An ironic reminder on Cousteau’s 100th birthday

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by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

The explosion of BP’s “Deepwater Horizon” drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico has been disastrous for the environment, but as the oil continues to pour out, it is striking a deeper chord. Even hundreds of miles from the oil slick (for now), we are reminded of the vulnerability of New Jersey’s beaches and of those individuals who have dedicated their lives to preserving the majesty of the oceans.

June 11 marked the 100th birthday of Jacques Cousteau. Cousteau died in 1997 at the age of 87, but his legacy of marine research, exploration and conservation lives on. He literally changed the way we see the oceans and their vast and varied marine life.

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Cousteau co-invented the Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, better known as scuba, enabling divers to explore ocean depths for extended periods. It forever changed our concept of the seas.

He also seemed to know that his research would be most powerful in the hands of the citizenry. Generations of kids grew up watching the crew of his ship Calypso on television, performing pioneering research like documenting the sonar-like capabilities of dolphins.

“People protect what they love,” Cousteau once said, “and we love what enchants us.” And many people were enchanted by the windows he opened into the mysterious depths of the ocean.

Cousteau produced more than 115 television films and 50 books in his lifetime, and laid the foundation for an entire genre of documentary television. Today some of his original works can be still seen on YouTube (www.youtube.com/user/cousteauenglish).

The marine conservation movement exploded, in large part due to Cousteau’s work. His research gave us the technical data to defend the seas, as well as the popular support needed to galvanize movements to protect Antarctica from mineral development, stop overfishing, and halt the dumping of radioactive waste in the ocean’s waters, to name but a few.

Cousteau’s legacy can be found in New Jersey at the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve in Tuckerton, which was named in his honor in 1997. The Reserve is one of 27 in the nation created to promote responsible use and management of the nation’s estuaries – places where rivers meet the sea – by combining scientific research, education, and stewardship.

Thanks to the diversity of our coastline – from the Delaware Bay through the Jersey Shore and commercial ports – and our many rivers, New Jersey is a unique laboratory for estuary research.

New Jersey is fortunate enough to have some outstanding guardians who share Cousteau’s love for the sea, including Cindy Zipf at Clean Ocean Action (www.cleanoceanaction.org), Tim Dillingham at the American Littoral Society (www.littoralsociety.org) and Debbie Mans at the NY/NJ Baykeeper (www.nynjbaykeeper.org). These three leaders, all in the peak of their careers, are the current protectors of New Jersey’s oceans and beaches.

As you despair over the Gulf while oil keeps roaring out from the well 5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface, take some solace in the knowledge that there are people in this world no less determined to pump their life’s blood in to preserving and restoring oceanic ecosystems. As the political and economic fallout continues, let’s hope for and work toward a world in which the way we do business is guided by our respect for the sea and the life it contains.

You can read more about the life and legacy of Jacques Cousteau at www.cousteau.org. And I hope you will consult New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org, if you would like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources.


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