Cousteau, Jacques-Yves (1910 – 1997) French Oceanographer, Inventor, Photographer, Explorer, and Environmentalist

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Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910 1997)
French oceanographer, inventor, photographer, explorer, and environmentalist

When most people think of marine biology, the person that immediately comes to mind is Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Whether through invention, research, conservation , or education, Cousteau has brought the ocean world closer to scientists and the public, and it is the interest, awareness, and appreciation fostered through Cousteau's work that may ultimately save the marine environment from impending destruction.

Born in France in 1910, Cousteau's childhood was full of illnesses that left him anemic. His sickness, however, did not stop him from being an independent thinker, a trait that led to his strong commitment to oceanographic research. He attended the École Navale in Brest, France, the national naval academy, where his interest in marine research was sparked by a cruise around the world on the school ship Jeanne D'Arc. Cousteau brought his camera and filmed a rough documentary of the voyage. His fascination with pearl and fish divers, and his ability to use a camera, would revolutionize undersea exploration.

During World War II, Cousteau, his wife, and two friends made masks and snorkels from inner tubes and garden hose. Through experimentation, they discovered that the worst enemy of a diver was the cold, and Cousteau proceeded to work on an effective diving suit. In 1943, Cousteau and Emile Paul Gagnon patented the Aqua Lung, the first self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA). It was this invention that led to Cousteau being known as the "father of modern diving." SCUBA has opened a new world to scientific research as it is used extensively not only in marine biology, but also in marine geology, archaeology, and chemical oceanography.

Cousteau's innovations did not end with the Aqua Lung. He combined his interests in diving and photography to develop the first underwater camera housing. While stationed with the Navy in Marseilles, Cousteau continued to develop underwater photographic equipment, including battery packs and lights. In 1943, Cousteau and several friends filmed "Wrecks," a documentary of a sunken ship in the Mediterranean Sea . The French navy recognized Cousteau's talent and thought that this technology could be useful in recovering German mines and retrieving lost cargo. He was promoted to commandant and was put in charge of the Undersea Research Group, where he continued to develop diving and photographic techniques.

In 1950, Cousteau realized that the vessel donated to the Undersea Research Group was inadequate and asked the navy to furnish them with another ship. When the French navy refused, Cousteau formed a non-profit organization, Campagnes Oceanographique Françaises, and was able to raise enough money to purchase and refit an old British minesweeper. This would become the most famous and recognized scientific research vessel in the world: Calypso.

Cousteau first gained notoriety in the United States in the early 1950s when Life Magazine and National Geographic introduced Americans to the undersea endeavors of Cousteau and his Undersea Research Group. In 1953 Cousteau was persuaded to translate his journals into English and published them as The Silent World. It sold five million copies and was translated into twenty-two languages. It was filmed as a documentary in 1955 and won an Academy Award and the Gold Medal at the Cannes Film Festival that year. Following the commercial success of his film, Cousteau was appointed director of the world's oldest and largest marine research center, the Oceanographic Institute of Monaco. He rebuilt the deteriorating institute, adding aquariums and many live specimens collected during his travels.

While trying unsuccessfully to house dolphins in the facility, Cousteau developed a respect for the intelligence of these animals. This prompted him to campaign for stopping the slaughter of dolphins for use in pet foods. This was to be the first of many environmental campaigns for Cousteau, during which he discovered that the public, once educated about the environment, would be willing to try to preserve it. This theme of education has guided the Cousteau Society , and many other environmental organizations, ever since.

Exploring depths deeper than possible with SCUBA intrigued Cousteau and, in 1960, he tested the DS-2 diving saucer, in which he dove to over 984 ft (300 m) in the Bay of Ajaccio, near Corsica. After hundreds of successful dives, Cousteau started Continental Shelf Station Number One (Conshelf I) in the Mediterranean. This experiment not only investigated deep undersea habitats, but also determined how divers would respond to life underwater for long periods of time while conducting laboratory experiments. The work performed by Cousteau and his research group not only laid the groundwork for all subsequent submersible engineering and exploration, but also was one of the first thorough investigations of hyperbaric physiology.

In 1966, Cousteau began that for which he is best known: television documentaries. With the airing of "The World of Jacques Cousteau," millions were introduced to the wonders of the sea. That same year, Cousteau signed a contract and began to film "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau," which ran for nearly nine years, giving Americans a glimpse of marine environments and the behaviors of the organisms that live there. The series, now in syndication, continues to fascinate generations of Americans and spawn interest in marine science and conservation.

In the early 1970s, Cousteau became frustrated with increasing marine pollution and produced a series of documentaries focusing on the destruction of marine systems. He also expanded his explorations to riverine systems, lakes, rain forest destruction and the conflicts between human culture and the environment. The scope of his films demonstrates Cousteau's devotion to preserving all natural systems.

Cousteau's accomplishments are numerous. He had published more than 18 books and contributed many articles to professional and popular journals. His documentary films have won three Academy Awards and his series, "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau," has won numerous Emmy Awards. Many organizations have recognized Cousteau for his work in technical fields as well as in conservation. These awards include Gold Medals from the National Geographic Society and the Royal Geographical Society, and the United Nations international environmental award. He has received honorary degrees from the University of California at Berkeley, Brandeis University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Harvard University, the University of Ghent, and the University of Guadalajara. He was named to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1968.

Cousteau's devotion to the natural world has not been with out its costs. His son Philippe was killed in a diving accident and numerous financial difficulties, especially early in his career, set back his work. Whether it is in oceanographic research, marine engineering, the development and manufacture of diving equipment, the production of films and television specials, or environmental education , Cousteau continued to inspire and fascinate, motivating scientists and the public alike to work to preserve the ocean world until his death Paris on July 25, 1997.

[William G. Ambrose Jr. and Paul E. Renaud ]



Cousteau, J-Y. The Cousteau Almanac: An Inventory of Life on Our Water Planet. New York: Doubleday, 1981.

Munson, R. Cousteau: The Captain and His World. New York: Morrow, 1989.

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Cousteau, Jacques-Yves (1910 – 1997) French Oceanographer, Inventor, Photographer, Explorer, and Environmentalist

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