Cousteau's New World

Jacques-Yves Cousteau had been about his pioneering work long before his book and film "The Silent World" made so much noise four decades ago. As tributes poured out after his passing this week, many readers and movie-goers must have been recalling the awe and delight of entering the undersea realm Cousteau uniquely opened up to the public. But Cousteau - the legendary sickly child and poor student - had already been a French naval gunnery officer, a spy in the underground resistance, a record-setting diver, and a developer of the Aqua-Lung and other diving equipment that enabled new crossings of the sea's frontiers. Later came more films and writings and the TV series by which he became known to all.

Cousteau was in a line going back to the invention of the first diving bell in 1530 and William Beebe's "bathysphere" just 400 years later. But the nine decades of Jacques Cousteau have encompassed more public knowledge of the depths than ever before - and a growing sense of how much more is to be known about the earth's hidden vastnesses, which remain more mysterious than much of outer space.

This underwater Columbus did not stop with discovering his new world - and showing a genius for promoting it by all the 20th-century media arts. He kept on founding organizations, chairing others, speaking out in behalf of preserving the environment and ending mankind's destructive threats, such as nuclear weapons. It wasn't for the whales or the fish, he said. It was for us human beings. And we're grateful.

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