In the first segment of his new series, marine explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau sails ``a sea of lost opportunities,'' to use the words of narrator Raymond Burr, and takes a sober look at the depressed society that is Haiti -- or was, until the February departure of Jean-Claude ``Baby Doc'' Duvalier. ``Cousteau's Rediscovery of the World,'' premi`ering on Ted Turner's ``superstation,'' begins with Haiti: Waters of Sorrow (WTBS/cable, Fri., May 23, 7:35-8:35 p.m.; repeated Sun., May 25 at 1:05 p.m. and Tues., May 27 at 10:20 p.m.; and then syndicated on many broadcast stations, check local listings).
Watching Cousteau on land, where most of this program was filmed, is a bit like watching a fish out of water. The Calypso crew was forced to come lumbering ashore, amphibian-like, because Haiti's overfishing of its coastal waters in order to feed a growing population has resulted in the near-devastation of interesting underwater wildlife. As a result, this program, unlike most Cousteau films, concentrates on sociology rather than ecology, though the two are intertwined.
In an obvious attempt to avoid politics, Captain Cousteau concentrates on the slaveholding economy under the French, Haiti's struggles for freedom against Napoleon, and its emergence as the first black republic in history. He also examines its current mingling of Christianity and voodoo, its poverty and overpopulation, and its dwindling natural resources, especially fish and forests. ``Our mountains are showing their bones,'' one Haitian tells Cousteau. The show totally disregards the corrupt and repressive regime that hastened the nation's economic and ecological despoliation.
Captain Cousteau and his son, Jean-Michel (the show's executive producer), spend a lot of time observing local customs, cockfights, and voodoo rites. The elder Cousteau takes a dip in waters where, according to voodoo lore, women can improve their fertility.
But don't expect much more in the way of undersea adventure. And be forewarned that Cousteau finds Haiti to be a land of misery and dwindling resources. This is a downbeat odyssey, then, but a fascinating one. What comes through as a constant is the compassion and empathy of both Cousteaus towards the Haitians, with whom they mingle freely and unselfconsciously.
The show represents the first of 20 hours of programming to be produced over the next five years by the Cousteaus, the Cousteau Society, and TBS Productions. The series aims to explore regions that have been relatively uncharted in recent years. Still ahead this year are programs on Cuba, Cape Horn, and the Sea of Cortez. It will be interesting to see whether Cousteau remains apolitical, when he turns to to Cuba and Ted Turner's hunting buddy, Fidel Castro.
Arthur Unger is television critic of The Christian Science Monitor.