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When the undersea world got lost

It came on network television on Sunday nights. Or, Saturdays? Friday evenings, maybe? Whenever it happened, it was a magical hour. The sun was setting outside the bay window in the living room. One of the few moments during the week when things around the house loosened up enough for us to eat in front of the television, we took our seats with cups of Kool Aid set into the shag carpet.

The whole family gathered around, watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. My dad was an inveterate viewer of science programs. More than movies or sitcoms or dramas, the fascinating world of science, oceanography, and geology held his attention. National Geographic, NOVA, The Undersea World . . . The subjects didn’t threaten him. The narrators didn’t challenge the morality he’d adopted that left him in judgment of actors and writers of more pedestrian television programs. Cousteau’s hours were clean, wholesome family entertainment.

We watched Cousteau’s series religiously, first in black-and-white, and then when we bought our first new, never-used-before television, in color. Cousteau and his crew mesmerized me. Their preparations for undersea dives, the dives themselves, the creatures they revealed, and all the “firsts”—the first time a medusa shrimp was caught on camera, for instance—took the family’s attentions for one hour a week. I treasured the time. The internecine struggles of my childhood home came to an end. Today, I equate Cousteau with peace and harmony.

When I was a kid, Cousteau convinced me I wanted to be an oceanographer. I imagined myself on the Calypso, readying the submersible for a dive into the great secrets of the sea. I donned the stylish aqualung and took up my sea scooter and shot through pods of whales. With my trusty bangsitck, I braved schools of sharks. I played with anemones and clownfish. At night, I dreamed of exploring the bowels of shipwrecks.

Like a good essay, each episode had a thesis and argumentation that led to a surprising and enlightening solution. Captain Cousteau provided insights, highlighting the human interactions with the animals and environment. Rod Serling narrated more prosaic elements of the episodes, giving background information and technical details. Each week, the crew set off into a human-nature odyssey that brokered my dreams and fueled my imagination.

Every episode was a self-contained drama, with the crew casting off from Monaco or starting on a new adventure. The program developed characters and settings. The story would build from preparations through narrative about their experiments. The experiments began, and suspense built to a climax toward the end of the story. After Cousteau ordered the shark cages hauled up from swarms of the aggressive creature (or whatever animal or environment they were dealing with that week), the narration at the end served as a kind of denouement, setting up the crowd for the next episode.

The Cousteau world was self-contained. The Calypso itself possessed everything for long-term sea expeditions. Cousteau had a film studio on board. The sophisticated galley appeared in some episodes. The kitchen’s most interesting feature was a diving platform that opened through the bottom of the hull. Divers used the aperture to get into the water when the sea roiled too much or the temperature outside was too low. They had film labs, where they developed and spliced film, building the episodes right on the boat. The came ashore in ports to re-equip and take on supplies. Interactions between the crew and the people ashore always made for toothy bits of story, human elements that punctuated the seriousness of scientific research,

Besides having their own boat, they used equipment of Cousteau’s design. Phillipe and the Calypso divers all wore specially designed equipment, including the 85-pound aqualung that opened the deep to so many explorers. The crew used tagging spears, shark cages, and apparatus of every sort, and each one fashioned by Cousteau or members of the crew. The custom-built sea scooter flew men around the ocean floor as if floating through space. And the men themselves were fascinating. Everyone on the Calypso had to be a jack-of-all-trades, doubling as diver and enginemen, scientist and sailor, cook and photographer.

Cousteau’s world was one of possibilities. Anything could happen, everything was open to experiment. Cousteau and the crew were living examples of how scientific research worked. They had research reference volumes aboard. They detailed experiments, problems with hypothesis, that they worked out through the episode. We, as viewers, discovered the secrets to the ocean mysteries as the show unfolded. Often, we were smarter people for our contact with Cousteau.

I just finished watching an episode of The Undersea World, “Savage World of the Coral Jungle.” The atmosphere of the house on those Sunday evenings, or whatever evening of the week Cousteau’s show aired, returned to me. In some ways, I found the program quaint. Cousteau’s show, which ran four or five episodes a year from 1968 to 1976 (Cousteau made 115 episodes, not all of them shown on American TV) represents a simpler time, before oilmen and reactionaries’ resistance to climate change and global warming made the world of science a toxic, political background. The program avoids the faux adventure and spectacular exploits of more bane human beings of more modern programs. I doubt Cousteau would approve of “Shark Week.”

The program also records a moment before mass bleaching of the world’s coral reefs, fighting over continental-shelf oil explorations, and the controversies over ocean wildlife refuges and tuna and lobster fishing limits. I hate to say that the turn of the 1970s was a more innocent time for the world, but it was for me. Those years between the ages of six and fifteen comprised my salad days, in some ways. The family had not yet fallen all the way apart. I still found some solace at home. The worst of my drinking days and legal troubles, the broken relationships and sordid dotterings were in front of me.

A friend sent me a link to the “Savage World,” largely due to my interest in and liking of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Wes Anderson captured the Calypso’s inner workings and the tone of the original program almost perfectly. All the pieces of the Cousteau ensemble were in the movie—the balloon chair, the helicopter, the submersible vehicle (in Anderson’s world, the Jacqueline). Zissou’s boat, the Belafonte, even looked like the Calypso. Cousteau’s ship had a film studio. It’s hard not to believe after watching The Life Aquatic that the Calypso didn’t have a spa, ship masseuse, and a top-notch research laboratory. Even in the “Savage World,” Cousteau stated that his crew played music and had even created various musical groups, including a string quartet and a jazz ensemble.

Whatever happened to that dream of exploring with Jacques-Yves Cousteau and son Phillipe? Likely, it faded with that time. Things got in the way. The vagaries of high school came on me with a vengeance. I went to work at 14. Summer and part-time employment during the school year wrung the childhood from life. Parents discouraged any kind of ambition beyond graduating and getting a job.

I suppose that’s why I took to Anderson’s movie. I confess that I’ve been watching and listening to episodes of The Undersea World as I worked on this essay today. I will probably see The Life Aquatic tonight or tomorrow. I’ve seen it many times, but every time, it takes me back to those days on the shag carpet in the living room.

And the first thing I’m going to do when I get up from this computer is to go back to Nick and tell him he ought to pursue whatever dream he has. I’ll support him in it. He may not want to be an oceanographer, but he wants something, or will. I ought not take that from him. I ought to do my best to keep life from taking that from him.

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One Comment

  1. Maureen Goddard Maureen Goddard

    Thank you for your writing- a happy day when the inbox shows a new essay

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