1910: Jacques Cousteau is born in Saint-André-de-Cubzac, in the Gironde department of France.
Like his contemporary, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Cousteau was a man of wide-ranging appetites and accomplishments. He was, at various times (and often simultaneously), a scientist, naval officer, author, photographer, filmmaker, researcher, explorer, innovator and ecologist. But he is remembered mainly for his work developing the Aqua-Lung, as well as in marine conservation and in raising the world’s consciousness to both the splendor and the plight of the oceans.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau grew up near Marseilles but also spent part of his youth in the United States, where his father worked as a legal adviser. Cousteau spent a few summers at Lake Harvey in Vermont, where he first tried diving underwater. He returned to France and attended the naval academy, where he graduated second in his class. He appeared headed for career in naval aviation before a serious automobile accident stopped those plans.
It was during his service in the French navy that he began to seriously study the sea under his ships. He also took up goggle diving in the mid-1930s, using a pair of Fernez underwater goggles borrowed from a friend. It was then, while diving in the Mediterranean Sea, that Cousteau had his epiphany, which he later recounted in his book, The Silent World:
One Sunday morning … I waded into the Mediterranean and looked into it through Fernez goggles…. I was astonished by what I saw in the shallow shingle at Le Mourillon, rocks covered with green, brown and silver forests of algae and fishes unknown to me, swimming in crystalline water. Sometimes we are lucky enough to know that our lives have been changed, to discard the old, embrace the new, and run headlong down an immutable course. It happened to me at Mourillon on that summer’s day, when my eyes were opened to the sea.
As entranced as he was by what he saw, Cousteau wanted to be able to see more, especially as he had taken up underwater photography in the meantime. The limitations of diving frustrated him. The only way to remain submerged for any length of time was to don one of those cumbersome diving suits, complete with the heavy helmet, that allowed air to be pumped through an umbilical cord attached to an air pump on the surface. The suit, complained Cousteau, restricted movement, while the cord restricted the distance from the boat a diver could travel.
Cousteau was posted to the cruiser Dupleix as a gunnery officer when World War II began. The Germans, however, came by land and mopped up France in a five-week blitzkrieg in which the French navy played virtually no role. His country vanquished, Cousteau moved with his young family to the unoccupied south, where he honed his underwater photographic skills while continuing to experiment with alternatives to the diving suit.
Before the war, Cousteau had worked with Emile Gagnan, an engineer, on trying to develop a self-contained, underwater breathing apparatus. Reunited in the aftermath of defeat, the two men soon developed a regulator capable of supplying compressed air from tanks carried on a diver’s back. They patented the device under the trade name Aqua-Lung in 1943, forever changing the course of diving. To perfect what became known as the SCUBA — and eventually just scuba — device, the two men made more than 500 dives off the French Riviera during that frightful summer of fighting.
Cousteau embarked on a number of underwater film projects after the war, while also finding time to set a record for free diving, reaching a depth of 300 feet.
He bought an old American minesweeper in 1950, rechristened it Calypso and converted it into an oceanographic research vessel. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s the Calypso undertook a number of research and exploration voyages, all of which were meticulously chronicled on film by Cousteau and his growing team of divers, researchers and oceanographers — including his sons, Philippe and Jean-Michel.
Cousteau became a household name in 1966, with the airing of his first hour-long television special, The World of Jacques-Yves Cousteau. The high ratings attracted the attention of the American Broadcasting Company, which inked Cousteau to a fat contract for The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, a series of broadcasts that stretched eight seasons. While Undersea World focused mainly on exploration and aquatic life, a subsequent PBS series, Cousteau Odyssey, concerned itself with the growing ecological threat to the world’s oceans.
Cousteau took that threat seriously, leading to the establishment of the nonprofit Cousteau Society in 1970. In addition to its continuing environmental work, the society also focuses on peace issues.
Cousteau sustained a heavy blow in 1979 when his younger son, Philippe, who had emerged as heir apparent to the Cousteau empire, was killed in a seaplane crash in Portugal. The old man never fully recovered from the loss, and remained unable to speak of it.
Nevertheless, he plowed on. More films and TV specials followed, along with other innovations from the Cousteau team: A surface-skimming device called the Sea Spider provided a way of analyzing the contents of the ocean’s surface, and the Cousteau Turbosail was designed to cut fuel consumption by larger, oceangoing ships.
The honors followed. Already a member of the prestigious Académie Française, Cousteau, by the end of his life, had accumulated a chestful of medals. Prominent among them were induction into the Television Academy’s Hall of Fame, the National Geographic Society’s Centennial Award, the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom and France’s Grand Croix dans l’Ordre National du Mérite.
Cousteau remained active to the end of his life, continuing to speak on environmental issues and even planning for the construction of a new solar-powered vessel, Calypso 2. He died in 1997.