Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910-1997) was the father of modern underwater exploration as well as a pioneer of underwater photography. A marvelous visionary and inventor, he designed the first underwater breathing system, the aqualung, as well as depth record-breaking submarines and underwater research stations. A passionate and groundbreaking filmmaker, Cousteau created over 100 films, winning him three Academy Awards for best documentary, including for his debut underwater documentary, The Silent World (1956). Cousteau’s foremost passion, the flame that sparked all other interests in his life, was for the preservation and exploration of marine environments. Cousteau envisioned and created technology that allowed him to explore previously unreachable marine worlds and shared his love for these places with his films, books, and philanthropic endeavors. He opened the doors for humanity to discover and understand the previously misunderstood and underappreciated ecology and biodiversity of marine life.
Cousteau’s passion for exploration and travel began from childhood, when he often accompanied his father on his many seabound travels. His love for film was also rooted in his childhood, as he made his first film at age 13 and went on to produce several more short melodramas, in which he always has the role of the villain. By the age of 22, Cousteau had joined the French naval academy and was traveling all over the world aboard the Jeanne d’ Arc, all the while filming the cultures and peoples me met. At 25, he enrolled in the aviation school, but after a car accident that nearly cost him an arm, he was forced to leave and return to the naval academy. Once returned, he avidly swam and snorkeled to help recuperate his arm with several of his academy friends. Even here, Cousteau was not without a camera, and he soon make shifted one he could use for underwater filming. He was, however, frustrated at his time limitation for having to swim up for air. This inspired him to design a device that would make extended underwater exploration for individuals possible. With the help of an engineer, Cousteau brought his design to life and in 1943 successfully tested and filmed the first scuba equipment, then called the aqualung.
During World War II, the aqualung was at first used for military purposes, but after the war, Cousteau used it primarily for scientific exploration. The invention would be the beginning of a new era in marine exploration, with Cousteau at the helm.
In 1950, he acquired an old converted minesweeper called the Calypso. The ship would serve as his primary research vessel for 46 years and became the mascot of his travels. Aboard the Calypso, Cousteau came across the first extensive underwater archeological dig, led countless scientific dives, submerged and tested scientific submarine prototypes, and filmed his award-winning television series, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. He directed the engineering of numerous submarines and underwater research stations, all designed to help scientists better study marine life.
In 1958, Cousteau first became aware of the negative human affects on marine ecosystems when he revisited a site where some of his first filmings had taken place along the French Riviera. He reacted by forming the Cousteau Society, a nonprofit organization aimed at the conservation of marine ecosystems, in 1974. The Cousteau Society leads important efforts in international lobbies for better marine conservation as well as scientific evaluations of marine wellness all over the world. Cousteau’s environmental efforts did not go unnoticed, as he received the U.S. Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan and the National Geographic Gold Medal for Exploration from Through his inventions, films, and books, Jacques Cousteau not only created the modern world of marine exploration but brought it to the eyes and ears of millions across the globe. His efforts to raise awareness over conservation issues reached and inspired people all over the world and played an essential role in modern environmental issues, both politically and culturally. Cousteau envisioned and sought after a global society that would collaborate on all issues, including environmental. He helped catalyze this process by raising awareness and concern over marine health endangerment. Such environmental issues fall under no political boundaries and, so, called for international cooperation. Cousteau’s love for the sea showed him the necessity for a global society and thus spurred his life’s efforts toward this goal. After his death in 1997, French President Jacques Chirac noted Cousteau as being “a great Frenchman who was also a citizen of the world.”
- Cousteau, J. (1985). The ocean world. New York: Abrams.
- Cousteau, J. (2004). The silent world. New York: National Geographic Adventure Classics. 44
- Cousteau, J., & Sivirine, A. (1983). Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso. New York: Abrams.