Happy Birthday, Jacques Cousteau

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.

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9 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Jacques Cousteau

  1. I love this post!

    I have clear memories of watching every show that came on about the amazing Mr. Cousteau and his fascinating expeditions, and for many years also dreamed of becoming a marine biologist, which alas, I failed to make true for many of the same reasons. I abhor being cold, and while I love to dive and snorkel, I have a phobia about being on boats.

    He was such an inspirational man and it’s so terrific that his legacy lives on in the Cousteau Society and their work in both pushing undersea research and defending the oceans and their denizens. The fact that you love and appreciate fish as much as you do is a real testament to Mr. Cousteau’s life – I’m sure he would have loved your letter and if he could have he’d have written you a beautiful reply.

  2. Happy birthday, Jacques.

    Marine biology was my dream, too, thanks to him. It sort of still is, somewhere, except for the seasick part. And the shark phobia part.

  3. Cousteau is the reason I picked up my very first National Geographic, attracted by (I think) a hammerhead shark on the cover. I didn’t read it – I devoured it.

    (Metaphorically, I mean. Because that would be *weird*).

    Now Cousteau and NatGeo are all mixed up in my mind, taffied up like fishing nets. And both together (inseparably so), they’ve helped me nurture that obsessive, wide-eyed childlike wonder into my adult years.

    I can’t even begin to repay.

  4. Me too. Cousteau. NatGeo. (That and Sunday night Disney are all mixed up. Sea Hunt and Flipper too!)

    Although even as a kid I never wanted to be a marine biologist, it wasn’t on my list of future possibilities. But I loved watching his shows. It was a family affair, all of us kids around Grandma’s tv watching it together.

  5. the first and only Frenchman I ever truly loved. I can hear that theme music in my head for the first time in decades with the orchestra and horns.You probably won’t believe this, but I promise it’s true: a good friend’s younger sister named her baby daughter “Cousteau”. Thanks for the memories 🙂

  6. I wrote to Princess Diana when I was a child – I think I wrote to congratulate her on the birth of William and sent a picture of a princess in a tower. I don’t remember why – I think it was my father’s idea, just an entertaining way to spend an afternoon. I still have the reply with the Buckingham Palace embossed seal, written from her lady-in-waiting. I insisted on opening the letter myself rather than letting my mother use the letter opening, so the envelope is all scraggly.

    You’ve just made me think that I should write to one of my heroes, who is still alive, David Attenborough. We’ve been watching all his documentaries on DVD, the complete box set plus all the DVDs that came after the box set, from 1978 to now. He’s a British national treasure. I think you had Sigourney Weaver or someone voice a few of his later documentaries in the US.

  7. Growing up in the Hartland, far from any body of water other than the murky Illinois River and strip mines-turned-fishing-holes, I remember Jacque Cousteau videos fueling those ocean dreams. I wanted to dive–even looked into lessons once. In Illinois they dive in strip mines. What’s to see? Massive catfish and school busses driven into the pit as an artificial reef. “You have to watch for fishing lines that get snagged on the rocks.” Uh, thanks, but no.

    I moved to Seattle and immediately signed up for diving lessons. Next to the Red Sea, Canada’s Inside Passage was Jacque Cousteau’s #2 favorite spot. I’ve dove there on extended live aboard trips. El Nino brought us uncharacteristic life like sunfish.

    I’ll never forget spotting a pod of Dahl’s porpoises, entroute to who knows where. Usually playful, they sped on. Minutes later, a pod of Orca whales followed. The hunt was on, and passing us by.

    Years later, I adopted two kittens. Out of nowhere it suddenly dawned on me the perfect names. Jacques and Calypso. A Google check for spelling and I realized, the Calypso was Jacques Cousteau’s first research boat. Coincidence? I’m not so sure. 🙂

    Thanks for this post. I’m relishing a flood of memories this morning!

  8. Mr. Cousteau is one of my dad’s heroes because Mr. C. got to do exactly what he wanted to do, didn’t hurt anyone doing it, and made a ton of money (so dad says). I admire him because he made all of us more aware of what we were doing to the oceans (hear that, BP?)

    Re Nat’l Geo: I wanted to be an archeologist when I was 9-10 because I saw Louis Leakey on NG. Like you, I was not math inclined and went onto a job where I deal with words more than figures.

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