"JACQUES COUSTEAU: THE FIRST 75 YEARS," Wednesday, 8 p.m. (5)--Jacques Cousteau, the wiry Frenchman whose lyrical photographic essays transform the seldom-seen undersea world into exquisite visual poetry, is one of those TV institutions easily taken for granted.

For more than 17 years, his aquatic explorations have fused the best of pictures and science, his regular TV specials bringing to viewers a greater sense of themselves in relation to their total environment.

The beauty was always there. Cousteau (who is pictured on the cover) has merely recorded it for the ages, artfully and lovingly.

So this two-hour salute to Cousteau and profile of the man on KTLA--in his total environment--is well deserved. It premiered last month on cable via Atlanta SuperStation WTBS.

Cousteau's son, Jean-Michel, is host and Jose Ferrer is the narrator. There are guest appearances by Jack Lemmon, Stefanie Powers, John Denver and film director Louis Malle, who got his start with Cousteau.

"The First 75 Years" gives us a fuller picture of Cousteau, showing the skipper of the Calypso in less-familiar settings that include the Monaco apartment he shares with his wife, Simone. It is interesting to see Cousteau on land in an urban setting. Yet he still is connected to the sea by an unseen umbilical cord.

Photography and the sea were always his twin loves. "Some people have a tendency to take love notes in writing," he says here. "I prefer to take notes in pictures."

His 70 films have captured an acquatic world that is at once gentle and violent. The violence is sometimes dramatized, if not exacerbated, by the intrusion of Cousteau and his underwater technology. Working for Cousteau can be hazardous, as his TV specials demonstrate:

A three-ton elephant seal destroys a camera with one massive bite. A diver is in a cage photographing sharks, when they become frenzied, causing Cousteau to order the cage brought to the surface.

Much sadder was the case of Cousteau's son and Calypso mate, Philippe, who was killed in a chopper crash during a filming expedition several years ago.

Cousteau goes on, though, half romantic and half scientist, still viewing the undersea world as a stage and laboratory, continuing to plan ambitious projects that most men, young or old, would not even consider. He ticks them off. "I think I will do all that," he says.

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