The Beginnings of Things

It all began one morning in the summer of 1936 when Jacques-Yves Cousteau put on goggles.

But really, we should rewind the tape a bit further back. Because Mr. Cousteau might not have been wearing goggles were it not for one evening a few months earlier on a twisting, turning road.

That evening found Mr. Cousteau – a young French naval officer who hoped to become a naval aviator – with a wedding to attend in the Vosges Mountains. So, the young officer borrowed his father’s speedy Salmson sports car and began the drive.

But Mr. Cousteau never made it to the wedding. On a twisting, turning road, the Salmson’s headlight shorted out. And Mr. Cousteau smashed into a retaining wall.

He would live, of course. But his arms were mangled and broken. His aviation hopes shot.

Swim, a colleague suggested, it could help to strengthen those arms of yours. So, Mr. Cousteau swam. Like most swimmers of the time, he wore no goggles. And he thought of the sea as little more than a salty obstacle to perfecting his crawl stroke.

Until one summer morning in 1936.

On that morning, Mr. Cousteau walked into the water with a friend’s pair of Fernez goggles. He opened his eyes in the murky underwater. He saw rocks covered in silver algae. He saw fish after fish. He saw life in the murky underwater. And he walked out of the water a different man.

“Sometimes we are lucky enough to know that our lives have been changed,” he wrote in The Silent World, “to discard the old, embrace the new, and run headlong down an immutable course. It happened to me on that summer’s day, when my eyes were opened on the sea.”

Beginnings, after all, aren’t always where we expect them to be, where we plan them to be. They can come disguised in car crashes and salty water. But if we can keep our eyes opened to them – to the unexpected, unplanned, murky beginnings – we can be changed by them.

Mr. Cousteau – who had no scientific degrees, who had never intended to spend his life underwater or invent the Aqua-lung scuba gear or write bestselling ocean books and make popular ocean films – discarded his aviation hopes.

And ran headlong into the ocean.

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