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Jacques Cousteau remembered for his 'common touch'

The world shared his underwater adventures

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June 25, 1997
Web posted at: 11:22 p.m. EDT (0322 GMT)

PARIS (CNN) -- For millions of people who see the ocean only through the porthole of television, the voice of the sea had a soft French accent.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who opened up the mysterious world beneath the sea to millions of landlocked viewers, died Wednesday at age 87.

His widow Francine said he died of a heart attack at 2:30 a.m. at their Paris home while recovering from a respiratory ailment, which had kept him hospitalized for months.

A memorial service will be held in Notre Dame Cathedral Monday, but the Cousteau Foundation did not say where the explorer would be buried.

Cousteau's 60-year odyssey with the sea -- much of it on his famous boat the Calypso -- was more than a great adventure. He co-invented the aqualung, developed a one-person, jet-propelled submarine and helped start the first manned undersea colonies.

"When you dive, you begin to feel that you're an angel," the environmentalist and scuba pioneer once said.

But the bespectacled, wiry Cousteau, often wearing his trademark red wool cap, became a household name primarily through his hugely popular television series, "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau," and his many documentaries.

'Rare insight and extraordinary spirit'

French President Jacques Chirac mourned Cousteau as an "enchanter," a legend who "represented the defense of nature, modern adventure, invention of the possible."

U.S. President Bill Clinton hailed the explorer as a man of "rare insight and extraordinary spirit."

"While we mourn his death, it is far more appropriate that we celebrate his remarkable life and the gifts he gave to all of us," a written statement from Clinton said.

U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt praised Cousteau for his common touch.

Added Ted Turner, vice chairman of Time Warner, which owns CNN: "I think Captain Cousteau might be the father of the environmental movement."

"I think what he will be remembered for most in history is the way he connected with regular people and brought the mystery and beauty of oceans into our personal lives," Babbitt said.

"Capt. Jacques-Yves Cousteau has gone to the Silent World this Wednesday, June 25, 1997"

The Cousteau Foundation

"The Silent World" was the name of a documentary that won Cousteau the top award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956. The film was made using skin-diving gear he invented with engineer Emile Gagnan in 1943, freeing divers from heavy helmets and allowing them to float as if in space.

After he led a 1972 voyage to Antarctica, a worldwide television audience saw for the first time the extraordinary beauty of sculptured ice formations under the sea.

Cousteau liked to call himself an "oceanographic technician." But he was also a romantic who once said that for him, water was the ultimate symbol of love.

"The reason why I love the sea, I cannot explain," a chuckling Cousteau once said.


Inauspicious beginnings

Cousteau was born June 11, 1910, in Saint-Andre-de-Cubzac, a small town near Bordeaux. His father was a lawyer who traveled constantly, and the boy was often on the move.

He was a sickly child. Nonetheless, he learned to swim and spent hours at the beach. Formal schooling bored Cousteau; he was expelled from high school for breaking 17 of the school's windows.

His first dive was in Lake Harvey, Vermont, in the summer of 1920. He was spending the season away from New York City, where he and his parents lived briefly.

In 1930, Cousteau passed the highly competitive entrance examinations to enter France's Naval Academy. He served in the navy and entered naval aviation school.

A near-fatal car crash at age 26 denied him his wings, and he was transferred to sea duty, where he swam rigorously to strengthen badly weakened arms.

"Sometimes we are lucky enough to know that our lives have been changed, to discard the old, embrace the new, and run headlong down an immutable course," he wrote. "It happened to me ... on that summer's day, when my eyes were opened to the sea," he wrote later.



During World War II, Cousteau was involved in espionage activities for the French Resistance. After the war, he was decorated with the Legion of Honor, France's highest honor.

He also made his first underwater films during the war period, and, with engineer Emile Gagnan, perfected the piece of equipment that he said enabled him to be a "manfish" -- the aqualung, an underwater breathing apparatus that supplies oxygen to divers.

In 1950, a millionaire gave Cousteau money to buy the 400-ton former mine-sweeper Calypso. He converted it into a floating laboratory outfitted with the most modern equipment, including underwater television gear.

In 1952-53 Cousteau took the Calypso to the Red Sea and shot the first color footage ever taken at a depth of 150 feet.

One of his most renowned exploits was the unearthing of the hull of an ancient Greek wine freighter, buried deep in fossil mud 130 feet below the surface off the French coast near Marseilles.

The Calypso also conducted the first offshore oil survey by divers.

He authored countless books, including "The Living Sea" (1963) and "World Without Sun" (1965). A 20-volume encyclopedia, "The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau," was published in the United States and England.

In 1977, the "Cousteau Odyssey" series premiered on PBS. Seven years later, the "Cousteau Amazon" series premiered on the Turner Broadcasting System. In all, his documentaries have won 40 Emmy nominations.


Explorer, educator


"He will be remembered not only as a pioneer in his time, but as a dominant figure in world history," said President Ronald Reagan in 1985.

Cousteau's films and philosophy influenced people of all ages. He kept working well into his 80s, giving up diving in cold water but not giving up educating young people about the past.

He was regularly voted France's most-loved public figure in opinion polls. So popular was the explorer that students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology made up a song about him.

"He don't have to come up for air. He's Jacques, Jacques, Jacques Cousteau. How long can you go," the singing tribute went. "From sea to shining sea, he checks them out for you and me."

It was in his later years that Cousteau tried to teach the world to save itself.

"Future generations would not forgive us for having deliberately spoiled their last opportunity and the last opportunity is today," he said at a 1992 environmental gathering.

Age did not dim his enthusiasm.

Even as the Cousteau Society and Turner Original Productions honored him with an 85th birthday special, he still approached his life's work with a sense of adventure.

"There is not bad diver. Never. Always something new to learn and see," he said.

And after a lifetime of invention, exploration and storytelling, Cousteau said not long before he died that he was proudest of helping to save Alaska, the Antarctic, the Amazon and of helping awaken the awareness of people all over the world.

"All these things have been hard won," he said. "And we did it and I'm proud of it."

Correspondent Mark Leff and The Associated Press contributed to this report.  

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