The impossible missions are the only ones that succeed. – Jacques Yves Cousteau
How appropriate that World Oceans Month is celebrated the same month as Jacques Cousteau’s birthday, June 11. It’s hard to think of anyone who has had a more profound effect on the oceans than Cousteau.
Born in 1910, Jacques Yves Cousteau grew up like any normal boy, maybe more so. People are sometimes surprised that he struggled in school. Now I realize there’s hope for me.
Cousteau’s passion for the sea might never have developed had it not been for an automobile accident. He broke both arms and nearly lost his life. It set him on a life quest that ended where all life began. In the sea.
Make no mistake about it. Cousteau was no slacker, waiting to be catered to. He was tough, passionate, and brave. During World War II, he joined the French Resistance Movement working as a spy. He also worked at the dangerous job of clearing underwater mines.
It was when he went swimming in the Mediterranean Sea that a friend gave him goggles. It opened his eyes to a world he could never have dreamed of and Jacques Cousteau fell in love with the sea. It held him so deeply that he spent the rest of his life sharing it with the public.
He put it most eloquently when he said, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”
Among Cousteau’s many roles were French naval officer, explorer, conservationist, author, and researcher. Hundreds of books have been written by or about Jacques Cousteau and his achievements so it’s hard to do his life the justice it deserves in a few sentences.
Divers both recreational and professional literally owe their lives to Cousteau who with Emile Gagnan in 1943 developed practical scuba gear called the Aqua-lung. Finally mankind could dive underwater and truly explore the wonders there.
Profoundly insightful, he knew explorers on any mission needed a base from which to operate. Underwater was no different, and he developed an underwater laboratory called Conshelf I where humans could live and carry out research for long periods at a time. It was so successful, it gave birth to Conshelf II and III.
With his vision, he founded the FOC (French Oceanographic Campaigns) in 1950 and refitted the Calypso, making it a maritime research center. It was an extraordinary move at a time when the world was merrily spraying everything with DDT. But people like Jacques Cousteau and Rachel Carson were just beginning to prick our consciences.
In 1953, he penned Silent World with Frederic Dumas, introducing the world to a fascinating look at life under the sea. The book sold five million copies. He turned it into an award-winning documentary filming aboard the Calypso in 1956.
But even Cousteau was learning during all this exploration. In one incident, he drove the Calypso into a pod of whales for a close up shot. When the propeller lacerated a baby whale, a school of sharks attacked it, and the crew in turn killed many of the sharks. From this and other mistakes, he developed a keen sensitivity and respect towards sea life of all kinds and its habitat.
It may seem common knowledge now, but it was Cousteau who proved that dolphins have sophisticated hearing abilities called echolocation making them extremely vulnerable to noises created by ships, explosions, even underwater drilling.
Even more dramatic was Cousteau’s ability to persuade world leaders to establish a moratorium on whale hunting. Though the ban has been in place since 1986, some countries continue to flagrantly violate it in the name of research. Japan, Norway, and Iceland have no intention of giving up their shameless hunt for whales.
Always an experimenter, Jacques invented a mini sub in 1959 for underwater exploration. Shaped more like a flying saucer than a submarine, he nicknamed it Denise. The two person mini sub can be launched off the Calypso and dive to a depth of 300 yards. Since then, other exploratory subs have been added to Cousteau’s fleet.
In 1960, when the French government was about to dump radioactive waste off the French coastline, he was effective in organizing the movement that stopped it. One can only shudder at the disaster that he averted.
By 1966, he found a way to make his passion for the sea come alive for millions of people around the globe by producing the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. The TV series ran for ten years, an extraordinary run for a show of that type. The sensitivity and love for the ocean that the series engendered led to thousands taking up the battle cry to protect and nurture the environments of land and sea.
To help those who love the sea and seek to make a difference, he created the Cousteau Society, “dedicated to the protection and improvement of the quality of life for present and future generations.” The society is a rich source of information on the ocean and other water systems of earth. Simply put, the Cousteau Society tries to foster an understanding and love for the seas and rivers of the world. You can contact them at http://www.cousteau.org/.
John Denver, a close friend of Cousteau, was so inspired by his work that he wrote the song Calypso as a tribute in 1975. The song eventually went on to become a number two hit on the Billboard Hot 100.
Summer has returned to the Northern Hemisphere, and people are once more flocking to the ocean, lakes, and rivers for recreation in vast numbers. While we enjoy ourselves on and near the water, it’s also important to remember that we respect and protect our oceans and waterways so that we can pass them on to our children’s children as healthy and as clean as possible. Isn’t that a legacy worth leaving to your grandchildren?
The Uncommon Mariner