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Jacques Cousteau centennial: ‘We must go and see’

By Cathy Hunter, Renee Braden, and Krista Mantsch

Second in a three-part series commemorating Jacques Cousteau

Il faut aller voir.” (“We must go and see.”) – Jacques Cousteau

Jacques-Yves Cousteau began his lifelong odyssey with the sea seeking a little adventure; by the end, he had inspired people around the globe to look more closely at the oceans that make up most of our planet. For 15 years, it was an odyssey that Cousteau and National Geographic undertook together.

He came to us in 1950, a 42-year-old French naval officer and co-inventor of the Aqua-Lung who also claimed to be an underwater filmmaker. We hesitated. Yet there was something about this Frenchman, so impossibly slim, with that smile so huge, those eyes so large and mesmerizing. So in 1952 we embarked together on what might have seemed an uncertain adventure. Yet he never doubted the outcome.

“Personally,” Cousteau declared, “I have the greatest confidence that our work, helped by your Society, will be particularly fruitful.” National Geographic magazine articles showcased Cousteau’s underwater photography, and in 1955 we funded the now-legendary voyage Calypso made to the gorgeous, unspoiled reefs of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. The film he made there and released in 1956 as “The Silent World” is arguably the most influential underwater documentary ever made, winner of both an Academy Award and the Prix d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

By 1960 Cousteau was a household name in the United States in an era as excited about exploring the sea as it was about venturing toward the stars. Over the years, the Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration sponsored and supported many of Cousteau’s advanced underwater projects, from construction of the famous diving saucer to establishment of one of the world’s first undersea habitats.

With Cousteau, the exceptional became the norm. There was the singular luncheon, for example, served at Society headquarters on 2,000-year-old plates, plucked from a stock of unbroken crockery the captain had recovered from an ancient Roman shipwreck.

On occasion, the Society’s Research Committee convened with the determination not to give in to all his desires. He might then turn up in person, brimming with ideas for improved equipment, improved techniques, for new ways of approaching old problems–and walk away with everything he had asked for. He had that kind of effect: at once dazzling, charismatic, silver-tongued, persuasive, and occasionally exasperating. The magazine’s editors loved his “lean, vivid, compelling style, the same far-seeing, creative imagination that marks Captain Cousteau’s every utterance.”

Marveling at how many millions had watched the 1966 National Geographic Television special “The World of Jacques-Yves Cousteau,” Cousteau recognized that this was his final frontier. He found a way to fold his science and all his other energies into The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, his own long-running television series.

Yet the angular figure, crowned by a red watch cap, became something more than the grand old man of the sea. Since his first dive in the Mediterranean, Cousteau had watched his beloved sea grow cloudy with pollution, had seen its fish decimated. The growing crisis of the sea gave Cousteau a mission: He founded the Cousteau Society to warn the world through films, lectures, and writings that the fragile ocean must be nurtured and preserved for the common good of all mankind.

Cousteau received numerous international awards, medals, and honorary degrees throughout his career, including the National Geographic Centennial Award in 1988. When he died in 1997 at the age of 87, he was honored by a memorial service at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

In 1961 when President John F. Kennedy presented the Society’s Special Gold Medal to Captain Cousteau for his undersea exploration, the medal bore an inscription that symbolizes the pioneer’s life work: “To earthbound man he gave the key to the silent world.”

Other posts in this series:

In collaboration with the Cousteau Society and in recognition of the hundredth anniversary of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s birth on June 11, 2010, National Geographic Fellow and marine ecologist Enric Sala has set sail aboard Cousteau’s ship Alcyone with the legendary marine explorer’s youngest son, Pierre-Yves Cousteau. The expedition will reexamine undersea Mediterranean destinations visited and documented by Jacques Cousteau more than half a century ago. Learn more about the expedition and explore the ocean with National Geographic.