Remembering Jacques-Yves Cousteau

By Rebecca L. Johnson, author

Last Friday, June 11, was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, arguably the most famous ocean explorer of our time. Thanks to the medium of television, Cousteau had a direct impact on my life. I grew up in the heart of the Great Plains, essentially a thousand miles from the ocean in every direction. But through dozens of television specials (“The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau”), he introduced me, along with millions of others, to the wonders of the sea. I confess that as a kid I was also hooked on reruns of Sea Hunt, the half-hour TV drama in which ex-Navy frogman Mike Nelson, a.k.a. actor Lloyd Bridges, fought bad guys—and inevitably sharks—underwater. But it was Cousteau, the wiry, soft-spoken Frenchman sailing the seas aboard Calypso, who sparked in me a burning desire to escape the confines of land and enter that beautiful blue world where I could be weightless and surrounded by strange and wonderful creatures.

Getting there took a while. I didn’t learn to scuba dive until I was in my early 30s. My first pair of fins was made by U.S. Divers. That’s a sporting goods brand of Aqua-Lung, the company associated with Cousteau and the “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus” he invented with Émile Gagnan. I wore those fins on my first ocean dive—my salt-water baptism—on the Great Barrier Reef. They were the last bit of gear I tugged on before rolling backward over the side of a Zodiac and finally, finally, descending into Jacques Cousteau’s incredible undersea world. I still have those fins. I’ll never part with them.Rebecca L Johnson, Mexico, with Atlantic Spadefishphoto: Rebecca L. Johnson swimming with several Atlantic Spadefish near Mexico

Hundreds of dives later, the excitement is still there, every time. But so is growing concern. Over the years I’ve watched favorite dive spots succumb to pollution, overuse, and global warming-induced coral bleaching. Human impacts on the sea aren’t subtle anymore. And now we have the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I imagine Cousteau would have much to say about that if he were alive today. He was one of the first great ocean champions. Thankfully, we still have dedicated ocean defenders such as Sylvia Earle, Philippe Cousteau, Carl Safina, and others working to protect this incredible, and largely unexplored, part of our planet. But we need more of them. Aye, Calypso…we miss you.

Note: Rebecca is author of the forthcoming Journey into the Deep: Discovering New Ocean Creatures, to be published in Fall 2010 by Millbrook Press.