Jacques Cousteau, the original Capt. Barnacles
“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”
TV / Streaming content for kids often gets either a raised eye, or an eye-roll from most parents these days. Whether it is the questionable tone or persona that a cartoon character demonstrates, the edgy and flat artistic design, or just the usual over abundance of ear-worms, most contemporary cartoons can quickly make a parent cringe. One show, however, breaks away from this trend; the crack team of cartoon Ocean-nauts called The Octonauts.
When we are children, we are naturally curious creatures. Think about it. They are learning about the world they live in each day as they live it. We as adults forget that. We even take it for granted. So much in our mundane life is just known or already explained for us. But for a kid, life is genuinely one big adventure of unknowns. To them, when they learn something new, they are making a true first discovery. Now, some of us grow up and keep that desire, that wonder to explore (myself included). I wanted to foster that in my son. So when he became hooked on the show, The Octonauts, I was interested to see why.
The Octonauts is simple. They say what they do at the beginning of every episode; they "Explore, Rescue, Protect" the ocean and its inhabitants from aboard the Octopod (an undersea vessel in the shape of a Pacific Octopus). Now, if one reads the original books by Meomi, of which the show is based, you'll get a full backstory of how this team was assembled. But in brief, the story plot is as if Star Trek, SeaQuest, Thunder Cats, and Jaques-Yves Cousteau were blended up into a computer generated anthropomorphic cast of characters. Each of the cutely rendered, computer generated characters carries a positive persona that serves the mission aboard the Octopod. Each has a specialized job, from engineer (Tweak), to medic (Peso), to the Captain himself (Barnacles). And if you are concerned about a break out Disney singalong every episode, no need to worry. There is an absolute minimum of tunes. Besides the usual "Creature Report" song that ends each episode, only one show, which is really a feature film on The Great Barrier Reef, is an actual 'musical.'
When I was a kid learning about high sea adventures and our Earth's oceans, it looked very different than today's BBC and Discovery Channel productions. For me, a child of the 80's, I remember looking at pictures out of a book, and at a man with a distinctive red beanie entitled, The Ocean World of Jaques Cousteau. These books spread across the floor of my bedroom, along with encyclopedias (remember when homes had to have encyclopedia books?). Living in the PNW, and more specifically next to the Puget Sound, I remember going from the rocky shores us locals call "beaches," to my room to see what sea creatures were in our small part of the Ocean world. It was a lot of self discovery and a lot of plain old paper based research, but it taught me science and instilled in me the notion of conservation. The 90's in the PNW had a lot of regional conservation efforts; some kids around Puget Sound might even remember a kind of kids club called "People for Puget Sound." Yet nothing was as cool as what Capt. Cousteau worked on aboard the Calypso. Fast forward to a younger generation and the name Cousteau (or really, just a red beanie explorer) might only point to the 2004 Wes Anderson film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
From Analog Oceanaut ; to Digital Octonaut
On The Octonauts, there isn't a red beanie to be seen. Yet, the show captures the same message Cousteau gifted all of us, but in an informative, kid friendly visual package. And of course, this EdTech-Dad just had to find out what kind of transference-of-learning my child was getting from this show. Out of educator-curiosity, I set up a test for my four-and-a-half year old. I fired up the classic Jaques-Yves Cousteau 1964 film A World Without Sun to see if it would even peak my pre-schooler's interest, let alone see what he would make of it. My son walked in, sat down, and was mesmerized. He did not get up for the entire film. Not because of the cool vintage footage, or even the animals (although that helped), but the fact that he saw "real life Octonauts." To him, this Frenchman in a red cap, with his "explorer "friends" under the water in real life "Gups," was literally the coolest thing he had ever seen. No more cartoon characters that have special jobs for their underwater missions, but real life people doing what he saw in his cartoon.
Now, I'm not going to lie, what hooked my son right from the beginning was the intro to A World Without Sun. The film starts off with a yellow submersible, the SP-350 Diving Saucer, diving through swirls of yellow (algae?) in the ocean. In The Octonauts, they must be paying homage to that submersible in their GUP-D (perhaps my son's favorite machine in the cartoon). GUPS, you might be wondering if you don't know the Octonauts' universe, are the submersibles that are predominantly built and repaired by the engineer, Tweak. They each have a wide range of tools to help on the different missions. One GUP, in particular, is a bright yellow saucer shaped submersible with two eye looking ports, just like Cousteau's real life machine.
After the introduction of a real life GUP, an underwater base, and now a crew living underwater, it wasn't much of a mental leap for my son to want to know, "Who are the characters of the 'real life Octonauts show?'" With or without a red beanie (which in World Without Sun he doesn't wear), it didn't take long for him to correlate the role of Capt. Cousteau to Capt. Barnacles. After that, we watched the ConShelf Adventure; and he was just as captivated. We've now watched several other episodes of Jaques-Yves Cousteau's adventures. As more and more environments pop up, I can see exactly what my son gleans from his cartoon.
Borrowing very loosely a little from Blooms Taxonomy, The Octonauts primarily hits on Knowledge (Remembering) level of learning. Animal factoids are a plenty, especially as each episode concludes with a 'Creature Report' (an ear worm that actually isn't teeth grinding for most parents). It is pretty funny to watch a pre-schooler school you on the difference between a Jellyfish and a Siphonophore. Now, in the case of Octonauts, they do take a lot of creative liberties with personifying these creatures. But through this anthropomorphism, they do a stellar job sneaking in actual zoological and oceanographic information.
Beyond just the obvious "cool" factor that comes from exploration, there is a skill that is subtly taught; critical thinking. From observation came a simple question, what is learned by the mind of a little explorer through the combination of Capt. Barnacles and Capt. Cousteau? Checking on Comprehension (Understanding), I wanted to find out if there was any transference of learning from what these two captains had shown him. In the study of Education, the notion of transference of learning is, as Perkins and Salomon (1988) describe, "the application of skills, knowledge, and/or attitudes learned in one situation to another cognitive situation." At four-and-a-half, we are not going to see him translate what he gathers between The Octonauts and Cousteau then throw on a regulator and tank and go hit the ocean. Rather, what we could hope to observe is how he can practically apply what he is watching and learning to his exploration in his everyday life. The Octonauts episode about Sac Actun (which is played here as much as perhaps Frozen is in some households) opened my son's eyes to what's involved in diving and splunking, and its dangers. He can't even swim, but he can explain what goes into diving. He can talk about how,
"They [divers] need their special jackets to keep them warm in the water."
Understanding a wet/drysuit as a jacket for the water is a pretty good deduction for someone who knows how cold, even in the summer, Lake Whatcom is. But in diving specifically, I was curious to understand what he understood about how it might work. So, I presented him two divers, a photo of a free-diver and a photo of a scuba diver, and I asked him to describe what he saw.
He knew that the one without a tank needed :
"...to make his breath good and hold it to dive under the water."
Where the other diver photo [scuba]:
"...doesn't need to hold his breath because the oxygen tank (yes, he identified it that way) gives him air."
Beyond that, what I found surprising is that he really grabbed on to the safety aspects in diving (especially in caves):
"...you need things for when it is dark underwater. So, you need two flashlights- in case one goes out."
So of course, most days now he walks around with a flashlight; not just because of its coolness, but also for "just in case of emergency," as he says... even though he is always on dry land. In his Analyzing, he broke down the importance of backups and what rescue lines are for in caves. Much to my surprise again, he lectured me on how the diver in this short-film advertisement for watch company Baltic was extra dangerous because,
"... he did not use a backup rescue line when he dove in the ice... he can get lost. And he doesn't have a tank and has to hold his breath under the cold ice."
Tidepools of Learning & Adventuring
Regardless of the content and the generation, both captain's help foster a child's healthy curiosity of adventure, an imagination of discovery, and desire to learn. Sure, my son and I are not going to be diving in the midnight zone anytime soon, nor are we going to saturation dive at Con-Shelf 2. But juxtaposing something like Octonauts with something as classic as Capt. Cousteau's series has helped my little learner wade through the tidepools, all the while parroting facts. Aside from that, it helps my son and me share something in-common, a love for the Earth's blue. And thankfully there is content we both enjoy, which isn't eye-rolling as an adult. As Cousteau is quoted saying "the sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever." As an ardent Pacific Northwesterner, I hope that holds true for my son as well as he grows up, whether he gets it from Captain Barnacles Bear or Captain Jaques-Yves Cousteau.