Jacques Yves Cousteau

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Jacques Yves Cousteau


French Oceanographer and Documentary Filmmaker

Traveling around the world aboard his ship the Calypso, oceanographer and filmmaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau made underwater exploration popular with his fascinating research and documentary films. He also collaborated on the invention of the first scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) device in 1943.

Born in 1910 in the village of St. Andre-de-Cubzac, France, Cousteau was the son of Daniel and Elizabeth Cousteau. His first seven years were plagued by ill health serious enough to prevent his participation in strenuous activities. As a result, he turned to reading and found pleasure in books—particularly those that dealt with life at sea and the exploits of treasure-hungry pirates.

A few years later, his father's employer suggested that an ongoing swimming program might strengthen the young boy's physique. This proved a good recommendation, especially when the family moved to New York in 1920 and Cousteau began swimming in earnest. He learned to hold his breath while diving and swimming in local lakes. When the family returned to France, Cousteau saved enough money to purchase a movie camera. He used it to produce numerous small films, each crediting him as producer, director, and cinematographer.

Cousteau went on to join the French navy, hoping to become an aviator. Three weeks before the final exam, he was in a serious automobile accident that nearly cost him the use of his arms. As part of his rehabilitation, Cousteau once again took to a heavy swimming program, this time in the Mediterranean. During his recovery, he began to experiment with devices that would permit underwater breathing for prolonged periods. Over the next few years, he worked with Frederic Dumas and Emil Gagnan to produce the Aqua-Lung, the first underwater enabler or scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) device.

When World War II was over, Cousteau persuaded his government to sponsor the Undersea Research Group. In 1950 he acquired an American minesweeper that he christened Calypso, after the Greek nymph who took Ulysses captive. Cousteau's Calypso would become more recognizable than any luxury liner or cruise ship on the high seas during its time.

Cousteau's fame as an oceanographer was nearly eclipsed by his secondary career as an independent film producer. His films were based on his prolific writings about his expeditions and adventures. His first 18-minute film was highly praised at the Cannes Film Festival in France. When his next film—based on his bestseller The Silent World—was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, it won the coveted Palme d'Or award. His popular television series, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, was televised over an eight-year period by American Broadcasting Corporation, bringing him much fame and recognition.

Though Cousteau became famous worldwide for his scientific and marine biology research, he never held an actual degree in any field of science. Through his work in conserving the bounties and beauty of the oceans, he visited, lectured, and educated in all parts of the world. He received numerous international awards, medals, and honorary degrees. When he died in 1997 at the age of 87, he was honored by a memorial service at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. His final book, Man, the Octopus, and the Orchid, was published posthumously.


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