ISLA DANZANTE, Mexico — First, there was a faint dot in the sky above the blue water and the stark, lunar land. It was Capt. Jacques-Yves Cousteau's seaplane.
As the single-engine craft drew closer, those at the camp could make out the silhouetted heads of the pilot and his famous passenger. Finally, the plane eased from the sky. Its pontoons skipped along the calm water, coming to a bobbing halt. When it was at least 100 yards from shore, those on land spotted instantly the lanky figure that stood firmly on one of the plane's pontoons.
"This is a dream come true for me," a newspaper photographer on the shore commented to a member of the Cousteau team.
"For me too," he answered.
Few of us ever have the chance to meet a legend.
In an era when mere celebrity too often passes for accomplishment, Jacques Cousteau, the film maker, author, inventor, environmentalist, TV and movie star, adventurer, entrepreneur, scholar, self-described "impresario of science" qualifies as a genuine hero to a generation that has traveled around the world with him on TV for 32 years.
His public self, carefully created through more than 80 films and TV specials, has taken on the proportions of a 20th-Century myth, full of action and contemplation, Life and Death, Good and Evil, Love and Despair.
His private self? That's his business, but he does give visitors a few clues.
Now making what could be his last series of specials, Cousteau, who turned 76 on Wednesday, has risen from the ocean floor to chronicle the murder of the Earth. His new five-year, 20-hour series, with its typically grandiose title of "Cousteau's Rediscovery of the World," examines some of the ecological disasters that humans have wrought and that, Cousteau believes, signal the beginning of the end for life on this planet.
"This series has little to do with the behavior of animals," Cousteau said in an interview, "and everything to do with the behavior of people."
The scene: A rare opportunity for a few reporters to spend a weekend on location with the crew of Alcyone, the Cousteau Society's new wind-assisted research ship plying the waters this summer of the Sea of Cortez. The captain flew in from Paris just for the occasion.
The purpose: public relations; good press for Cousteau's "Rediscovery" series bankrolled to the tune of $15 million by television magnate Ted Turner. The series' first program, "Haiti: Waters of Sorrow," debuted on Turner's WTBS Atlanta superstation during the Memorial Day weekend. This one won't be seen until 1987.
The second show in the series, an as-yet untitled program on Cuba, is scheduled for September.
Following Cousteau's recent pattern--established in his studies of the Amazon and Mississippi River basins--less than a third of the "Haiti" program was composed of his once-standard undersea shots punctuated by mock heroism in the face of the unknown dangers of the deep. Cousteau, instead, attempts to link the religious, social and economic pressures of Haiti with its overwhelming ecological problems of deforestation, water pollution and overfishing.
True to form, however, Cousteau himself is the camera's focus. His presence on the screen and in the narration elevates the often mundane, sometimes trite images to the level of personal essay.
"We do not make documentary," he said later in his sometimes broken English at dinner in nearby Loreto. "We make adventure films describing nature as a personal adventure. That's why we are still on the air, and some very good documentaries are not."
The series will take Cousteau's crews around the world on the Alcyone and the more famous research ship Calypso. In addition to Haiti, film has already been shot in Cuba and elsewhere in the Carribean as well as Cape Horn at the tip of South America. Cousteau's teams will examine long-term effects of atomic bomb tests in the South Pacific. Their itinerary also calls for stops in New Zealand, Australia, China and Africa.
Cousteau has not dived in the Sea of Cortez since 1978, and he will not dive on this expedition until he returns later this month. An injury years ago to his inner ear requires that Cousteau spend days acclimating himself to diving.
There was no time for that this trip. This visit, the captain was part of the scenery, here to provide the fawning reporters with an exotic dateline, to have his picture shot in a hundred post-card poses and to swat the reporters' lobs of softball questions like Reggie Jackson in batting practice with the Little League.
"I don't socialize very often," Cousteau said. "I live in my ivory tower. Nobody ever sees me. When I appear, of course, it's rare. . . . What is rare is expensive."
He tossed off one-liners certain to fill the yawning white space of newspapers across the country.
"Monsieur Cousteau," one reporter asked, "what's the most wondrous thing you have ever seen?"
"The sunrise," he answered.