And all the while a silken-voiced, red-capped, French-accented narrator expounding on the wonders and raptures of the deep.
This was the undersea world of Jacques Cousteau, and it was not only brought to us in living color on television screens but, for a brief time, dwelt in our midst.
You might remember the headlines from 1980: famed ocean explorer to move his operations, including his legendary research vessel Calypso, to Norfolk.
Furthermore, the Cousteau Society and the city would build a $24.7 million Cousteau Ocean Center that would take visitors on imaginary sea adventures.
The worldwide offices of the Cousteau Society did come to Norfolk, and Calypso and one of her sister ships called the city home for a few years. There was much media attention in 1982 when Calypso set off for an ambitious exploration of the Amazon.
The Society moved into low-rent space on West 21st Street. Staff converged from several parts of the globe, including Los Angeles and New York. Besides expedition planning, services to 160,000 members, including publications, were handled there.
Plans were unveiled for a soaring, futuristic exhibition hall on the downtown waterfront. Officials touted it as Norfolk’s coming of age as an international center for marine exploration.
Cousteau, with his characteristic white turtleneck and trim blue suits, came and spoke and charmed audiences with his vision of a blue planet. Jean-Michel and his family lived in a sprawling house on the Larchmont waterfront.
But slowly, glacially, the relationship cooled. A review of voluminous yellowing newspaper clips shows the gradual crumbling of trust as city and Cousteau representatives tried to make the plan for an ocean center work. But they could never quite agree on what the center would house or how it would be paid for.
I can’t figure out whether it was bureaucratic bean counters, cautious public officials or quixotic dreamers -- or all three – that killed the Cousteau Ocean Center. Maybe it was not meant to be.
There were six years of numbing negotiations. City officials couldn’t pin down exactly what the center would display. There’d be simulated adventures but no live animals. For Cousteau that was a non-starter.
And, although some pledges of funds were in hand, the deadline for producing the money kept slipping. It’ll be here, the city was constantly told; it’ll be here.
Back in 1980 when the project was announced, Mayor Vincent S. Thomas wholeheartedly supported it. But by 1984, with a new mayor, Joseph A. Leafe, in office, the story was different. Some think it was dead the moment he arrived in City Hall.
“Captain Cousteau really never focused on exactly what the project should be,” Leafe told me last week. “He’d be here and talk about it and then he’d be gone. Everything was in flux.”
This newspaper began to get cold feet, “It’s time to fish or cut bait,” an editorial said in February 1986.
On April 14, 1986, Leafe did the latter, dropping his support and indicating that a majority of City Council agreed. A formal vote was never taken, but the project was dead.
The Society continued its Norfolk operations, still running its expeditions from here. A few years later, when the city withdrew the low-rent space, it moved to an office in Greenbriar. The only nearby water was a mostly dry creek.
Jacques Cousteau died in 1997 and most society functions moved to Paris, leaving a small staff that moved to the former Hampton Visitor Center on the waterfront.
A few years ago an even smaller staff moved back to Chesapeake. And now, except for a Chesapeake warehouse that still houses tons of decompression chambers, a robot shark and shark cage, submersibles, scooters, ship models, etc. , all vestiges of the Society are gone.
The Cousteau Ocean Center does still live in Norfolk, though. In June 1994, on the exact spot where it was to rise, its replacement, Nauticus, opened. It’s vastly different, of course, but the city recognizes the birthright. Sometime in the future, Nauticus director Hank Lynch says, he’d like to house an exhibit for some of that adventurous stuff.
It’ll be a fitting coda.
Note: I came here in 1993 as editor of Calypso Log, the magazine of The Cousteau Society, then joined the Pilot four years later.
Photo: Calypso docking at the NOAA Pier, June 1979. Pilot file photo.