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, and a mythical-looking figure in a red, wooly cap. Born 100 years ago today, famed French explorer Jacques Cousteau remains as relevant 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, and lived in a way that few will ever experience.

More than three decades have passed since The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and The Jacques Cousteau Odyssey series aired, 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 flanking Calypso’s hull as she glided through pristine Caribbean waters.

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 and collection of shared voyages evoked the tales of Homer and they not only took us along on their odyssey, they provided a musical soundtrack and poetic narrative that made the journey more than an adventure. They 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 so 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. As the inscription on his National Geographic Society Gold Medal reads, “To earthbound man, he gave the key to the silent world.”

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 screens and routines, most of us feel ever more alienated from the natural realm. Even our brief escapes feel inadequate. Modern commercial jet travel, crowded airports, and contrived vacation resorts 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, and 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.” It was the adventure that mattered to us. Not the science.

One of the lessons we learned from Cousteau is that it doesn’t take 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.

In his later years, Cousteau became an 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 modern environmentalism.

Courtesy of the BBC

The details of Cousteau’s later life are fuzzy now for most of us, but the early images 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 colorful hot-air balloon; the team’s helicopter circling a Greek island in search of Atlantis.

Cousteau was not only captain of the Calypso, but of our imaginations, too. The question now is, where is the successor to the man who skippered the dreams of our youth?

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

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