice then sold at the markets.

So they do eat the fish as well, they don’t just take the caviar and waste the rest?

No, they eat the whole fish. We had sturgeon for one meal and it was very nice, in fact it was delicious, and caviar in big drums on the tables at meal times. I had a bit and it was OK, but you pay an awful lot of money for it these days. The government is blaming the poachers, who take quite a few fish, but they don’t take any more than the factories with their big nets. There are other reasons too. The dam is a problem, but maybe there is a way of getting around that.

What else did the journey cover?

I went down as far as Baku and then I had to leave because we were running very late. The vessel went on to Iran and Turkmenistan, and the rest of the team said that was fantastic. It was all wooded, with lots of reserves where they try to preserve endangered species. There was a separate team in Turkmenistan for a while, in a place called Turkmenbashi.

So in their own way these countries are trying to look after their environment?

They’re trying to. But then, on the edge of the Caspian Sea there’s some pretty big nuclear power stations, and some of the shore teams saw awful deformities throughout the population near one of them. We had Geiger counters on board, but they didn’t pick up anything.

Is this going to be made into a documentary?

Yes, it will be a one hour documentary. I think they’re going to send another team over the next few months to do a bit more filming, or maybe during the winter to get a contrast. The Volga River, of course, has ice in winter and there’s snow everywhere. I guess it will be shown in New Zealand, but I don’t know when.

Now that you’ve got more involved with the Society, what projects do you see happening in the future?

We’re trying to formulate now what the next ten years will hold. I think that’s the most important part. I felt that we could have done a lot better in the Caspian Sea. It was quite disjointed, but if I hadn’t been there and experienced it, I would certainly be in no position to say what I thought the future should hold. It was a very difficult project, dealing with so many governments and authorities and bureaucracy. We had a permanent shore team doing nothing but trying to get through the red tape, well in advance of us being there, and very high-up people working away for us. Politically, they said it was the hardest project the Cousteau Society had ever taken on, just because of going through so many different countries. In some places the shore team in Turkmenbashi were using camels to transport two tonnes of gear. There wasn’t any other form of transport. Then they all got sick for seven days, and then the weather went bad. I think in a month they got about two minutes of filming. So it was a really difficult exercise.

Do you see the Society doing more of this type of thing, going into areas that have not previously been filmed?

I would like to wait and see when we get the new vessel, because it will have to be a special vessel, this next Calypso. I would like to do a two-year circumnavigation of the Arctic Ocean, looking at the continents we go past, the sea life, bird life and everything above and below the ice. There are a lot of problems with the water quality in the Arctic, which are only just being understood. It has been a dumping ground for nuclear arms. And what happens to the water from the Arctic? It comes to New Zealand. It circulates round, so while we sit here thinking we’re away from everyone else and it isn’t going to affect us, I can say it is and it will. There are some areas that we are really keen to look at, but as well as being there for scientific reasons, we are at the same time in the entertainment business. If we make a television programme which is purely scientific and says ‘This is the problem,’ everyone is going to turn their television off and go and do something else. You’ve got to make it exciting, adventurous, with great images. We want to get into doing a full length major film.

Do you have any regrets on your decision to join the Society?

No, as long as we can do some things that I’d like to see done. There’s no point being there as a yes-man, but they understand all that and we get on extremely well. It’s a very good association.

When we last talked you weren’t sure what your actual role was, or even what your title was going to be?

I don’t think I need a title, that doesn’t matter. The role is a multi-faceted thing really, trying to give the Society some direction, trying to get the money in for the new vessel and then organising the whole thing. I’ll be trying to get some direction into it. Francine Cousteau is fantastic at dealing with UNESCO, United Nations, World Bank, and governmental people at all levels. You have to have that. We flew the United Nations flag on Alcyone through the Caspian Sea, it was a UNESCO sponsored effort, and they were in behind us as well, so that helped and opened up a few doors. We will continue to do that sort of work, but one person cannot run the whole thing. It’s like Team New Zealand, you can’t do it. There’s just not enough hours in the day, so you have to delegate and I’m one of the people it’s going to be delegated to.

With the past success of Cousteau turning people on to diving and the undersea world, are we still going to see that type of thing?

I think one of the reasons I liked watching Cousteau was because of some of the fancy equipment they had in those days. There are now, of course, many companies who develop dive equipment full time for commercial and sport diving. So I think we should be using the latest gear that there is, and helping develop that. I was disappointed at the equipment we were using. My dive gear purchased in New Zealand was much better, much safer. I think we have to be seen to be leading the field in ecology and safety measures. The way we operate and the type of equipment we use has to be the best of the best. If young people are going to be inspired to dive because of our programmes, it’s a bit like making a movie where there’s a car chase and the heroes aren’t wearing seat belts. I think it’s very important to demonstrate safe practices.

So computerisation for diving and things like that are something you see as being important?

Absolutely, and I think we need to be into underwater communication. You get fantastic underwater communication these days. We should be able to show all that in the movie, and I think that again we will get people going ‘Wow, look at this’, as much as they would be looking at sea life.

You think the technical side switches people on?

It does. If we don’t entertain the viewers or we don’t encourage them and make them interested, they’re not going to want to know about the Cousteau Society and they won’t really get the message. We’re looking at quite a big involvement with the Internet. I’m not an Internet fan at all at the moment, but I think long-term the idea is for us to have live television communications from the vessel. What I’d like to do, and we really have to get into the schools if we can, is to have a set time, maybe twice or three times a day for an hour where people can go onto the Internet and there they are on board live with us. They can ask science questions and they can actually see what we’re doing, where we happen to be, maybe we’ll show them a bit of video that we’ve shot in the last day or so and actually get them involved, like for school projects. We might be up in the Arctic, we might be in the Amazon, we might be inside an iceberg, whatever. So I think that getting the message out is very important, and with the advent of these low orbit satellites we’ll be able to do that very cheaply and easily. That will be in conjunction with good television and good movies, and encouraging more people to join the Society for the right reasons. If we’re only going to carry on with one boat for the next 20 years, then we’re not going to have much of an effect really. I think we’re going to have to say ‘OK, do we want to make a difference? Well let’s have Calypso II, Calypso III, Calypso IV, Calypso V, and have them working in different parts of the world at the same time.’ Now maybe that’s too grand a scheme, but if we actually believe what we’re trying to achieve, we’re going to have to do that. We’re going to have to have a small navy, effectively.

You might as well have a big goal to work towards.

I think so, and again if we keep it entertaining as well as educational we’ll gradually get to a lot of people who hopefully will then realise what we are trying to achieve and want the same thing. I went to a place in Spain last year, and the city dump is just over the edge of the cliff, they just bulldoze it off into the sea. Hopefully we can stop that sort of thing happening. It does make a difference, and I think ‘OK, the difference I can make will be infinitesimal, but you’ve got to start somewhere.’

Just in closing, your time spent in New Zealand is until the end of the America’s Cup. Our readers are aware that you’re still focused on the America’s Cup, not solely on the Cousteau Society.

I can’t do much work with the Cousteau Society now, but I think it’s important planning time, so I can do that in between. If I just had to sit in my office here all day, I’d go nuts. I need to have other things to think about. I was lucky to have the time to get away and go to the Caspian Sea, because it’s given me a good insight into the Cousteau Society and the future, but I can’t do that again until after the America’s Cup.

Thank you very much, Peter. It’s nice being able to talk to you on the subject of the Cousteau Society. Our readers will be more than happy to hear more from you, and I hope that next time we have this conversation it will be about another adventure you’ve done for the Society.

We’ll see what happens.

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