Friday marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who is an absolute hero of mine (and that’s not a word I toss around much).
My most treasured bar mitzvah present was the set of U.S. Divers snorkeling gear given by family friends, the Tanenbaums. That was the brand most associated in America with Cousteau, who had captivated me, well before my 13th birthday, with his books and televised films revealing the wonders of the seas.
I would enter an almost hypnotic state using that diving gear in the Rhode Island summers that followed, marveling as I stalked sea robins amid kelp fronds fringing rocky shores or watched the castanet clap of blue-eyed scallops flicking through beds of sea grass.
Then there was the vivid moment a few hundred yards off a Florida beach where I rose and fell with the waves, meditating on my shadow on the sand below, until I realized there was a second shadow, as long as mine, parallel to mine. I turned to one side and stared into the black eye of an enormous barracuda, which streaked into darker waters with the tiniest flick of its ragged tail fin.
Cousteau had no science degree, but his passion and visual story-telling skills worked like a siren’s call, pulling me into the undersea world. Indirect experience of nature is great, but there’s nothing like getting wet. Indeed, that reality was reflected in the motto of the RV Calypso, the converted minesweeper that was the base of operations for his merry team in their red knit caps: “Il faut aller voir.”
“We must go and see for ourselves.”
One of my biggest frustrations came in the spring of 1977 when I was exploring the Riviera on a break from a semester studying biology and Shakespeare in London. I rode a rented moped to Monaco and, strolling the piers, found the Calypso. The gangplank beckoned.
But I chickened out. Memo to young readers: If you have a chance to meet a hero, don’t hesitate! I’m sure Captain Cousteau was not there, but the sense of lost opportunity still pains me.
His name is being invoked now in discussions of the unfolding oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the shifting chemistry of the oceans through the ongoing buildup of carbon dioxide. He was quick to call out against over-exploitation and pollution of the seas. But his most valuable legacy, to my mind, was simply in submerging cameras, donning Aqua Lungs and introducing millions of people, with a huge dose of exuberance, to a new world.
I guarantee I’m not alone in saying that Cousteau’s legacy endures vibrantly, not only through the Cousteau Society and the work of those among his offspring who are now active marine conservationists and communicators, but also in countless people whose academic or career paths were shaped by his passion and curiosity and urge to share.
As the human influence on the planet crests, we dearly need more communicators working, as he did, to remind us that we are deeply embedded in, and dependent on, a broader community of living things — many of which we barely understand and too often discount.
Here’s to Jacques-Yves Cousteau.
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