Remembering the Captain

100 years later, Jacques Cousteau is still captain of our imaginations.
June 11th, 2010

He was a portrait of grace, a symbol of adventure, a mythical-looking figure in a red wooly cap. Born one hundred years ago today, famed French explorer Jacques Cousteau remains as relevant and iconic as he was during his lifetime — especially to the millions of fans who grew up watching his high-sea adventures unfold on T.V.

For those of us who were children in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, one of the great images to which our hearts first opened was that of Cousteau traversing the world’s oceans in his ship Calypso. He and his team of charismatic explorers called on foreign ports that we couldn’t visit ourselves, discovered ancient sites that we knew only from dreams, and lived life in a way that few of us will ever experience.

More than three decades have passed since The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and The Jacques Cousteau Odyssey series shimmered across our television screens, but we think of them often. We think of rusty medieval war canons being lifted onto Calypso’s deck, of Cousteau sniffing Roman amphorae for ancient wine, of chief diver Falco resurrecting bronze statuettes from watery Aegean graves, of dolphins playfully flanking Calypso’s hull as she glided through pristine Caribbean waters.

And then there’s the image of Cousteau’s team gathered on deck, sharing a laugh or a cigarette, or passing around Venetian coins retrieved from a wreck below. Their camaraderie, their unmatched collection of shared voyages, evoked the tales of Homer and they not only took us along on their odyssey, they provided us with a musical soundtrack and a poetic narrative that made the journey more than an adventure, it made it art.

“I’m not interested in achievements,” Cousteau once said, “I’m interested in having an interesting life and sharing it with the public.” And that he did, in more than 150 films, TV shows and books. Yet, he still found time to co-invent the aqualung, father the science of undersea archaeology, advance underwater filming techniques, and later co-invent the Turbosail, a hybrid wind-motor propulsion system for ships. As the inscription on his National Geographic Society Gold Medal reads, “To earthbound man, he gave the key to the silent world.”

The legendary ‘Calypso’

If Cousteau deserves criticism, it’s for setting an impossible precedent for authentic living. How many of us, after all, will ever experience the freedom, danger, joy, and pioneering thrill of the Calypso crew? Tethered to our computers, trapped in an online world, most of us feel ever more alienated from the natural realm. Even our brief episodes of escape can feel inadequate. Modern commercial jet travel, crowded airports, contrived vacation resorts, they do nothing to satisfy the adventurous spirit.

In that sense, most of us don’t care that Cousteau had no scientific credentials, or about his untidy family affairs, or whether he failed twice for every success. What we care about is what Cousteau represents to us: freedom, art, discovery, the joy of being the first and best at what you do, living by the motto “Il faut aller voir” (“We must go and see for ourselves”). “We are not documentary,” Cousteau once said, “we are adventure films.” And it was the adventure that mattered to us. Not the science.

One of the lessons we learned from the Captain’s life is that it doesn’t take advanced educational degrees or wealth to achieve success — neither of which Cousteau had. It takes only creativity, desire, and an instinct for innovation. Cousteau evolved from a sickly child into a self-proclaimed misfit, then into a naval officer, later into an inventor and master cinematographer, and finally into the world’s greatest ocean explorer. “Sometimes we are lucky enough to know that our lives have been changed,” Cousteau said about his first experience using goggles underwater — an experience which ignited his passion for undersea exploration.

In his later years, Cousteau transformed from voyeur to activist and used his fame to influence environmental policies on things like overfishing, pollution, population growth, nuclear waste and global warming. He also began describing the earth as a delicate and limited planet — a message which set the tone for much of today’s discourse on environmentalism.

Photo courtesy of the BBC

But the details of Cousteau’s life are fuzzy now for most of us, and it’s those simple, early images that still dominate our thoughts: Cousteau emerging from his diving saucer after a thousand-foot dive in the dark Atlantic; his son Philippe hovering over the sparkling glaciers of Antarctica in a multi-colored hot-air balloon; the team’s helicopter circling a Greek island in search of Atlantis.

“I have accepted death not only as inevitable but also as constructive,” Cousteau once said. “If we didn’t die, we would not appreciate life as we do.” We were young when Cousteau uttered those words, and knew nothing of death, but we appreciated life because he appreciated it, and because he showed us how. He was not only captain of the Calypso, he was captain of our imaginations, and clearly one of the great men of the 20th century. Our only question now is, where is the successor to the man who skippered the dreams of our youth?

It has been said that true happiness lies in the fulfillment of childhood aspirations. If there’s any truth to that statement, then happiness for many of us means climbing aboard an affectionately named ship, pointing to the horizon, and announcing to a small group of bold adventurers, “We must go and see for ourselves.”

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