Anita Conti belongs to the category of remarkable people of Armenian origin to be found throughout history. She was known throughout the world as the first French female oceanographer.
Née Anita Caracotchian, she was born on May 17, 1899, in the French town of Ermont (department of Seine-et-Oise) to a wealthy Armenian family. Her father, Levon, was a doctor, originally from Constantinople. She spent her childhood being educated at home by different tutors and traveling with her family, gradually developing a passion for books and the sea.
After moving to Paris, she focused on writing poems and the art of book binding. Her work got the attention of celebrities and she won different awards and prizes for her creativity in London, Paris, New York, and Brussels with the surname “Anita Cara.” Many years later, when asked about her bookbinding talents, she answered: “I inherited the art of book binding from my dear grandfather Oscan. Browse the wonderful Armenian manuscripts; observe their golden and silver-bound covers with precious stones and everything will be clear for you.”
In 1927 she married a diplomat, Marcel Conti, and started traveling around the world, exploring the seas, documenting and reporting what she saw and experimented. “I never feared anything,” she wrote, “since I understood that the road of all pioneers has been always filled with thorns, and you have to bravely fight to achieve your dreams.”
Her journalistic articles made her well-known. In 1935 Anita Conti was hired by the director of the Scientific and Technical Office of Sea Fishing, and contributed to the launching of the first French oceanographic ship, the Président Théodore Tissier. She did research in the Pacific, Indian, and Arctic oceans from 1936-1938.
After a campaign of cod fishing in the Barents and Spitzberg seas in 1939 aboard theViking, with a crew of fifty men, she embarked on the minesweepers active in the English Channel and the Northern Sea, and took active part in the operations of mine clearing in Dunkirk from November 1939-January 1940.
She gained a deeper understanding of the issues faced by fishermen by spending time on fishing boats for days and even months on certain occasions. In the interwar period, she developed the technique of fishing maps apart from the already used navigational charts. For two years, she observed the French fishermen along the coast of Saharan Africa and discovered fish species unknown in France. She published many scientific reports on the negative effects of industrial fishing and the different problems related to fishing practices.
From 1943-1952, she studied in the Mauritian islands, Senegal, Guinea, and Ivory Coast the nature of the seabed, different fish species and their nutritional values in regards of protein deficiency for the local populations. Gradually, she developed better preservation techniques and fishing methods, and installed artificial dens for further studies. She even founded an experimental fishery for sharks. She became more and more conscientious of the misuse of natural resources by the fishing industry and the major waste that could be prevented.
In 1947 Conti met legendary oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who later became her good friend and colleague. “Anita is a phenomenon in the history of world oceanography,” he wrote. “This woman with beautiful Armenian traits, endowed with ‘male reasoning,’ is so attractive and sentimental at the same time. . . . The seamen simply worship her for her kind, blithe, and brave nature, and delicately call her ‘La Dame de la Mer’ (The Lady of the Sea).”
She was the only woman among the sixty men of the ship “Bois Rose,” which spent six months on the ocean in 1952. It came back with 1,100 tons of cured fish, as well as 5,000 precious photographs by Anita Conti and the manuscripts of her first book, Racleurs d’océans (Scrapers of Oceans, 1953). The book won the Prix des Vikings in 1954 and was the basis for a documentary film by the author. Encouraged by the literary success of her book, she gathered her notes on Africa and published her second volume, Géants des mers chaudes (Giants of Hot Seas), in 1957. In 1958 she participated in a historic event: the trial in the Mediterranean Sea of the first bathyscaphe at 600 meters of depth.
In 1971 Anita Conti published L’Ocean, Les Bêtes et L’Homme (The Ocean, the Animals, and the Man), to denounce the disaster that men create and its effects on the oceans. Through many conferences and forums and for the rest of her life, she advocated for the improvement of the marine world. She continued her indefatigable traveling and studying well passed her eightieth anniversary.
She died in Douarnenez on December 25, 1997. According to her will, her ashes were spread in the Sea of Ireland in 1998. Two lyceums in France are named after her.