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NY Times Europe 60 years of Heroes
NY Times Europe 60 years of Heroes

Jacques-Yves Cousteau

Pioneering filmmaker and environmentalist, he showed the world the wonders of the deep

By CATHERINE MAYER  – Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2006

Sailors tell tales of a magical world beneath the sea. Until Jacques-Yves Cousteau pioneered the aqualung, that world was barred to all but submariners and professional divers in clunky suits and helmets, sucking on air delivered by hosepipe. But with his self-contained breathing equipment and body-hugging wet suit, Cousteau became a self-described « manfish » and was soon sending dispatches from this gloriously strange environment.

His prolific output of films, books and long-running TV series — including The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau — entranced landlubbers across the world. His 1956 film Le Monde du Silence (The Silent World) bagged an Oscar and remained the only documentary to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes until Michael Moore triumphed with Fahrenheit 9/11 two years ago.

It’s hardly an advertisement for environmental best practices — the captain and his crew from the good ship Calypso are shown taking rides on turtles and casually massacring sharks. Nevertheless, when Cousteau died, aged 87, in 1997, he was widely hailed as one of the fathers of environmentalism for his work as an oceanographer and vocal opposition to France’s nuclear test program.

His was a life seemingly destined for greatness: long before rising (or, rather, diving) to public prominence, Cousteau had already received France’s top award, the Légion d’Honneur, for aiding the Resistance during World War II. But his later days and death were marred by family scandals involving a mistress, two previously unacknowledged children and a brawl over his estate. That estate may have been substantial, but his enduring legacy was to make the world aware of the beauty, and fragility, of the sea.

« I spent my life amazed by nature and dazzled by the experiences of life, » he said. And his achievements continue to amaze and dazzle.




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