The Childhood Aquatic

The author's original "The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau" book set.
The author’s original “The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau” book set.

One my earliest memories is sitting down with my dad as he turned the colorful pages of “The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau”. His love for the undersea world was palpable to my young, developing brain. I haven’t thought of these memories in years. Life has a way of getting busy. But recently I stumbled upon these old friends.

I have been trying to organize my life more, so I have decided to tackle my basement.  Boxes upon boxes of material that haven’t been touched for years. My mind is telling me to let them go, but I convinced myself to be absolutely sure there was nothing of priceless value hidden away in those boxes. Who knows, an errant original Van Gogh could be in there.  So there amidst the cardboard boxes was the milk crate containing my “Ocean World of Jacque Cousteau” book set.  I have seen it in its spot a hundred times, but today I noticed something different.  Peeking out ever so slightly from the holes of the milk crate was a very faded, very old, scrap piece of paper diligently holding a place in one of Jacques’ books for the last 25 years.

I became intrigued as it was literally put there by an 8 year old me and hadn’t been touched since, indicating something I found to be of great importance at the time.  So I picked up the book and flipped to the marked page….

“Chapter III. Survival of the Fittest” emblazoned across the top of the page in aquatic blue.  A two toned white and gray map showing the Pacific coast of  South and Central America with a zoomed in window highlighting the Galapagos islands. On the facing page a full color photo of a giant tortoise giving the camera a coy look. This literally marks the first time in my life that I learned the single principle that would dictate the rest of my life.  While the term “survival of the fittest” was coined by Herbert Spencer, the text in the book focuses on Darwin’s theory of natural selection.  I have studied evolution for years and it is now the cornerstone of my teaching career. It was buried in the  pages of a 20 volume book set, but 8 year old me was struck by it, and so marked it for reference.  I sat there, reading over the words, memories I forgot existed came flooding back.  Then, as if scripted, I looked up at the rest of the books and saw many more hastingly ripped up scraps of paper marking various pages of significance to a younger, less knowledgable me.

And as I revisited each page and followed the now unrecognizable path of my 8 year old thought process pieces began to fall into place. My whole life suddenly came into clear and perfect focus.

These books shaped my life.  Going through them as a child, page by page, over and over again, mesmerized by the pictures and intrigued by the words, they began to sculpt and shape my brain.  Sure the initial interest was there before the books, but how many children when asked what they want to be when they grow up say “I want to be a vet” or “I want to work with animals”…..and how many do?

Genes are interesting.  You can have the genetics  for a specific trait but if you are never introduced to an environmental stimuli that gene might never get turned on.  For example, the arctic fox is brown in the summer and white in the winter. The simple reason is that the gene that produces melanin (responsible for brown) does not work below a certain temperature and thus no color is produced and you get a white fox.  If you take an arctic fox and keep them in a warm climate they will never turn white.


Photo Source:
Photo Source:

So I began to wonder, if I never got those books,  would my interest have subsided?

My dad purchased them at a yard sale when I was around 4 years old. I remember, clearly, sitting on our couch with him and flipping through those books before I could even read.  Looking at the pictures.  I have a clear memory of the  joy I would get seeing that shade of green on the cover of the book because I knew that color meant something I liked was in there (is it coincidence my favorite color is green?)

Then I began to think: why of all things did my dad choose these books? I asked my dad this very question and he replied

“My dad and grandfather were commercial fishermen and I used to sit and watch the Cousteau series on TV with my dad. It was a big event in the house. I bought them because I wanted you to have a connection to the sea, but honestly, I think I bought them for myself knowing I would eventually give them to you”.

In the early seventies, at 17 years old  he purchased an old tank, weight belt, and double-hosed regulator at a yard sale for $125. His first underwater adventure was when “my dad’s fishing boat was tied to the pier and the water was about 12 feet deep. My dad tied a rope around my waist and let me go to the bottom.. I walked around, and when I felt a tug I came back up.”

Did I inherit the genes for science and exploration of the natural world from my father? His career path was exactly the opposite of mine, so I always assumed the answer was no.

But something was in there, because  he was scuba diving before it was really a hobby, and something made him buy those books. There was a seed in there that just never got germinated.

Growing up he did not choose his career path as much as it chose him.  Having to work at a young age and not having a lot of money limits your opportunities, as does having a son at 23.  He didn’t have the freedom to choose as much as the need to support.  He became a laborer, was in a union, experienced injustices in the laborer environment and when he did have the opportunity to choose his own path he became a labor lawyer.

No doubt, largely influenced by his years as a laborer.

What if when he was barely old enough to read someone handed him a set of books about the natural world. If his parents brought home a set of books from a yard sale about outer space.  Would that have triggered the same genes that are responsible for my inquisitiveness?  Would that have been the water needed to germinate that seed? What if he brought me home a set of books about outer space, would I have chosen a very different career in science?

Perhaps if he got those books on space, he would have purchased a telescope instead of an old scuba set and I would have grown up watching him peering into space instead of disappearing below the water.

I sat there, having just realized for the first time the real impact these books have had on me. This is the responsibility we have with young children. As parents, as educators we need to make sure those seeds of science germinate. Never underestimate the value of a lego set, an old microscope, a solar system poster, an old set of books, but most importantly, you.


[I previously wrote about these books on a personal blog. This is has been re-edited for the science education audience.]

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

A professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder ( I have long standing research interests in phage biology, molecular structure, cytoskeletal and regulatory (signaling) systems, and the improvement of science (biology and chemistry) courses, curricula, and outcomes (see

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