The Enduring World of Jacques Cousteau

On the 100th anniversary of his birth, a tribute to Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

John Denver wrote a song about him. So did Plastic Bertrand. Wes Anderson referenced him in one of his movies, and paid quirky homage to him in the form of another. Phoebe dreamed about him. Bart Simpson imagined being him, to make bath time more bearable.

It is difficult to imagine a time when Jacques-Yves Cousteau was not an indelible part of our popular culture (although this clip from a 1956 edition of What's My Line? suggests that such a time did indeed exist).

Indeed, for those of a certain generation, it seemed de rigeur, if you will, that documentaries about aquatic life had to be narrated with a French accent. But that's because, until Jacques Cousteau came along, there were virtually no documentaries about aquatic life. Before Cousteau, in fact, there was little opportunity to even dive beneath the waves, let alone film the life that lived there; it was he, with Emile Gagnan, who developed the "aqua-lung" that would ultimately revolutionize and popularize scuba diving. His first book, The Silent World, published in 1953, sold five million copies in 22 languages; three years later, his documentary of the same name won the Palme d'Or at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, a feat repeated by no other documentary for 48 years.

Five decades on, elements of the movie appall more enlightened sensibilities. His yacht, Calypso, accidentally collides with a sperm whale calf; judging it mortally wounded, the yacht's crew shoots the whale to finish it off. When sharks descend to feast on the carcass, the crew shoots them too. In another scene, Cousteau dynamites a coral reef to conduct an inventory of the fish and other marine life (formerly) living therein.

Cousteau, to his credit, became more environmentally aware over the course of his career, and the organization he founded in 1973 is an advocate of conservation as well as exploration. But it is the sense of wonder and excitement engendered by his movies and by his ABC series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, more than any testimony, advocacy or position statement, that is his enduring legacy to ocean conservation.

Speaking at a National Press Club briefing organized by SeaWeb in recognition of World Oceans Day,Celine Cousteau reflected that "World Oceans Day would have been a terrific occasion to discuss positive advances in ocean protection," but instead talk of the marine environment of late inevitably is dominated by ongoing events in the Gulf of Mexico. "Friday, June 11th marks the 100th anniversary of my grandfather, Jacques-Yves Cousteau – the man who gave us our first real glimpse of the ocean," she continued. "He encountered many challenges while sailing the seven seas and brought to light many issues. I wonder what he would say today about the Gulf Gush?"

Cousteau offered one of her grandfather's aphorisms as being particularly relevant to the Deepwater Horizon incident: "All human undertakings are fallible" – an admirably succinct observation, which one imagines being delivered with a Gallic shrug, and accurate in its simplicity, as observers of any number of human error-induced calamities, from Bhopal to Chernobyl, can attest.

I suspect that the Gulf oil spill would have pained Captain Cousteau greatly; it pains many of us, of course, who are concerned about the marine environment. But for Jacques Cousteau, the connection with that environment was more personal, more visceral, than many of us can ever experience, and his love for the milieu that made him famous is perhaps nowhere more powerfully expressed than in this 1960 quote from Time magazine:

"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."