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Old Man And The Sea

Thu., June 26, 1997

The gods may have been sending a poetic message, for it was precisely at sunrise Wednesday when word arrived from Paris that Jacques-Yves Cousteau had died or as the French put it, had gone to his Silent World.

Throughout the day, wire services around the globe struggled to convey what Cousteau had contributed in his 87 years, but sometimes the words seemed barely adequate, for the man we remember in sea-blue tunic and red watch cap was many things: not only pioneer, ecologist, teacher, filmmaker, writer, inventor and a wise guardian of the sea but also one of the great explorers of the 20th century.

What Columbus was to the Atlantic, Balboa to the Pacific and Neil Armstrong to the moon, Cousteau was to the all the waters of the world.

He had been hospitalized in recent weeks by a respiratory infection. His wife, Francine, told reporters that on his final day, he was conscious and lucid, and when death came, it was at their Paris home at 2:30 in the morning.

From 1965, when “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” made its debut on television, he seemed to be everywhere, in books and films and in documentaries, introducing viewers in his soothing French accent to mysteries of the sea more magical than science fiction.

Aboard the Calypso, a converted British minesweeper equipped with a marine laboratory, he led us week by week around the world, from blue lagoons of the Amazon and from coral reefs with fish of wondrous colors all the way to the Antarctic, where we shivered with Cousteau as he hunkered down to watch penguins waddle along in a snowstorm.

Born June 11, 1910 in Saint-Andre-de-Cubzac, a small town in the southwestern winegrowing region of Bordeaux, Cousteau was a sickly child who suffered from enteritis and anemia. Advised by doctors to avoid strenuous exercise, he nevertheless learned to swim and spent much of his time at beaches where he developed a love of the ocean. The son of a lawyer, he spent his childhood years in New York and in Paris, where he became bored by school and was expelled at age 17 for breaking windows.

He buckled down, though, and in 1930 passed examinations to enter the naval academy at Brest, and then went on to aviation school.

Fate intervened, however, and at 26, he was nearly killed in an automobile crash that broke both his arms and forced him out of aviation and into sea duty.

It was during World War II, while Cousteau was involved in espionage activities for the French Resistance, that he made his first underwater films and helped develop the Aqualung, which supplies air to divers.

After the war, he bought the Calypso and headed for the Red Sea. In 1952 he shot the first color footage at a depth of 150 feet, then embarked on a four-year voyage across the oceans of the world.

Among his books were “The Living Sea” (1963) and “World Without Sun” (1965). A 20-volume encyclopedia, “The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau,” was published in the United States and England.

In 1977, the “Cousteau Odyssey” series premiered on PBS, and in 1984, “Cousteau Amazon” on Turner Broadcasting System.

His documentaries won 40 Emmy nominations and Academy Awards for best documentary for “The Silent World” (1957), “Le Poisson Rouge” (1959) and “World Without Sun” (1965).

In the past 15 years, after a life of grand adventures, he became an eloquent advocate of the environment.

He was sounding the alarm as recently as January, when he was in Florida to receive an award. “The future of civilization depends on water.”

He and his late wife, Simone, had two sons, Philippe, who was killed in Portugal in a boat accident, and Jean-Michel.

Other survivors, in addition to his second wife, Francine Triplet, are their children, Diane and Pierre-Yves.

In meeting with reporters Wednesday, Francine read, in breaking voice, Cousteau’s favorite verse, by French poet Paul Eluard - “To earth, to earth all that swims/To earth, to earth all that flies/I need the fish to carry my crown/I need the birds to speak to the crowd.”

Graphic: The life and legacy of Jacques Cousteau

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