The year was 1976, and the place was Tortuga Club in East End. The legendary Jacques Cousteau, co-developer of the Aqua-Lung and renowned underwater explorer had heard about the fantastic diving in the Cayman Islands and decided to spend two weeks checking it out himself.
During his stay at the Tortuga Club, among other things, Mr. Cousteau chose to teach an East End local to scuba dive, and himself received an unexpected “gift from the sea.” The humble Tortuga Club, with only 14 rooms, was in those days nevertheless a draw for high-fliers looking to get away.
“Yes, we got famous people such as Jacques Cousteau staying at the Tortuga Club,” said Cayman tourism pioneer Suzy Soto, who ran the resort at the time with her then-husband Eric Bergstrom.
“He was a wonderful man, he called one night at 9 p.m. and said ‘Hello, this is Jacques Cousteau,’” Ms. Soto recalled.
“I answered, ‘Yes, and I am Queen Elizabeth.’ I thought it was a prankster at first, until he said, ‘No, no, it is really me. I am in New York, I got your name from a public relations person who said you would take care of me, and keep me away from publicity.’”
Ms. Soto said yes right away.
She said when Mr. Cousteau arrived in Cayman, it was at night, and she and Mr. Bergstrom went to pick him up.
“Not many people at the airport recognized him, and we whisked him off to the Tortuga Club. He was a wonderful man and we became good friends,” she said. For the next two weeks, Mr. Cousteau, joined by his collaborator Emile Gagnan, stayed at the Tortuga Club, scuba diving and enjoying the island.
Ms. Soto said Mr. Cousteau made the couple promise not to take his picture.
“I did promise to never take a picture while he was in Cayman, but somehow, my nephew, who was on honeymoon at the time, took a picture with Mr. Cousteau signing the hotel register,” revealed Ms. Soto.
She said another person staying at the hotel also thought he recognized Mr. Cousteau, but that idea was quickly dismissed by Ms. Soto who said it was just one of the guests. It was a memorable visit for Mr. Cousteau in more ways than one, as it was at the Tortuga Club that the underwater explorer experienced a career first.
Early in the trip, the acclaimed master of scuba took a snorkel trip, leaving his fins behind.
Upon his return, an embarrassed Mr. Cousteau revealed that for the first time in his thousands of entries into the sea, he had managed to get stabbed by a sea urchin. The late Darby Bodden, a pleasant young East Ender working for Ms. Soto at the time, helped him pull the painful spines from his feet.
It so happened that, on his trip, Mr. Cousteau had also chosen to give the same young man scuba lessons, quite an honor. Mr. Bodden, who passed away in 1983, went on to make a successful career in the dive industry, and was inducted into the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame in 2011.
When his visit came to an end, to get Mr. Cousteau off the island without calling attention to his presence, Ms. Soto arranged with pilot Tom Hubble to bring his helicopter to the airport, and have Mr. Cousteau flown to Jamaica. Ms. Soto’s children Barrie and Karie were invited along for the ride.
Mr. Cousteau’s son Philippe, who also became a well-known marine expert, must have taken travel advice from his famous father. After visiting years later, he declared Cayman to be one of the world’s premier dive destinations thanks to its pristine reefs, excellent visibility and incredible diving.