Today is Jacques Cousteau’s birthday.  The undersea explorer/environmentalist would have been 100 years old today.  My favorite (as you know) TV channel, Turner Classic Movies – a.k.a. The Bonnet Channel – has departed from its customary old movie programming for the day and is showing some of the 120+ documentaries that Cousteau filmed.  The line-up has included discovery of the Britannic (the Titanic sister ship, which sank in Greek waters in 1916 when it hit a mine); diving for Roman bronze statuary – some of which was discovered by sponge divers in the 1920s in a site off the Italian coast; the ecology of the Mediterranean; and exploration of the waters around Easter Island.

In these segments, Cousteau comes across as a man who has realized his passion in life, one whose mission on the planet is to explore, enjoy and enlighten.  He seems happy – like someone you whose company you would very much enjoy.  His boat Calypso, immortalized in the John Denver song and rammed and sunk by a barge in a Singapore harbor in 1996, was his companion in adventure for many years.

In the Britannic episode, he helicoptered in a spunky little 86-year old lady from Edinburgh who was one of the few remaining survivors of the wreck, having been a nurse aboard ship at the time of the disaster.  She provided the eyewitness account of the explosion and rescue, which, along with Cousteau’s narrative of his dive into the corpse of the ship at a depth of 354 feet beneath the sea, takes the footage from educational to emotional.  Before she is whisked away again, his crew takes her down in a submersible to view the remains herself.  What a marvelous experience for her – and for us as viewers.  I can only assume that Cousteau wrote his own descriptions of his dives, as well as the rest of the script for the documentaries – his words are evocative and heartfelt.

Where, you may ask, do childhood memories enter into the picture?  It’s not like I knew Jacques Cousteau, or played with his kids on a North Carolina beach.  No, my memories are still tied into the same documentaries I watched today.  They would air on Sunday nights from time to time during my growing-up years, and I found them frustrating.  Looking back on that feeling, I was partly bored and partly envious.  The boredom came from too many words and not enough action, in my 8-year old opinion.  But the envy came from watching Cousteau’s travels above, on and under the sea, to all those places that I wanted to go.

My Mother absolutely adored Cousteau, his mission and those shows.  She had a similar love of nature and a similar wanderlust – similar to both Cousteau and to me.  She would sit, rapt with attention, on the couch, not wanting to miss a minute of the tales of his travels, but patiently answering my numerous whiney questions about what we were watching.  I think she had a secret hope that one of us would become an environmentalist.  She’d have been pleased about my learning to dive.

Cousteau’s legacy lives on in his grandson Phillipe, who continues the family’s environmental work, and is currently in Grand Isle, Louisiana, exploring the horrendous impact of the BP oil spill.  You can read his findings, and see footage of his dive of the spill, which was broadcast on Good Morning America, on his website, www.philippecousteau.com.

And so, happy birthday, Capitaine.  The best gift we can give you is to honor and protect the sea – her past, present and future.