Today, the name Cousteau is synonymous with ocean exploration and for good reason. Jacques Cousteau was a pioneer of the underwater realm, marine conservation, and film-making. His life and discoveries changed the way we see the ocean and all it has to offer.
Who Was Jacques Cousteau?
Cousteau was born in June of 1910 in Saint-André-de-Cubzac, Gironde, France. He was one of two children born to Daniel and Elisabeth Cousteau. He learned to swim when he was only four years old and as he aged, he developed an interest in mechanics. As a young man, he was educated at the College Statislas. He did not do well in school and later enter into École Navale and became a gunnery officer and then joined the French Navy’s information service. Unfortunately, or perhaps not, his career was cut short when he broke both his arms in an automobile accident in 1933. While he was working on regaining his strength, he spent time swimming in the Mediterranean. It was this upset to his plans that led to him indulging his true passion, a love for the ocean.
Cousteau married for the first time in 1937, to Simone Mechoir. Together, the couplet had two songs. Jean-Michel and Phillipe, both of whom accompanied their father on his research trips. Cousteau remarried after Simone died to Francine Triplet, a woman he’d kept as a mistress throughout his first marriage. Unfortunately, Cousteau’s son Phillipe was killed
Cousteau sought to reveal to the public the secrets of the ocean throughout his life. He took his first step on this path when he carried out his first experiments in 1936.
During WWII, Cousteau was part of the French Resistance and spent time spying on Italian forces and photographing their movements. He was awarded for his efforts, receiving several medals including the Legion of Honor.
Over the following years, Cousteau and his companions created several award-winning films including Par dix-huit mètres de fond or 18 Meters Deep and Épaves or Shipwrecks. The first was created without a breathing apparatus and the second with the first prototype of the Aqua-lung.
The success of Épaves led to Cousteau being able to set up the Groupement de Recherches Sous-marines or the Underwater Research Group of the French Navy. It eventually evolved into CEPHISMER. The team worked together to explore the Roman wreck of Mahdia, the first operation that used autonomous diving. Cousteau along with Duma, authored The Silent World, one of his best-known books, during this period. The publication of this book, and the movie that was created from it, allowed Cousteau access to the finances he needed for an expedition to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.
One of the most memorable periods in Cousteau’s career of ocean exploration began when he modified a former minesweeper with research equipment. Calypso, as the vessel was called, explored seas and rivers for forty years.
In 1974, Cousteau created The Cousteau Society in the United States and then created Fondation Cousteau in France in 1981. He petitioned to saved Antarctica in the 1990s and was successful, preserving the continent.
What is Jacques Cousteau Known For?
A better question might be what is he not known for. Cousteau is remembered as an explorer, scientist, author, filmmaker, conservationist, and naval officer. In 1943, along with Emile Gagnan, he developed the Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, or “scuba”. It was with the development of the aqua-lung that Cousteau solidified his reputation in the history of ocean exploration. It was the first self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, known now as “scuba”. Previously, diving had required explorers to wear bulky and dangerous suits into which air was continually pumped. With the development of the “scuba” divers were granted the ability to explore the ocean much more freely than they had in the past.
Later, with the help of a wealthy financier, Cousteau was able to set up and 400-ton ex-mine sweeper and use it as a research lab and film studio. This ship was his life for the next four decades.
The Legacy of Jacques Cousteau
Cousteau is also remembered for his film and television programs. Some of these include The Silent World and the series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau a program that ran for nine seasons. The program allowed viewers insight into the underwater world that so many know so little about. It documented Cousteau’s team as they traveled the world and revealed the secrets of marine life. He won Oscars for The Silent World, The Golden Fish, and World Without Sun. He also won two Cannes Film Festival Awards. Cousteau also published more than 40 books.
Cousteau was one of the first to popularize theories of conservationism and the undeniable fact that human beings are damaging the planet. Cousteau was granted the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Regan in 1985 and 1989 and awarded membership to the French Academy in 1988.
Jacques Cousteau died of a heart attack in June of 1997, only two weeks before his 87th birthday and approximately a year after the wreck of the Calypso. He was buried in Saint-André-de-Cubzac. Since his death, the two societies he founded, l’Équipe Cousteau and The Cousteau Society are still active. Attempts are underway to turn the Calypso, which has been salvaged, into a museum.