Cousteau brought underwater world to public

Many environmental struggles have come to be identified by a dynamic voice leading the cause. John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, is often recognized as the most notable environmental advocate of the late 19th century and carried the torch for many land preservation efforts during a time of rapid western expansion.

Two women became world famous for their scientific work in the middle of the last century. Rachel Carson came to be an accidental celebrity when she wrote her classic “Silent Spring,” the book that first revealed the dangers of pesticide use. Jane Good-all became world famous for her advocacy of wildlife preservation, following her research work with chimpanzees. Astronomer Carl Sagan brought astronomy to the common man with his popular PBS series, The Cosmos in the 1980s, and Bill Nye the Science Guy made science exciting for kids in the ’90s.

All of them shared a common characteristic — they made the seemingly complex understandable and interesting to the non-scientist. Over the last 50 years, many of those messages have been conveyed by television. One of the first to do that was conservationist and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau. His most famous and widely watched work, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,” began its eight-year run on network television 50 years ago this winter.

Not really a series in the typical way, Cousteau produced several documentary specials each year, highlighting a different oceanographic topic or place each episode. Though the first show on sharks was criticized for being a bit too melodramatic and less scientific, the series as a whole was critically acclaimed, winning two primetime Emmys and being nominated for several other national awards.

Cousteau became a celebrity, enjoying notoriety that to that point in time had been enjoyed by a very small number of scientists. Many of us old enough to remember the show look back fondly on not just the exceptional videography, but the engaging scientific and human stories.

Dr. Lee Kump, now the dean of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State and an oceanographer by training, was one of the kids enthralled by Cousteau.

“I can trace my passion for the oceans to the show… The UWJC revealed a mysterious and beautiful world that I could have only have imagined otherwise.” Kump said he so idolized Cousteau, he stood in a long line for his photo and autograph at a store near his home in Minneapolis.

“(It’s) something I cherish to this day,” Kump said.

Kump had become a big fan of the popular show “Sea Hunt,” actor Lloyd Bridge’s show about a professional scuba diver. But he came to appreciate Cousteau’s “focus on science” which he thought “trumped Bridge’s underwater wrestling matches with bad guys.” Cousteau raised awareness about the sea and the related challenges that confront us.

“There is no doubt that the [show] elevated society’s understanding of the beauty of the ocean ecosystem and its importance to society, and his passion for ocean conservation energized a generation to advocate for its protection,” Kump reaffirmed.

It was a time when scientific knowledge, environmental protection and awareness of other cultures were seen as good things. Kump put it well, “His show and the Calypso traveled the world, exposing us to the diversity of habitats and peoples.”

John Frederick (jfrederick writes about the environment every other Wednesday. Visit for the best of past Earth Matters columns.