Jacques Cousteau
    by Kevin Shortsleeve

Jacques Cousteau once said, "When one person, for whatever reasons, has had a chance to lead an exceptional life, he has no right to keep it to himself." And how lucky we were that this underwater explorer, inventor, photographer, envinomentalist - was also a brilliant storyteller. And for children, his television program, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau thrilled us as much because of the adventure and the drama as the beauty and the fragility of the watery deep.

A part of the appeal of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau came from a comparison to what was going on in space exploration. On the air from 1966 to 1976, Cousteau's adventures were contemporary to the NASA Apollo and Sky Lab missions. Parallelilng NASA's astronauts, Cousteau called his divers aquanauts, and we watched both sets of adventurers as they drifted weightless, in a silent, dark void. Like NASA counted the number of days men lived aboard the orbiting Sky Lab, so Cousteau counted the number of days his aquanauts lived beneath the sea in his prototype living quarters, Conshelf. And echoing the opening of Star Trek, Cousteau reminded us in his programs that we were visiting alien worlds "where no man has gone before."

The program also portrayed a spirit of high adventure, and great fun, as Cousteau's famous ship Calypso often appeared more like a rollicking pirate ship on the high seas than a scientific research vessel. We watched as the captain and crew shared tumultous meals, sang rollicking songs and participated in a perpetual funny hat contest.

Even before the program aired, Cousteau had captured the public's imagination and his adventures played no small role in popular culture. Ian Flemming had written articles on the explorer, and one year after Cousteau won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1964, the James Bond film Thuderball was released - complete with SCUBA spies equiped with Cousteau-esque mini propulsion units. Once Cousteau had his own program, he was hailed as a hero unlike any other - cavalier - romantic - fascinating. With program titles like "Lagoon of Lost Ships," and "Secrets of the Sunken Caves," Cousteau's episodes sounded more like a Hardy Boys mysteries than science films - and young audiences everywhere were hooked.

For children, it is always important to know that there are yet undiscovered and unexplored regions of the world - and that there is yet a place, in our pre-programed cyber-enhanced planet for maverick adventurers. The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau served this purpose, and Cousteau himself, while giving millions a rare view into the mysteries of the deep - at the same time, showed children how exiting and interesting life can be, if only we act on our dreams.

Copyright 2002, Kevin Shortsleeve

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."