Jacques-Yves Cousteau: Lord Of The Depths

He was a sailor, explorer, inventor, best-selling author, prizewinning filmmaker, passionate environmentalist and canny businessman. Instantly recognizable by his pipe, red cap and gaunt silhouette, Jacques-Yves Cousteau--a.k.a. "Captain Planet"--was arguably the century's best known, most popular Frenchman. For generations of scuba divers--and millions of armchair explorers--he created a crystal-clear window for the unseen world beneath the waves.

Before Cousteau, undersea exploration was limited by the length of a human breath or the tether on a diving helmet. His co-invention of the Aqua-Lung in 1943 freed us to roam the ocean depths--like an "archangel" flying through the heavens, as he put it. Maker of more than 150 films, beginning with his Oscar-winning The Silent World in 1956, Cousteau revealed a flotilla of wondrous creatures to an audience that was instantly entranced. In his last book, Man, Octopus and Orchid, published shortly after his death in 1997 at the age of 87, Cousteau summed up his long career with a powerful denunciation of ocean pollution, nuclear energy and overfishing. Though some ecologists lamented his late-blooming commitment to their cause, and professional scientists questioned the credentials of this self-taught oceanographer, their carping paled next to Cousteau's towering lifetime achievements--crowned by his induction into the prestigious French Academy in 1989.

Born near Bordeaux in 1910, Cousteau had dreamed of a career as a French navy aviator until a near fatal automobile crash dashed those hopes--and serendipitously led him to his true vocation. Taking up swimming to strengthen his broken arms, Cousteau fell in love with the sea. "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 later wrote. "It happened to me on that summer's day when my eyes were opened to the sea."

In 1950 Cousteau acquired a retired 66-ft. minesweeper named Calypso and turned it into the floating oceanographic laboratory on which he would sail the seven seas for more than four decades. That legendary vessel sank after a freak accident in Singapore harbor in 1996; a state-of-the-art 217-ft. replacement, Calypso II, is on the drawing board awaiting funding. But through the Cousteau Society, which he founded in 1973 and which continues to operate under the direction of his widow Francine, Captain Planet's legacy lives on in the form of films, books and a thousand azure images etched indelibly on the mind.

--By Thomas Sancton/Paris