Today, the famed diver Jacques-Yves Cousteau would have been 100 years old. His centennial works as a powerful opener to discussions about the worsening oil spill -- his own son, Jean-Michel, wrote for National Geographic that Cousteau "would be heartbroken at what is taking place in our seas today, especially the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico."
But the motto of his ship, the Calypso, "Il faut aller voir" or "We must go and see for ourselves" invites further commentary on a man whose biggest accomplishment was to open the ocean to people who thought it was unknowable, frightening or dead. He most famously did this through his invention of the Aqua-Lung with engineer Émile Gagnan. Their device allowed divers to breathe normally underwater -- delivering shots of air at the right pressure for the diver's depth.
The technology came in handy during World War II, when Cousteau worked for the French Resistance, later being receiving into the Legion of Honor for his espionage. After the war, he and others would dive to sunken vessels and dangerously extract live weaponry that was still onboard.
But he really made his reputation in the 1950s when he repurposed a British minesweeper as the Calypso, his research ship outfitted with labs, an observation chamber and a diving well. His expeditions around the world (complete with a red-hatted crew), helped make oceanic research and scuba diving popular. The images -- first black and white photos published in Life, later vivid color or Oscar-winning films -- also opened up a world of aquatic wonders to a popular audience. He didn't have to be a trained oceanographer to do all this -- just someone with immense, inventive talents and a boundless interest in the sea. I think of him every time I ogle the latest deep-sea images of alienlike trench creatures. Or pull on a snorkeling mask to take a look at sea life for myself.
You can learn more about Cousteau and his society here.