Jacques Cousteau's 100 Year Legacy: 'People Protect What They Love'
“People protect what they love.”
That was the worldview Jacques Yves Cousteau passed along to the millions who fell in love with the undersea world thanks to his documentaries and books. For the masses Cousteau inspired, this entire year has been a celebration of the influential captain's 100th birthday (he was born June 11, 1910, in a small town in the southwest of France, Saint-Andre-de-Cubzac, where he is buried in a family plot).
Last week, the honorifics culminated in a multi-day event organized by one of his four grandchildren, Brooklyn-based artist, environmental advocate and storyteller Celine Cousteau. Dubbed “Ocean Inspiration,” twin events in New York City and Washington, D.C., recognized the lasting impact of the old man in the red cap. Cousteau was celebrated by original music and dance performances, a panel on the future of the ocean and reminiscences from some of the divers who traveled with Cousteau for more than 20 years aboard his boats the Calypso and Alcyone.
Two winners of a 100-second film contest (in honor of the 100 year birthday) were screened. The original submissions, just 100 seconds long, spoke to Jacques Cousteau's inspiration to the world's first TV generation. My favorite was a cartoon/photo/doodle video collage assembled by Sherman’s Lagoon cartoonist Jim Toomey, “in a 36-hour caffeine-fueled frenzy,” he admitted at the Manhattan event.
“For me the biggest day of the year, besides Christmas, was a Jacques Cousteau documentary on television,” Toomey remembers in the short. “He brought his undersea world into our homes and we all saw the ocean differently.”
I was fortunate enough to moderate the Washington, D.C., panel on the future of the ocean, held at the offices of the World Resources Institute. Bookended by a pair of esteemed ocean writers and thinkers, Drs. David Guggenheim and Carl Safina, the hour-long conversation circled around Captain Cousteau’s message of love as a healing agent.
“It’s far easier to be angry,” said Safina, whose most recent book about the Gulf oil spill, A Sea in Flames, bears moments of vehemence, “but the only way we are truly able to protect a place—the ocean, for example—is if we love it, truly love it.”
Like Toomey, I have distinct memories of being overwhelmed by Cousteau’s early films. I was awed not only by the new world they introduced, but by the working camaraderie and synchronicity that he and his teams displayed in the middle of the ocean. The reminiscences of his fellow divers made clear that any headache the boss may have given them was secondary to his passion, which continues to inspire them today. Unfortunately, my only brush with J. Y. Cousteau was during his last months: In 1997, I was living in the Paris-suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine while he lay in the nearby American Hospital, where he would eventually pass away, suffering from lung disease.
A few thoughts from the event organizer, Celine Cousteau, on the encouragement and inspiration passed down from her famous grandfather:
“When I was 8 years old, my grandfather taught me to dive. I learned SCUBA because of him; I learned marine biology because of him. He showed me that it was natural to be under water.
“When I was 9, I went with him to the Amazon. That trip had a huge influence on me, because I kept going back, although for a long time I didn't quite understand why it appealed to me. Later on, I realized that it was about being attracted to a culture and an ecosystem. It was about watching the butterflies take off, or walking on a sand beach with thousands of little frogs jumping out. About going into an indigenous woman's home and having her give me a piece of yucca that she was cooking.
“He didn’t necessarily push me to choose this path, but he opened up doors and my mind to the possibilities. It was really the whole family that inspired me—in addition to my grandfather, my father, Jean-Michel Cousteau, has continued ocean work since the 1970s. Less well known are my mother and grandmother, both of whom were a part of the family legacy.
“My grandmother was aboard Calypso more than any other crew member; my mother was an expedition photographer for over 13 years. I was inspired by a lot of the field stories they told. As female figures, they really influenced me to believe that I have an opportunity to carry on the legacy in whatever way I chose. I went off and studied psychology and intercultural relations, but my experiential education was out in the field, in the river, in the jungle, and in the ocean. The experiences with my family came together with my formal education to define my part of this legacy.
“As his 100th anniversary was coming up, people kept asking if the family was doing something to celebrate. Having traveled all around the world, I kept hearing people say ‘your grandfather inspired me to start diving’ or ‘I got interested in ocean conservation because of him.’
“A really incredible aspect of his legacy is that so many family members are still involved with environmental causes, most of us with oceans. I think that says a lot. You don’t often see the children and grandchildren of the world’s great minds all becoming scientists, or artists, or musicians. There is something special about that power of the environment and the power of inspiration that has created this incredible legacy.
“On a very personal level, Jacques-Yves Cousteau was a very charismatic, engaged person who was so passionate about what he did that he spoke of it in a very powerful way. A great attraction for all of us is the exploration and adventure, like it was for him. More importantly, we have a desire to protect those areas that we know are fragile. In my family, we have been taught that we are active participants in the whole system that is the planet, not just what happens in our homes and our backyards.”
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon Bowermaster has spent the past two decades circling the world’s ocean, studying both its health and the lives of the people who depend on it. He is the author of 11 books (his most recent, OCEANS, Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do to Turn the Tide, was published by Participant Media) and producer of a dozen documentary films. His blog—Notes From Sea Level—reports daily on issues impacting the ocean and us. Follow Jon on Facebook.