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Remembering the Captain

Jacques Cousteau in his trademark red hatJune 11th marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, one of the greatest explorers the world has ever known. Cousteau was a French naval officer who excelled at diving. After World War II, he turned his passion into a career, then turned his career into a cause. Eventually he became a touchstone for our awareness of the world around us. Cousteau gave us his first-person observations of "beauty and fragility" of the undersea world, and of the living world as a whole. The Cousteau Society, with several hundred thousand members, lives on in his name, promoting the need to address environmental issues and act as responsible stewards of underwater ecosystems.

Cousteau was a man of many talents, and had a persistent drive to invent, explore, and communicate what he learned. He was a man of many labels - explorer, diver, researcher, inventor, author, film maker, photographer, ship's captain, and narrator among others. It is his nuanced monologues delivered in a steady, understated voice I remember best, his softly French-accented English voiced over images of coral reefs, whale sharks, diving iguanas and undersea caves. Foremost among his inventions was perfection of the “aqua lung” - the open-loop SCUBA gear that enabled him and the crew of his research vessel, the Calypso, unprecedented access to the undersea landscape and its inhabitants. His work with Harold Edgerton of MIT led to the development of underwater flash photography, and of color adjusted films that revealed the true colors of undersea life.

The timing of this 100th anniversary is not without its irony. Cousteau observed and documented half a century of decline in once robust undersea populations from overfishing and the damaging impact of widespread pollution, and of man-made changes in rivers and estuaries and their bird, fish, and mammal populations. I can only imagine his sadness at the scale of the environmental disaster that continues to evolve in the Gulf of
Mexico, as toxic crude petroleum, methane, and other contaminants spew into the sea from a ruptured oil well, five thousand feet (1500 m) beneath the surface.

On a brighter note, to celebrate the anniversary, you can exploreThe Cousteau Society web site at http://www.cousteau.org/ , find Jacques Cousteau Island on Google Maps, or listen to John Denver's song tribute, "Calypso". You could also read one of Cousteau's 50 books, or try to find one of his dozen movies or over 100 television documentaries. There is also, I must admit, an interesting parody of Cousteau and the Calypso crew, with Bill Murray playing a sort of anti-Cousteau in "The Life Aquatic".

Also due out this month is a biography of Cousteau written by his oldest son, Jean-Michel Cousteau. "My Father, the Captain: My Life With Jacques Cousteau".

Below are some quotes from JYC, and one from the opening of Jean-Michel's new book, and from some of the Cousteau books on my bookshelves.

I have always found it curious that my father's family had almost nothing to do with the sea. It is as though he came to it on his own, like a calling, without the benefit of familiarity, proximity, or custom.
--Jean-Michel Cousteau

From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free.
--Jacques-Yves Cousteau, in Time Magazine,
March 1960

The sea is the universal sewer.
--Jacques-Yves Cousteau, to the US House Committee on Science and Astronautics, January 1971

If we go on the way we have, the fault is our greed — if we are not willing — we will disappear from the face of the globe, to be replaced by the insect.
--Jacques-Yves Cousteau,, Interview, July 1971

It is at night, above all, that we feel we are uncovering the secrets of a world that is unknown, mysterious, and without defense against us.
--Jacques-Yves Cousteau, from Life and Death in a Coral Sea, 1971

It means nothing to strike up a friendship with a sea lion or dolphin if, at the same time, we are destroying their last refuges along our coasts and our islands. It is an exercise in vanity and absurdity to try to communicate with a killer whale and then to put it on exhibition in an aquatic zoo as a circus freak.
--Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Diving Companions, 1971

The world of living beings is a _whole_. As a whole, it is indispensable to the ecological balance of the planet and to the psychological equilibrium of man. Any real solution to the problem of the environment must therefore be a global solution, effective simultaneously at the scientific, technological, legislative, political and international levels. If we pretend otherwise, we are not being honest with ourselves or with those who will come after us.
--Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Diving Companions, 1971

The happiness of the bee and the dolphin is to exist. For man it is to know that and to wonder at it.
--Jacques-Yves Cousteau

In nature, experiments are constantly carried out, producing a never ending array of strange, bizarre, and sometimes grotesque creatures. As odd as some creatures may seem to us, their features usually represent special capabilities that have enabled them to survive.
--Jacques-Yves Cousteau, The Ocean World, 1979

Man as a species has progressed to this point only because of his ability to keep written records. The wheel does not have to be reinvented every few generations, A young scientist can pick up where his predecessors left off.
--Jacques-Yves Cousteau, The Ocean World, 1979

The sea, once it casts its spell, holds on in its net of wonder forever .
--Jacques-Yves Cousteau


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