Pauline Harte

Cousteau sailed the Calypso into the conscience of mankind

Pauline Harte · July 8, 1997

It is always a shock when a living legend dies. Legends should be exempt from earthly foibles that pester us mere mortals. We stand our legends up high on granite pedestals to keep them safe, but not so high that we cannot occasionally touch the hem of their sacred garments.

Last week, a living legend fell to earth from his pedestal. Jacques-Yves Cousteau, a hero of mine since I was a kid, succumbed to earthly illness and died in Paris, departing the world he so eloquently championed for decades.

I loved "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau." Each week, I stepped aboard the Calypso, faced the salty spray, and sailed off to mysterious islands and foreign seas. As the Calypso sliced through the sparkling, frothy whitecaps of rainbow oceans, I reached out and touched the gleaming flanks of playful whales. The hauntingly beautiful singing of these gentle giants touched my soul.

And then Jacques would stop the Calypso and we would dive to the murky depths and allow ourselves to be caressed by the probing tentacles of a huge, friendly octopus. We frolicked with mischievous dolphins and swam behind giant sea turtles.

My children were also regular passengers on the Calypso. My daughters and I would snuggle together as we watched a terrified baby seal miraculously evade the snapping jaws of a determined killer whale. They cheered and clapped as the tiny creature was reunited with its desperate mother.

Only the poetic heart of Jacques Cousteau could make the trials and tribulations of a sea snail interesting and exciting enough for the children. But it was his breathtaking and stunningly beautiful documentaries on whales and dolphins that utterly mesmerized us.

Jacques' eloquent and moving accounts of the endangered species of our oceans and rain forests sent us hurrying to the local library the next day. My children couldn't get enough of Jacques Cousteau, and by the time they entered school, they were already environmentalists.

Jacques was their hero, too. He taught them that even the simplest creatures and plants on this earth are important and necessary inhabitants of an entire planet and worthy of love and respect.

We sailed the Calypso through toxic seas blackened with oil, and our hearts stopped as we viewed the dead and dying whales and dolphins we had played with on earlier trips. Jacques spoke sadly, softly, of man's reckless disregard for an ecologically fragile planet.

Then we sailed across the oceans to the primal beauty of ancient rain forests, and Jacques pointed to distant plumes of smoke rising from the lush green canopies. Nothing was too beautiful to destroy, he warned us in hushed tones.

Jacques, you were the gentle spokesman for all that had no voice. You put your finger to your lips and we heard the pleading cries of the doomed.

Your pedestal should have been higher, Jacques, and stronger. Who will take your place? Who will sail the Calypso into the conscience of mankind?

How many men can say that they will be missed by an entire planet?

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