Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the scrawny, Gitanes Bleues-smoking man with the red bobble hat, was the hero of my childhood. I think I shared my enthusiasm for Cousteau with an entire generation. Diver, captain, explorer, storyteller – that’s the kind of uncle every child would have wanted. His travel stories were the most exciting thing to watch on TV. Pictures of all the oceans and of the world below the water line.
Sunday afternoons of my childhood belonged to the series “Secrets of the Sea”. People gathered at someone’s house who already had TV – at that time there were only a few – and went on an adventure trip aboard the “Calypso” side by side with Cousteau and his men.
With wide eyes and jaws locked in amazement, we watched Cousteau’s films, trembling with attention and curiosity, eager to learn in a way that no teacher ever could. That was action cinema and educational television rolled into one, long before either existed. No one broadened our world view and awakened our environmental consciousness earlier than Cousteau with his films. For the first time, he showed to people a new world, the one under water. And we watched – all of us, entranced.
After all, the world had not yet seen such images: We swam with dolphins and whales, dove into reefs and wrecks, examined coral reefs, watched manatees mate and enter a ripped open shark maw, spotted strange fish, plunged into infinite blue depths, got stuck in Arctic pack ice, drifted in shoals of sub-Antarctic squid and krill, worried about an injured baby whale, crawled alongside Cousteau towards angry walrus bulls, slid under icebergs… Wherever the “Calypso” was, whatever the men were doing – we were there. Up close and personal. On deck, under water, at table and in bed, in the team of wiry daredevils.
Cousteau (1910-1997) came up with quite a few ideas for this. Many of his countless inventions when it came to diving and filming were pioneering achievements. In 1936, Cousteau presented the first underwater film, for which he had developed a waterproof housing for the camera. In 1946, he introduced his regulator, which was to revolutionize all diving. He came up with the underwater scooters, propeller-driven high-speed flotation devices later seen in Bond movies. And under the famous red bobble hat that later flew into space, the idea for a diving saucer was also hatched. All this technical stuff was less intersting to us kids back then than the great movies that were possible thanks to it.
Cousteau could simply tell good stories – half the battle for a good film. For the story, he had the most spectacular images imaginable. He had scripts written by masters of cinema (including Louis Malle) and added bombastic orchestral sounds and subtle music as icing on the cake.
Not only the public, but also the film business adored Jacques-Yves Cousteau, he won every important prize: three times the Oscar, the Palm d’Or and a Bambi. The lawyer’s son had come to his element of water during the Second World War, where he had served as a corvette captain and was a member of the Résistance – which earned him the Cross of Honour of the Legion, France’s highest order. In addition to worldwide adoration by several generations of children, Cousteau also enjoyed honorary doctorates, UN recognition, the respect of governments. The term cult could have been introduced for the all-round genius back then.
Thanks to the movie “The Deep Sea Divers” with Bill Murray we know a lot about the man we saw mostly wet and always with the bobble hat: His ego was in no way inferior to his charm, he was the fixed star in the universe of the “Calypso”, a dictator in skimpy swimming trunks. When it came to environmental protection and image cultivation, Cousteau was the U2 Bono of the first hour.
Author: Greta Paulsdottir.