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The 1970s: Cousteau's Odyssey Continues

Members of Jacques Cousteau's team readies the famed explorer for a dive
Members of Jacques Cousteau's team readies the famed explorer for a dive. | Photo: Getty Editorial / AFP / Staff

They traveled the world, and we wanted to go with them - to the Mediterranean, the South Pacific, Africa and the Red Sea. They wore red beanies and (now) humorously skimpy bathing suits. They spent much time in the sun. More important, they spent much time in the sea.

I fell in love with the ocean watching "The Cousteau Odyssey" and "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau." I read Jacques-Yves Cousteau's best-selling book "The Silent World," although I would come to learn that the undersea world is everything but silent. I even listened to John Denver's tribute song "Calypso" (the name of Cousteau's vessel; one part floating lab, one part galley filled with charts, bonhomie and French cheese) because it was a good song, and, in 1975, there were only a handful of radio stations, so it was hard to escape.

KCET aired "The Cousteau Odyssey" from 1977 to 1981. Music takes you back. So too, does the soothing, resonant voice of narrator Theodore Strauss. One phrase -- "Amid a school of damselfish, the divers enter a watery universe filled with constellations of life" -- back-dropped by symphonic soundtrack, and I am back in the family rec room, all of us around the TV, watching Cousteau and crew (Cousteau wouldn't have been Cousteau without his team) open another window to an astonishing world. If you are of a certain age, you can taste the scene. You also know what a rec room is.

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Cousteau's odysseys were very much a team effort, but it was Cousteau who put his signature stamp on the show. His name rolled easily off the tongue; for some, it was all the French we would ever speak. He wore that natty red beanie. He appeared to get on splendidly with his crew (as far as I know, he was never keelhauled). He made complicated topics easy to understand. He may have been the first scientist to stoop down to our level. This is an immeasurably important thing, because if you and I don't understand the oceans, then no one, other than a handful of scientists, will care about them. Cousteau called himself an "oceanographic technician," but watching him on the screen, I saw him more as an affable, though queerly dressed, uncle. He always seemed to be smiling, as if he were in on some private joke. "Ha ha ha. Mon Dieu! I spend all day in a Speedo! And don't forget the assorted cheeses!"

 

Sure, Jacques Cousteau was criticized by some scientists for oversimplifying and over-dramatizing things, but certain scientists are peevish, reclusive sorts; and so they will never inform the public like Cousteau did. He unabashedly searched for the lost City of Atlantis. The names of his episodes - "Mediterranean: Cradle or Coffin?"; "Time Bomb at Fifty Fathoms" - rang like comic book titles. Good for him. He was criticized for his childish curiosity and romanticism. Forty years later, these still seem like strong suits to me.

"Again, I enter a world at once familiar and strange, a world of subtle sensory distortions. Here it is easy to believe in myth."

With those words he launched "The Cousteau Odyssey." And oh, the world he showed us. The oceans make it easy to believe in myth.

I know this because, to a very small degree, I have done my best to follow in the footsteps of Jacques Yves-Cousteau. I didn't become a marine biologist; the science was too damn hard. As many aspiring Calypsians discovered, the study of the oceans is not all about frolicking in cerulean blue waters et du fromage. But I did build a life around the sea. I became a writer and then a diver. Thanks, in part, to Cousteau's inspirational "Odyssey" (and, in larger part, a career as a travel writer), I have seen some of the world's loveliest underwater realms. The South Pacific, the Andaman Sea, the Caribbean, the Sea of Cortez, the Sea of Japan, the Galapagos, California's Channel Islands right here at home. I have witnessed beauty beyond comprehension and words, a pleasant conundrum for a writer. I have also seen horrific devastation. Off Myanmar, fish floating, dead and half-dead, rocked by the concussive shock of dynamite (better known as fish bombing). Still living sharks, kicked off a fishing vessel, spiraling down to the bottom and a slow, certain death; their fins cut off to provide for soup. Memories I will carry for the rest of my days; impossibly lovely and equally ugly.

Cousteau was quite familiar with the darker issues. It was why he showed us the beauty; for it is in our nature to protect what we love. Far, far back, Cousteau knew that Man was undermining the seas; the very foundation on which our own survival depends. It is easy to distance ourselves from the oceans. They seem a remote, implacable, and still mysterious place. But it is foolish to do so. And so Cousteau labored (while making it look like play) to make the oceans familiar to us, as we sat in our living rooms gawping and, hopefully, absorbing.

It was not all prancing about in the sunshine. It was dangerous work. Cousteau lost friends in diving accidents. In 1975, while filming on Deception Island, Antarctica, Michel Laval, Calypso's second in command, was killed when he was struck by a helicopter rotor. Cousteau's son Philippe was badly injured in a gyrocopter crash on Easter Island. Then he was killed in a seaplane accident. Not surprisingly, some of the light forever went out of Jacques Cousteau's smile.

Not long ago I was cage diving with white sharks off Isla Guadalupe, a Jurassic Park of an island far off the Baja California coast. Isla Guadalupe is one of the best places in the world to see great white sharks. Every year, from roughly June through November, they gather in Guadalupe's clear blue waters. The reason is easy to see and hear. During these same months, northern elephant seals - and their naïve pups - inhabit the island, filling the air with their plaintive cries and guttural croakings, and filling the sharks' bellies with a blubber-rich buffet.

Like Cousteau (or so I believe, for though I felt like I knew the man, I never met him), I will never be a jaded diver. Seeing the white sharks off Guadalupe was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Again it was beyond words, but words must do. The sharks swam past the cages with nary a bump, yet so close we could see the intricate beauty of their markings, the ragged line separating their gray forms from their white undersides like a string of low storm clouds. Their languid movements induced a sort of dreamy hypnosis until they rose to the surface to take a tuna head dangling from a rope line, and then serenity exploded in a blink-and-you-miss-it devouring, a convulsive, serrated wrenching, a display of primal power and thoughtless efficiency as inspiring as it is rarely seen. I can tell you now -- it is possible to get goose bumps underwater. There is exquisite beauty in the perfect survivor. And then the sharks angled down into the blue and simply disappeared, dissolving as easily as a dream.

Grasping the bars of the cage, I was again a teenage boy, peering, spellbound, at a television screen, a magical window to a world not magical at all. A world very much a part of ours. A world we can choose to ruin or rescue. Words Theodore Strauss might have intoned in our living room. Time passes. With its passage has come oil spills, overfishing, rising ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, extinction rates 10,000 times the norm.

One evening, our boat rocking beneath a star-filled sky, the darkness echoing with the blurts and cries of elephant seals and their pups, we divers sprawled in the galley and watched an old Cousteau episode. It took place on Isla Guadalupe, for Cousteau and his team walked ahead of most of us. On the screen an enormous elephant seal swayed on the beach, one of Cousteau's crew hopping about just off its nose. Yes, the crew member's behavior was both invasive and dangerous, but he avoided calamity by nimbly hopping back just as the miffed elephant seal lunged.

It was funny, and the other divers laughed. I did too, but not that hard. The footage was gray and grainy. Time passes.

Jacques Cousteau died on June 25, 1997. I remember because a little light went out of the water.

But much of the light is still there. It's up to us to see that it isn't further extinguished.

Jacques Cousteau would tell us so.

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