Cousteau's Legacy: Educated Landlubbers And Cleaner Oceans
Happiness, for the bee as for the dolphin, is to exist -
For man, it is to know about existence and to marvel in it.
- Jacques Cousteau
Although more than three decades old, the images remain fresh: The family gathered around the TV as Jacques Cousteau stood on the rolling deck of Calypso, ready once again to serve as a guide to an undersea realm. The wiry oceanographer helped millions come to know and marvel at the teeming universe that exists beneath the world's oceans.
Yet Cousteau, who passed away at his home in France on Wednesday, was much more than an engaging aquatic tour guide with a gentle accent and childlike excitement for exploration and discovery. He pioneered the technology that opened the sea to untethered exploration. And he became a tireless advocate for the protection and wise use of the ocean's resources.
"The ocean is so very unusual for us landlubbers. Cousteau showed us how little we know about the oceans," says Wolfgang Berger, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. Cousteau's notoriety and his lack of formal scientific training troubled some researchers. Yet that didn't undercut Cousteau's success, notes Dr. Berger. "He was a master of direct observation."
Cousteau's love for the sea and his facility with a camera came by degrees. Born in 1910 in St.-Andr-de-Cubzac, France, he received a simple movie camera when he was nine years old. Always an avid swimmer, Cousteau entered the French Naval Academy in 1930 in hopes of becoming a Navy pilot. But an auto accident prevented him from earning his wings, and the Navy transferred him to sea duty. That experience, he would late write, "opened my eyes to the sea."
During World War II, Cousteau worked with engineer Emile Gagnan to invent the Aqua-lung - the self-contained breathing system that allowed divers to swim free of air hoses and tethers for the first time. For marine science, this was a significant breakthrough. It "opened up the coastal zone to direct scientific observation," says Berger. Later, Berger adds, Cousteau would rue the exploitation made possible by the Aqua-lung as spearfishing sport divers began to take their toll on near-shore marine life.
This, plus other undersea technologies he worked on - from underwater cameras and diving bells to remotely piloted undersea vehicles - "encouraged a lot of people from a scientific and technical point of view," adds Robert Gagosian, director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass. "But to me his greatest legacy will be that he - in the 1960s before the environmental movement appeared in the United States - took us from our living rooms into the ocean to discover and explore marine life with him. He showed us the vastness of the ocean - that it's not just the beach that we're used to, but it's 71 percent of the earth's surface with an average depth of 2-1/2 miles."
Through books and films, Cousteau did for the sea what the late Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan did for the cosmos.
The oceanographer remained confident in the resilience of the oceans. In an interview for Earth Action Network last year, he was asked about a comment attributed to him in 1976 that the oceans were dying. "I never used that word," he shot back. "I said that the oceans are sick, but they are not going to die.... The sea is vastly overfished and polluted, mismanaged on the coastlines, all this is true. But it's not dead and it won't die."