In 2009, Alexandra Coustau’s Blue Legacy Expedition took her and a small team of documenters to five continents in one hundred days, in search of clean drinking water. Though occasionally far from the ocean, she found herself constantly seeing the link between the sea and mankind’s sustainability, as well as to her grandfather, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who would have been one hundred years old this year. Below, as excerpted from OCEANS, The Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do To Turn the Tide she reflects on her career.
The ancients told of water. Carved deeply in stone and crafted carefully in story and song, their superstitions and histories and wisdoms cascade across centuries and flow through our lives today: “From the heights of a mountain…” “By the banks of a river…” “Upon the shores of a homeland…” and so the stories go. And so we tell them still. For history has always been written in water.
And yet, for all the wonder and worship, throughout most of human history, the mysteries of this water planet were out of sight and beyond understanding. The oceans were vast unknowable surfaces across which ships sailed bravely in search of wealth or distant lands and adventure. Beneath this plane lay a mysterious void filled by the wild creatures of myth, an inexhaustible supply of fish, or some combination of both. Rivers cradled civilizations, nurturing the evolution of societies while carrying away the waste and transgressions of communities. And the rains came as they would for reasons most everyone could explain but seldom in the same way or for the same purpose. So man spoke of water as one who sees without knowing- hoping somehow to explain the wonders beyond and beneath the water planet he called home.But as time passed, the siren call of exploration tempted the hearts of both pilgrims and wanderers to pierce the dark night of ignorance and see the planets spinning-to step beyond the binding traditions of mortality and think the thoughts of gods. And they too told of water. Some throwing sheets into the wind would rush to the edge of the world to drown echoes of scorn beneath a bending horizon. Some would chart water’s course through our veins and some would harness its steam to build a bigger and better life. So story follows story as man wielded reason and exploration to unravel the mysteries of his world.
But in spite of centuries of charting the expanses of her boundaries, no one had yet searched out the depths of her oceans and this frustrated my grandfather Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Tethered to shallow, short dives by the aching in his lungs he longed to see more, to know more and so, as centuries of explorers before him had done, he sat down with a friend to rewrite the boundaries. The invention they would call the “Aqua Lung” in 1943, allowed humans to explore the underwater world for the first time, opening new fields of study and changing how we understand much of our natural surroundings.
The thrill of what he saw-of what he discovered-was more than he could contain and soon, he was back at the drawing board to design gear for my grandmother Simone and eventually even for my father Philippe.
Just four years old when his father taught him to dive, my father was so exuberant about all he saw beneath the calm surface of the water – a darting school of fish here, a brightly colored coral there, a waving forest of life just beyond – that he repeatedly tried to call out to my grandfather. He was blissfully unaware that each exclamation caused the regulator to fall out of his mouth, which my grandfather deftly and repeatedly replaced to keep his small, excited son from drowning.
When they finally got back aboard the ship, my grandfather scolded my father for his reckless enthusiasm saying, “You must be quiet underwater because it is a silent world.” My grandfather’s description of the new world to which he had introduced my father that day later became the title of his best selling book and Oscar-winning documentary The Silent World. And so we Cousteau have joined the generations of those who tell the stories of water.
Twenty-six years, a host of inventions, discoveries and awards would pass from that day. President John F. Kennedy would bestow the National Geographic’s Gold Medal on my grandfather at a White House ceremony honoring his work. The award-winning series he developed with my father, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, would be welcomed into living rooms around the world. His storytelling would launch a new generation of environmentalists and forever change how we see the oceans. And then Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
I remember my grandfather telling me that the day he saw the headlines “Two Men Walk on the Moon” (knowing my grandfather, probably not without some healthy envy) was the day he knew our perception of the world would forever change. For the first time, we saw ourselves from outer space and realized unmistakably that our planet is in fact blue. Finally, people would see what he saw everyday from the deck of the Calypso: We live on a water planet.