American baby boomers share a lot of memories, and one common to that generation is being introduced to the wonders of ocean life through the ABC television program The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. This program, which aired in the late 1960s and early 1970s, featured a dashing Captain Cousteau, complete with his his trademark red watch cap and pipe, venturing on his ship The Calypso through the world’s oceans with a crew of scuba divers who captured amazing underwater footage to educate people about marine life.
Liz Garbus’ documentary Becoming Cousteau captures the wonder of those early viewing experiences while also delving into the life story of Cousteau. She paints a generally positive portrait of a man with remarkable professional accomplishments but also significant personal shortcomings, and viewers can read between the lines to contemplate how different Cousteau’s life might have been had he not been a man with access to an elite education.
Cousteau originally intended to be a naval pilot, but injuries suffered during a serious automobile accident meant that option was no longer available to him. He then shifted his interest to the ocean, taking up spearfishing and then becoming involved with free diving, in which individuals swim underwater without access to supplemental oxygen. To stay under for long periods of time, divers had to have a breathing tube attached to a surface-level source of oxygen, which limited their freedom of movement. To overcome this limitation, Cousteau developed the aqualung, which led to the modern regulator and air tanks that now allow even beginners to swim freely underwater for extended periods. The development of this tool was not without risk, of course—the first person to use an aqualung died—but Cousteau kept improving the design, with the result that scuba diving today is a hobby practically anyone can take part in.
People felt differently about interacting with wildlife in the 1930s and 1940s, as compared to today, and footage of Cousteau and his companions doing handstands on tortoises or slaughtering sharks just shows you how far we’ve come since those days. I have my doubts about some of Cousteau’s underwater footage as well—did they do anything harmful to the environment to get the shot they wanted (we know the answer was sometimes yes), and was it enhanced or falsified in any way, as Disney is known to have manipulated footage in their wildlife documentaries? Director Garbus doesn’t get too deeply into these questions, but you can find plenty about them on the internet if you are so inclined. Garbus is more frank in detailing Cousteau’s self-admitted failures as a father and a husband—although one could also say that Cousteau was a product of his time, and he took the opportunities his society offered him as a man. In his professional life, he didn’t claim to be a scientist: instead, he did what was necessary to produce the effective television programming that made him a household name and served as a tool to promote causes he cared about.
Cousteau was an early environmental activist, who realized fairly early that his beloved oceans were threatened by pollution. It’s hard to believe today, but people used to think of the oceans as some kind of miraculous trash dump, which could make anything from household and shipboard trash to radioactive waste simply disappear. Of course, we know today that that’s not true—the oceans may be vast, but they’re also formed of ecosystems sensitive to the introduction of pollutants. Cousteau was also forward-looking in his concern to counteract the focus of his contemporaries on present gains, as opposed to future consequences, as is evident in his creation of the nonprofit Cousteau society, which is dedicated to “saving and protecting marine life for present and future generations.” | Sarah Boslaugh