Jacques Cousteau: His 'Undersea World' Made Us All Want To Dive

Icons | June 11, 2020

Jacques Cousteau circa 1971. Source: Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

Jacques Cousteau was to oceans what Neil Degrasse Tyson is to astronomy, only moreso. Viewers thrilled to this odd Frenchman in a red cap; especially from 1965-75 when he aired many specials on American TV as The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. For a couple generations of American viewers, Cousteau came to represent the mystery and wonder of undersea adventures. Cousteau's fascinating story includes his role in developing the aqua-lung, his plans for human undersea life, and achievements as an award-winning filmmaker.

Source: (IMDb)

Jacques Cousteau was born on June 11, 1910 in Saint Andre-de-Cubzac, Gironde, France. He spent a portion of his youth in the United States, as he moved to New York when he was 10, where he spent two years. While there, his swimming improved and, attended summer camp in Vermont; at this camp, he started diving as one of the things they did at camp was to clean up a nearby lake. When his family returned to France, they moved to Marseilles, where he not only swam in the Mediterranean, but also bought a camera, took it apart, and learned how it worked. 

Jacques Cousteau Was A Spy In World War II

Source: rolexmagazine.com

Cousteau studied at the College Stanislas in Paris before entering the Ecole Navale in 1930. He graduated as a gunnery officer with plans of becoming a naval pilot, but that ambition was cut short after he broke both arms in a car accident, although he did spend time swimming to try to increase the strength in his arms and became a naval gunnery instructor. The accident was fortuitous however, as he was then able to pursue his passion: the ocean. 

In World War II, Cousteau carried out intelligence operations as a spy for the French Resistance. Although he wasn't wild about being assigned to the French secret service, which he considered a "dirty job" of "lies and vice." But he followed orders, and ended up admitting, in hindsight, that he "enjoyed it a lot." Cousteau's missions included scuttling the French fleet at Toulon, a defensive move to deny the Nazis valuable ships. He also infiltrated an Italian installation and photographed important secret documents, and with other divers helped clear French waters of Nazi mines. For his exploits in World War II, Cousteau was awarded the French Croix de guerre (cross of war) twice, and made a commander in the French Legion d'honneur.

Cousteau Revolutionized Deep Sea Diving

Diving suit in 1935, prior to the Aqualung. Source: (wikipedia).

In 1936, Cousteau was serving on the Condorcet when a friend lent him some underwater googles, which led to his first underwater dive. He wanted to spend a longer time underwater and to have more freedom as he did so. With Emile Gagnan, he developed the Aqua-lung, which he incorporated into scuba in 1943, allowing divers to be free from the bulky, restrictive equipment they had to use to deep-sea dive. With the end of the war, he continued to work for the Navy doing research. During this time, he set a new record for diving, descending 300 feet. He also began work on underwater archaeology, diving to explore a Roman wreck. He retired from the Navy in 1956 with the rank of Captain.

Filmmaker Cousteau Was One Of The Musketeers Of The Sea

An image from his early film, 18 Meters Deep. Source: (YouTube)

At the end of World War II, he became one of the “mousquemers," or musketeers of the sea along with Philippe Tailliez and Frederic Dumas. This same year, he won the first ex-aequeo prize from the Congress of Documentary Film for his underwater film, Par dix-huit Metres de Fond (18 Meters Deep, or Ten Fathoms Deep). The film was made without breathing apparatus in the Embiez Islands; he did, however, use a pressure proof camera case. Working with the mouquemers, he also filmed Epaves (Shipwrecks) in 1943, using the Aqua-Lung prototypes and a primitive filming technique: he used still camera film made for a children’s camera and attached the film to create long reels.

His Famous Boat, The Calypso, Was An Old Mine-Sweeper

The Calypso. Source: (France 24)

 In 1950, he found his boat, the Calypso, which had been originally used as a mine-sweeper, and he modified it to suit his needs. The modification was quite expensive, so to fund it, he relied on grants, donation of materials, and the proceeds from a book he coauthored with Frederic Dumas, The Silent World, which was about their adventures in diving. The book became a bestseller and was the first suggestion that whales and porpoises use echolocation to navigate.  

Cousteau Won An Oscar For 'The Silent World'

An image from The Silent World. Source: (Letterboxd).

The Calypso, once modified vessels had instruments to allow Cousteau to complete scientific research in addition to deep sea diving. For the next 40 years, the Calypso was used to complete these explorations of rivers and oceans. In 1956, he released The Silent World, his first color film which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1957. He has been criticized for the film however, as during filming, a lot of marine life was killed.

Cousteau Envisioned Habitable Villages On The Sea Floor

The Conshelt II, one of Cousteau's ideas for underwater living. Source: (Medium)

He won a second Academy Award in 1960, this time for Best Short Film for his documentary The Golden Fish, and the following year, President Kennedy presented him with the National Geographic Society’s Gold Medal. His third Academy Award, for Best Documentary, came in 1965 for his film World Without Sun. This film was about the establishment of Conshelf bases, which were manned bases on the sea-floor. The funding for this project came from oil companies, and Cousteau gave up the idea, turning his focus to conservation.

Cousteau Was A Familiar Personality On American TV For 14 Years

From The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Source: (Youtube).

He then created the television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, which ran from 1968-1975. During the show, Cousteau, wearing his red hat, which allowed him to create a sort of character, explored the seas on the Calypso, introducing viewers to experiences they had never had: swimming with whales, touching octopuses, and being pulled through the ocean by turtles. From 1977-1982, he had a second show which ran on public television, The Cousteau Odyssey.

The Cousteau Society Continues His Work

At Cousteau Reserve. Source: (Scuba Diver Life)

In 1973, he formed the Cousteau Society dedicated to preserving the water ecosystems. To this day, the Society remains focused on protecting the environment as well as developing underwater technologies. Cousteau died from a heart attack in 1997 at the age of 87. During the course of his lifetime, he produced more than 120 television documentaries and 50 books.   

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Environment | Jacques Cousteau | What Did He Do?...

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Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!