Who is Jacques Yves-Cousteau?

Okay, so most of us know about the significance Jacques Cousteau has had on ocean exploration and innovation. But let’s start with a few less-known facts about Jacques Cousteau before talking Scuba Diving and Environmental Awareness.

Jacques Cousteau was a French national and he has an amazing history. First, Cousteau was a war hero for his country. While the Nazis were penetrating France to complete occupation, Cousteau was endangering his own life by undertaking some daring missions for the French Resistance. This was an underground network that would gather critical intelligence on the movements of the Italians and the Germans that was passed to civilians and the Allies.

Cousteau was somewhat of a hero of the French Resistance. After the defeat of Germany in 1945, Cousteau was later recognised for his heroic efforts and received several medals, including the prestigious Legion of Honor. After the war, he worked with the French Navy to clear underwater mines from shipping lanes.

Before Cousteau’s efforts as a spy in World War II, he enlisted as a Gunnery in the French Navy as an aviation officer. It would seem that Cousteau was always drawn to water but his life and passion for the ocean nearly came to an abrupt end in 1933 when he came close to death after a serious automobile accident. This resulted in multiple injuries, including two broken arms and other serious injuries. This transformed Cousteau’s passion for air exploration, to passion for the ocean.

During part of his rehabilitation from the car accident, a friend bought him some swimming goggles to aid with his rehabilitation. Later in 1936, Cousteau used the Fernez underwater goggles, predecessors of modern swimming goggles. This was a huge turning point for Cousteau when he really developed his passion for the underwater world and started some pioneering underwater exploration. More to come on Cousteau’s life and achievements underwater.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau with Émile Gagnan, a French engineer, and in 1943 they invented the Aqua-Lung, the diving regulator (a.k.a. demand-valve) used for the first Scuba equipment

Cousteau was born on 11 June 1910, in Saint-André-de-CubzacGironde, France.  A small provincial town to a normal French family and he had one brother, Pierre Antoine.  Cousteau was married twice in his life and was father to three boys and one girl.  His three sons were later to embark on ocean journeys with their father and also developed a certain reputation in the footsteps of Coursteau. Keeping the family legacy alive.

There is some well-documented material around Cousteau ‘managing’ two families in tandem with one another.  This was something that Cousteau confessed to his wife in 1991.  None of this scandal really does service to the significance of the achievements of Cousteau.

The origin of SCUBA

Back to the ocean and Cousteau’s main legacy – his exploration of the ocean. It was during the height of World War II that Cousteau’s love for the ocean and all things mechanical took rapid acceleration. It was in the fateful year of 1943 that Paris fell to the Nazis, Cousteau and his family took refuge in the small town of Megève, near the Swiss border. For the first few years of the war, he quietly continued his makeshift underwater experiments and explorations. In 1943, he met Émile Gagnan, a French engineer who shared his passion for discovery. Around this time, compressed air cylinders were invented and Cousteau and Gagnan experimented with various types and styles of underwater breathing apparatus. This was initially referred to as Aqualung and later renamed SCUBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) in 1954 by Dr. Christian Lambertsen.

In time and with a flourishing partnership, they developed the first aqua-lung device allowing divers to stay underwater for periods of time. This was initially referred to as aqua-lung and later renamed SCUBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) in 1954 by Dr. Christian Lambertsen.

Cousteau was also instrumental in the development of a waterproof camera that could withstand the high pressure of deep water. During this time, Cousteau made two documentaries on underwater exploration, Par dix-huit mètres de fond (“18 Meters Deep”) and Épaves (“Shipwrecks”).

In 1948, Cousteau, along with Philippe Tailliez and expert divers and academic scientists, undertook an underwater expedition in the Mediterranean Sea to find the Roman shipwreck Mahdia. This was the first underwater archaeology operation using self-contained diving apparatus and marked the beginning of underwater archeology.

In 1950, Cousteau leased a one-time British minesweeper and converted it into an oceanographic research vessel he named Calypso.

RV Calypso is a former British Royal Navy minesweeper converted into a research vessel for the oceanographic researcher Jacques-Yves Cousteau, equipped with a mobile laboratory for underwater field research.

Literature, Cinema, TV and Later Expeditions

After struggling for financing to conduct his voyages, Cousteau soon realized he needed to attract media attention to make people aware of what he was doing and why it was so important. In 1953, he published the book The Silent World, which was later made into an award-winning film.

This success allowed him to finance another expedition to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean sponsored by the French government and the National Geographic Society. During the rest of the decade, Cousteau conducted several expeditions and brought more attention to the mysteries and attractions of the underwater world.

In 1966, Cousteau launched his first hour-long television special, “The World of Jacques-Yves Cousteau” In 1968, he produced the television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, which ran for nine seasons. Millions of people followed Cousteau and his crew traversing the globe presenting intimate exposés of marine life and habitat. It was during this time that Cousteau began to realize how human activity was destroying the oceans.

Cousteau also wrote several books, including The Shark in 1970, Dolphins in 1975, and Jacques Cousteau: The Ocean World in 1985. With his increased celebrity and the support of many, Cousteau founded the Cousteau Society in 1973, in an effort to raise awareness of the ecosystems of the underwater world. The organization quickly grew and soon boasted 300,000 members worldwide.

“Everything that has been done on the surface will sooner or later be done underwater. It will be the conquest of a whole new world.” – Jacques Yves-Cousteau

In the 1980s, Cousteau continued to produce television specials, but these had a more environmental message and a plea for stronger protection of oceanic wildlife habitat. In June 1979, tragedy struck when Cousteau’s son, Philippe, was killed in a plane crash. According to a 1979 article by The Associated Press, Philippe had been flying the plane during a test flight, and when he attempted to land, the plane clipped a sandbank and crashed into Portugal’s Tagus River.

On January 8, 1996, Calypso was accidentally rammed by barge and sank in Singapore Harbor. Cousteau tried to raise money to build a new vessel, but died unexpectedly in Paris on June 25, 1997, at the age of 87. His estate and the foundation fell into dispute among his survivors. Most of the legal disputes were settled by 2000, when his son, Jean-Michel, disassociated himself from the Cousteau Society and formed his own organization the Oceans Futures Society.

Some Interesting facts on Jacques Cousteau

Cousteau’s famed ship Calypso got its start as a British minesweeper during World War II, and after the conflict ended she became a ferry in Malta. In 1950 Irish millionaire Thomas Loel Guinness, a descendant of the storied brewing family, bought the ship. Guinness didn’t hang onto the ship for long, though. He leased her to Cousteau for a pretty sweet deal: one franc per year.

The ship has had a bit of a rough time since Cousteau made it famous. In January 1996, Calypso was in Singapore when a barge accidentally rammed her. The ship sank and had to be pulled from the water by crane for extensive restoration. Following Cousteau’s 1997 death, the two wings of his family fought a bitter battle over the future of the ship. For years, the ship’s new owners have worked on restoring it and in 2016 announced that it will explore the seas once again in the future. In 2016, Francine—Jacques’s second wife and president of the Cousteau Society—told The Telegraph that she was, “particularly happy to announce this news after a 20-year fight against adversity and twists of fate. When the Calypso returns to the Mediterranean, it will be navigable and running on its own engines, as captain Cousteau wished.”

In 2017, a fire damaged part of the Calypso while it was being restored in Istanbul. “This situation reinforces my determination to carry out Captain Cousteau’s wish for Calypso to sail again,” Francine Cousteau said. “I have been fighting for over 20 years to protect the legacy that the Captain has passed on to the Cousteau Society. It is a passionate and complex mission, which I won’t abandon, no matter the obstacles along the way. For Calypso, we have an excellent shipyard with dedicated project managers and exceptionally motivated carpenters, who have all been working with love and skill. For them, and for all of those who share the hope of seeing this ship rebuilt, I want to succeed.”

Cousteau and his team became the first non-Cubans to pass through the gate of the U.S. Navy’s Guantanamo Bay installation since the Cuban missile crisis 24 years earlier


In 1985, Cousteau and his crew ventured to Cuba to research the country’s unique system for managing its lobster population. While there, Cousteau received Fidel Castro on his ship for dinner. Castro seemed to take a liking to Cousteau; the dictator allowed the diver to liberate 80 political prisoners. Cousteau and his team also received another unique honor: they became the first non-Cubans to pass through the gate of the U.S. Navy’s Guantanamo Bay installation since the Cuban missile crisis 24 years earlier.


Cousteau may have co-invented the Aqua-Lung and become one of history’s most famous divers, but he dreamed of his creation one day becoming a medical reality. In a 1960 interview with TIME, Cousteau predicted that in the future, medical science would advance to the point where men could surgically be given gills that would enable them to live underwater. Cousteau figured if that surgery could be perfected, so could a follow-up procedure that would remove the gills and enable normal life back on land. He told the magazine, “Everything that has been done on the surface will sooner or later be done underwater. It will be the conquest of a whole new world.”

Many thanks to the following people and articles that have made this article possible.
• Mr. Ethan Trex at www.mentalfloss.com

Adam Lacey

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