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Charting a Mission on Environment

The animal was as slippery as water itself. As I watched the giant otter glide easily through the river, I felt awkward, even in my sleek diving suit.

Before me, the supple mammal swirled, totally at home in these murky Amazon streams. Then the animal approached my father and me. Although able to claw a human to death, instead she nuzzled us, her wet nose across our faces and warm tongue across our cheeks. The touch was unforgettable, the moment perhaps irreplaceable. For these animals, slaughtered and hunted for their magnificent pelts, are practically extinct.

We had come upon this otter cramped in a tiny zoo and she became a visitor on Calypso until she could be safely released into the wild again.

Our time with her was unplanned, unexpected, special to us--one of the countless magnificent moments that celebrate life on our planet.

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As we begin the Cousteau Watch, we hope to share such moments as these. And we hope to explore their meaning.

When my father first began undersea exploration in the 1930s, the ocean was the nearest frontier. When he co-invented the aqualung in 1943, this frontier became accessible as never before. No human had yet truly explored this deep, silent world, the world without sun. Yet this was not a sea of darkness, but a sea of magic. Awe became a steady companion, for here he found indescribable beauty--the perfect swirl of the nautilus shell, the lithe underwater maneuver of the seal, the tentacle ballet of the octopus, the microscopic majesty of the coral polyp building colossal reefs.

Here was a brilliant cornucopia of life we had not imagined. Since then, this realm has changed forever--for better and for worse.

We have stampeded the oceans, pillaging the wealth of fish and aquatic life. And we have turned the seas into a dumping ground for wastes of all kinds. No matter where we dive today, we are hard-pressed to find the sublime richness and diversity of life that was the Mediterranean Sea when my father first tested the aqualung.

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The world has moved on, and so must environmental awareness. It is no longer enough to lobby on behalf of national parks, wilderness conservation, endangered species. We can no longer act as though humans are somehow apart from the cycles of life. The more we travel, the more we see how humans too are endangered by their activities.

Smog alerts have become common in major cities throughout the world. At Love Canal in the United States, we have seen the spectacle of evacuations of residents whose houses were contaminated by oozing toxic substances.

We have seen the return of cholera and hepatitis due to the eating of shellfish spoiled by human sewage. In the summer of 1988, hospital debris floated back to beaches near New York, Seattle and the Great Lakes. Forces have been set into motion that are dangerously warming the Earth. In inflicting on the land and ocean perhaps all they can take, human society is putting itself at risk.

Calypso and our wind-powered ship Alcyone now circle the globe on separate expeditions, examining not only the ocean environment, but other elements--social, economic, political--that affect the quality of life on our planet. We film and we seek to understand what we see. We record things as they are and speculate about things that could have been, and may still be. We try to find the subtle matrix that governs us all, the links between bird and branch, sound and silence, preservation and power, threat and threatened--the difference between mere existence and life.

Our ships are small, and there is little formality. We eat together, work together and share tasks together. Including watch.

We not only need to keep our eyes open for navigational safety, despite sophisticated equipment, but also because we are explorers in a world already largely explored. The new becomes harder to discern.

Of course we have itineraries and plans, but often the most indelible moments are the serendipitous, the random, when we simply watch and wait.

Off Papua New Guinea, in the summer of 1988, Calypso and Alcyone met for the first time in several years. It was a reunion of our forces and our aspirations, an extension of the first moment 40 years ago when we beheld the undersea universe for the first time. The ships floated on the glass of clear blue water off a beautiful tropical island. We were guests in paradise, and I felt small in the face of modern forces, natural and unnatural, that both create and destroy our dreams.

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As we continue to explore, we hope to share with our readers our experiences, wonder and worries; to re-create in print, before our films can be finished, both our fleeting and our lasting memories.

In the Cousteau Watch, we will journey in adventure and inquiry, sharing the touch of the otter, our journeys across the water planet, and our rediscovery of Earth, this most precious world.


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