Jacques-Yves Cousteau was born in 1910 in the small French village of Saint-Andre-de-Cubzac in Bordeaux, France. Second born to Daniel and Élisabeth Cousteau. His father was an urbane and witty lawyer who ended up working as the personal secretary for two prominent American millionaires. The first, James Hazen Hyde was the high-living son of the founder of the Equitable Life Assurance Society. After an argument Cousteau senior quit and found employment with Carpet Millionaire Eugene Higgins, who at the time was considered New York's most eligible bachelor. Time Magazine's 1960 cover feature on Jacques Cousteau sheds light on their unique relationship. "The athletic Higgins demanded that Cousteau senior match him in tennis, golf and swimming, once blithely entered him in a chess match with the Polish champion."
Following Papa Cousteau around the world, the family spent much time in the United States. Jacques spent a year living in Manhattan, where he attended the International Lycee. He was creative and technically inclined, the young Cousteau built his own battery-operated car and cut several home movies by the age of 13. Alas he was a disaffected and surly student, expelled for smashing 17 school windows while demonstrating his theory that if you throw the stone hard enough, it makes a smaller hole in the window pane.
Papa did not take the indiscretion lightly and shipped his errant son off to a disciplinarian boarding school in France, the prestigious College Stanislas de Paris. In this environment Jacques excelled academically and aced the entry exams for France's naval academy in Brest. His intention was to become a pilot. He soon became an officer gunner, and was preparing to earn his wings. According to Time magazine's 1960 cover profile, "he was about to graduate from the navy's air academy when he borrowed his father's Salmson sports car to go to a wedding. Rounding a curve, the headlights suddenly flickered out. When Cousteau crawled from the wreck, his left arm was broken in five places, his right was paralyzed. The doctors wanted to amputate his left arm. 'I refused, thank God,' says Cousteau. 'You are always owner of your body.'"
Sent to Toulon to heal, Cousteau took to the waters of the Mediterranean to aid his recovery, quickly becoming a strong swimmer. Throughout his youth, Jacques had always been a sickly kid. According to Time, "for six years he suffered from chronic enteritis; in his early teens he contracted anemia, and doctors advised him to avoid all strenuous activity."
Luckily, he paid them no mind. One day on the beaches of the Mediterranean near Toulon, his mate Philippe Tailliez lent him a pair of diving goggles and Cousteau took his maiden voyage under the sea. As Cousteau put it, "There was wildlife, untouched, a jungle at the border of the sea, never seen by those who floated on the opaque roof." The year was 1936.
"My interest in the ocean originated very early." Cousteau continues in one of his Calypso logbook entries. "But really I was more interested in water. When I was four or five years old, I loved touching water. Physically. Sensually. Water fascinated me, first floating ships, then me floating and stones not floating."
"The first time I put them on and swam in the Mediterranean, very close to the city of Toulon, I saw fish. I raised my head and saw a streetcar, then descended again and saw a jungle of fish. That was like an electric shock to me."
Cousteau was hooked. Immediately he and Tailliez started investigating ways of breathing underwater. "I tried to breathe underwater through a pipe." Says Cousteau in his log. "It didn't work very well. And I dreamt, all the time, of machines to allow me to stay longer and observe what was going on... I wanted to improve diving. I tried all the existing gear. Nothing worked, but I had an idea."
A year later, Cousteau married Simone Melchor, producing the first of two sons, Jean-Michel in 1938. Philippe arrived in 1940.
Unfortunately World War 2 was soon to gatecrash Cousteau's burgeoning oceanic love affair. When war broke out he served as gunnery officer on the French warship Dupleix. After France's surrender to the Nazi's, Jacques joined the underground. Unlike his brother Pierre, who was always a little Vichy. A staunch anti-Semite, Pierre thrived in Vichy France and became the editor of the fascist journal Je Suis Partout (I am everywhere). At the end of World War 2, Pierre was condemned to death, but his sentence was commuted to life with hard labour, and he was released under a general amnesty in 1954. His brother on the other hand became a revolutionary hero, and earned the French Legion of Honour for espionage work undertaken during the resistance.
Time picks up the narrative. "After France's surrender he stayed in the navy in Occupied France, but worked for the underground; once, posing as an Italian officer, he led a party into the Italian headquarters at Sete and spent four taut hours photographing a code book and top-secret papers. Cousteau will say little about his experiences: 'I have always hated espionage and secret-service work, and I still do. I think it is unfair.'"
During the occupation, the Germans were indifferent to Cousteau's underwater research. He worked closely with an engineer named Emile Gagnan on a safe underwater breathing device. The trouble with underwater breathing devices was delivering the compressed air at the right pressure to be safely breathed by the diver. As Cousteau puts it in his Calypso logbook. "I met Emile Gagnan. We took a regulator that he had invented to feed motorcars with cooking gas during the War. By transforming this regulator and adapting it to underwater breathing, we finally produced the Aqua-Lung."
In 1943 Cousteau tested his invention. "I experimented with all possible maneuvers-loops, somersaults and barrel rolls. I stood upside down on one finger and burst out laughing, a shrill, distorted laugh. Nothing I did altered the automatic rhythm of the air. Delivered from gravity and buoyancy, I flew around in space."
"I used to dream of flying." Said Cousteau. "The classic attempt to get away from the reality of earth. But since I have been diving, I have not had the dream. Diving is the most fabulous satisfaction you can experience. I am miserable out of water. It is as though you had been introduced to heaven, and then found yourself back on earth. The spirituality of a man cannot be completely separated from the physical. But you have made a big step toward escape simply by lowering yourself under water."
"During all that time," Cousteau says in his Calypso log, "I wanted to bring back to the surface testimonies of my diving. That's why I put cameras in watertight boxes and started filming."
He made his first documentary, P ar dix-huit mètres de fond (18 meters deep) , before the advent of the aqualung. With the aqualung's help, in 1943, he filmed Epaves (Shipwrecks) . Said Cousteau. "I am absolutely enraptured by the atmosphere of a wreck. A dead ship is the house of a tremendous amount of life - fish and plants. The mixture of life and death is mysterious, even religious. There is the same sense of peace and mood that you feel on entering a cathedral.''
Jacques couldn't wait for the war to end to pursue underwater exploration full time. When it did, in 1946, Cousteau and old friend Tailliez showed the head of the French Navy, Admiral Lemonnier his two movies and Cousteau was promptly tasked with setting up the Underwater Research Group of the French Navy. Their work was pretty mundane after a world war: mine clearance, underwater exploration and technological and physiological tests. In 1948 Cousteau organised his first campaign to explore the Mediterranean wreck of a Roman freighter, sunk in 205 BC. It was the first archaeological exploration using autonomous diving gear and opened the way for a number of scientific archaeological discoveries to follow. By this stage Cousteau was making quite a name for himself and by 1949 he left the French Navy to pursue his own research and voyages of discovery. His patent on the Aqualung was starting to return a steady income and in 1950 he leased an old 360-ton mine sweeper called Calypso from Thomas Loel Guinness for a symbolic one franc a year. He redesigned and equipped Calypso into a unique floating laboratory, dive station and film studio, and started criss-crossing the globe on discovery and research expeditions.
By 1953 Cousteau produced a book called The Silent World , written originally in English. According to Time magazine it sold more than 5 million copies, worldwide. He followed it up with an 86 minute full colour documentary film of the same name. The Silent World won the Grand Prix at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. The first documentary to do so, the feat was only repeated in 2004 by Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 . In 1957 The Silent World scooped the Academy Award. Incidentally Cousteau's contemporary, immersive, first person documentary style was declared 'unscientific' by the academic community - and was quickly adopted (others would say cribbed ) as the industry standard for wildlife, nature and scientific documentary film making.
As Cousteau puts it in a 1995 interview with French magazine Chantiers de l'avenir , "what interests me is simply direct contact with people."
"I like best talking to them to demystify things and to tell them that I am one of them, that I share their concerns." He told Le Parisien in 1991.
By 1960, according to Time, Cousteau was, "at the center of a bewildering web of profitmaking, nonprofit and governmental enterprises."
He was director of Monaco's first-rate Museum of Oceanography, founded in 1910 by Prince Albert I of Monaco. Cousteau also headed up France's Underwater Research Center. His expeditions around the globe were funded in part by the French government and the National Geographic Society and the rest was made up from the profits from his Aqualung patents, publishing and film company dubbed Associated Sharks by the wry Cousteau.
Cousteau, himself, had a different take on how he funded his enterprises. "You have to be as stubborn as a mule to do what I do." He told Le Parisien. "I've never had a lot of money. My work is still funded by members' contributions. I've never had a subsidy. Not from the government. Not from industry. None. I don't take a dime, and that's the way to remain independent. That also allows me to berate whomever, whatever government, whatever President of the Republic of France.
No doubt, the Aqualung invention, served him well. Cousteau owned a mansion in Monaco, a Paris apartment and a hideaway on the French Riviera, he often declared, "I have no home. My clothes are spread all over the world." Most of the time home was the Captain's cabin of the Calypso.
As his fame and global interest in scuba diving increased, in part due to Cousteau's own prodigious output of media, Cousteau became more interested in environmental issues. He had long since stopped catching sharks and spear fishing. "It's like chasing elephants in a sports car" he once quipped. By the late 1960's he was acutely aware of man's impact on the ocean.
The motto aboard Calypso was Il faut aller voir (we must go and see for ourselves) . "We must explore!" He told Time magazine in 1971. "The greatest threat to the oceans is ignorance. Permanent mistakes are being made by good people who do not know what they do not know about the sea."
"It is certain that things will get worse in the next 10 or 20 years." He told
Vie Naturel in 1979. "Will we get through the crisis? There are nearly a billion Chinese who are just waking up and wanting to embrace Western progress. It's madness. You've seen the early photos: Pierre Cardin all over the place, and Coca Cola... Tomorrow they'll want two cars for every family... We are certainly headed for some horrible years. What I am optimistic about is that there will be an end to it... by losing a substantial part of the population, not by nuclear war but by social chaos... I think that after the bloodbath, the lesson will have been so harsh that I hope we'll change."
" So hope is limited?" Asked the interviewer.
"Very limited." Replied Cousteau.
But despite his avant garde ecological realism, Cousteau remained positive and worked tirelessly not only to raise awareness about the state of our oceans, but also pioneered methods and inventions to further discover the seas. He is credited with inventing the first diving saucers - small manned submarines capable of scouring the sea floor at 500ft below the surface.
"Once we had reached the limits of compressed-air diving, we wanted to go deeper, and that was the story of the diving saucers." He said in his Calypso log. Apart from the saucers he developed a smaller single-man submarine, known as the Sea Flea. He is also credited with developing a range of deepwater cameras, waterproof housings and underwater filming techniques. He improved on and patented an innovative sailing technology, dubbed by Cousteau as a Turbo Sail. Basically a hollow metal cylinder used to augment propulsion on a motor-driven yacht. In 1962 Cousteau initiated the Conshelf project to determine if people could live underwater, at pressure for extended periods of time.
As Time magazine describes it, "Cousteau looks forward to the day when free diving will be so commonplace that farmers in Aqua-Lungs will harvest crops of fish and plants cultivated in special concrete shelters. Peering far into the future. Cousteau predicts that surgery will give man gills, enable him to 'breathe' water, set him free as a fish for years beneath the sea. A second operation could easily return him to life in the air. 'Everything that has been done on the surface will sooner or later be done under water,' says Cousteau. 'It will be the conquest of a whole new world.'
Cousteau was inducted into the prestigious French Academy in 1988, and consulted for the UN and the World Bank on oceanographic and environmental matters until his death in 1997.
Not only was Cousteau meticulous, tireless and enthusiastic, he was also incredibly media savvy. He created and publicised the myth of Cousteau and the Calypso. Playing on 1960's popular culture infatuation with space and sci-fi, crew members wore garish silver wetsuits and stylish uniforms with the trademark red woollen beanie. What Captain Kirk was doing on TV, Jacques Cousteau was doing under the sea. So indelible was his image that it remains a frequently re-hashed pop culture reference today. His inventions and projects were all released to the world with a flurry of PR, publications and films. But Cousteau was not without his private life and scandals. After his wife's death in 1990, it soon emerged that Jacques had kept a mistress, former air hostess Francine Triplet, with whom he had had two children. Not strictly considered a scandal in France. Cousteau married Francine in 1991. By the late 90's Cousteau's abrasive relationship with his son, Jean-Michel had deteriorated so much that Jacques ended up suing Jean-Michel over the use of the family name after Jean-Michel had established a luxury eco-resort in Fiji called Cousteau's.
"It's the saga of all great families," sighs Claude Wesly a former Calypso crew member in a 1990s Time article. "Time will take care of it. Cousteau's work is immortal."
Jacques Yves Cousteau swam into the sunset in 1997, aged 87. He died of a heart attack after a short respiratory illness.Philosophical to the end, " I think we find true happiness when we step out of ourselves, when we give to others." He is quoted in Chantiers de l'avenir in 1995 "Unhappiness is self and happiness is others. It's indisputable. Only by extending yourself can you grow. Through friendship, love, sharing, or through knowing... It's a matter of making yourself a mere vehicle moving toward others, and not a vehicle from others to yourself."