When I was 11 or 12 years old, I wanted nothing more than to be a marine biologist when I grew up. I’m a convinced that watching Jacques Cousteau on TV had a lot to do with this. I was completely fascinated by the undersea world, I wanted to go there, I wanted to see those brightly colored fishes in all their glory. We made lots of trips to California’s Monterrey Bay in the summer time — we’d look down into the tidepools at bright anemones and starfish and I wanted to know more. Every trip to the aquarium was a revelation — to this day I remain infatuated with the long nosed butterfly fish, though I also have a crush on the clownfish, picked up at the Great Barrier Reef before little Nemo hit the big screen.
I can’t remember what inspired me to do so, but I scribbled fan mail to Mr. Cousteau. I wrote him a letter, by hand, in my 11 or 12 year old script, telling him of my fascination with the ocean and how, essentially, I wanted to be him when I grew up. I stuck with this obsession for quite a while but it became apparent that I was constitutionally unsuited to marine biology as an occupation. It is a science, after all, and I was not good at math. And while I am a good swimmer, I don’t like boats, I get seasick and cold and claustrophobic rather easily. I met a real live marine biologist once who told me about the nuts and bolts of sitting on floating labs, analyzing specimens while trying to shake the damp chill of the sea. My path changed, I went to art school, I became a writer.
But I am still mad crazy about fish. I still leave the aquarium enchanted and while I never learned to dive — my unsuitedness extends to bad sinuses and inner ear issues — I have snorkeled the Red Sea and the Great Barrier Reef and the spectacular waters of Kealakakua Bay in Hawaii. I used to carry a Seafood Watch card in my wallet, when I got my iPhone, the Seafood Watch app was the first thing I installed. I have a dry ink and colored pencil drawing of a clownfish wearing a crown, she’s my desk mascot and some days, I think I want her as a tattoo. I have added Hawaii’s glorious humuhumunukunukuapua’a to the pantheon of fish gods that watch over me. And I still feel my heart leap a little when I hear the name Cousteau.
I don’t know how long it took for the Cousteau Foundation to answer my mail. I’m not sure if I ran back and forth to the mailbox every day or if I forgot about it and went back to watching National Geographic specials on the great explorer of the oceans. But a response did eventually appear, and that’s all that matters. It arrived from somewhere French, I can’t remember if it was French Polynesia or France, but it was from a French speaking place. There was a typed letter in an onion skin envelope , the top right corner was covered with beautiful stamps that had pictures of fish on them. The letter was from one of the Cousteau sons, regretting that Jacques could not answer me directly as he was out on an expedition somewhere in the South Pacific. Study hard, because that’s the path to becoming a grown up marine biologist. Thank you, though for your enthusiasm for our work and for your love for the ocean. I can remember standing at the window in my room and turning this letter over and over in my hands, looking at the stamps, the Cousteau signature — the letter was signed in ink, by hand — and thinking this was possible.
I’m not sorry I didn’t pursue that path, I would have crashed and burned but I am sorry I don’t have the letter. We moved a lot, things were lost, thrown away, sold, left behind. The memory of that letter will have to suffice and really, it is better than good enough to have this tenuous thread connecting my 11 or 12 year old self to the great man of the waters. He would have been 100 years old today, and even though he is not here, I am still grateful for his life.