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PARIS (Reuters) - U.S. Congressional honors, sea-going missions and fundraising to restore the world's most famous marine exploration ship marked the 100th anniversary of French maritime pioneer Jacques Cousteau's birth.
Although Cousteau died in 1997 and it's been decades since most television audiences have heard his thick French accent describing life aboard his ship the Calypso, his son and wife marked his birth by reminding the world of the importance of maritime conservation at a time of crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.
Cousteau, who captured the earliest images of life deep beneath the waves, would have been 100 years old on Friday.
"Captain Cousteau left in the collective memory the image of a man who loved life, nature, the water, who loved to protect," his widow Francine Cousteau told Reuters by telephone.
A former naval officer who became an explorer and environmental campaigner, Cousteau shot the film "The World of Silence," which won the Palme d'Or in Cannes in 1956, from his ex-minesweeper Calypso. The film was made with skin-diving gear co-invented by Cousteau in 1943, which freed divers from heavy helmets to float as if in space.
A number of projects are underway that have been inspired by the explorer who former President Jacques Chirac called an "enchanter" and probably the best known Frenchman in the world for his pioneering films ranging from the Antarctic ice shelf to the blue lagoons of coral atolls.
Cousteau is the inspiration for a scientific and filming mission in collaboration with the National Geographic Society to investigate environmental damage in the Mediterranean Sea.
Cousteau's son Pierre-Yves is taking part in the mission, whose aim is to show the usefulness of transforming maritime zones into protected areas to guard against further damage.
The project has become all the more relevant given the current crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, where millions of gallons of oil are leaking out of a ruptured well every day.
"Regarding this absolute drama, (Cousteau) would have said that it is now time for us to wake up and invest massively in renewable energies such as solar, in which he very much believed," his widow said.
U.S. lawmakers rendered homage to Cousteau this week with a resolution honoring a man who became famous through his books and films and whose hawk-like figure became a ubiquitous TV presence in the 1960s and 70s with the U.S.-sponsored television series "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau."
Cousteau, who acquired a rudimentary movie camera at the age of nine, won a string of prizes for his films, including three Oscars and three awards at Cannes. Detractors called him a publicity-seeker with little scientific training.
Another project underway to honor the memory of the explorer is the restoration of the Calypso, a former minesweeper which carried Cousteau and his crew on a host of sea-going adventures and played a starring role on his TV series.
The boat is now docked in Brittany and its restoration will take a year and require around 8 million euros ($9.63 million), of which a third has already been raised, Cousteau said.
The restored boat will be used for educational purposes rather than exploration, Cousteau's widow said, adding that environmental conservation was more important now than ever.
"When man gives nature the means to take back its rights, nature takes them back in a magnificent way."
Editing by Paul Casciato