Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World brought the mysteries of the oceans to life for millions. He invented the Aqua-Lung, which revolutionized undersea exploration. He became a champion of environmental protection and the leading voice of marine environmentalism.
Through his pioneering work, Cousteau expanded conservation efforts from the land to the seas. Through his television specials, he increased awareness of the fragility and beauty of our ocean ecosystems.
Jacques Cousteau laid the groundwork for the oceanic environmental movement. He is one of More Than Just Parks environmental heroes.
A Love Of The Water | Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World
Jacques Cousteau was born in 1910. As a young child, he was shy and withdrawn. His father, Daniel Cousteau, worked for a wealthy American named James Hyde.
When Hyde returned to America, Daniel Cousteau followed him. While there, he sent his young son to a summer camp in Vermont. It was there that the young Cousteau first learned to love the water.
“Boetz [Cousteau’s teacher] ordered Jack out of the class and sent him to clear dead tree branches from the camp’s swimming pond, a chore no one else wanted to do because groping around underwater was as frightening as entering a haunted house.
For Jack, submerging into the brown, silty lake was bliss. He opened his eyes underwater for the first time in his life . . .The water soothed him and banished all fear.“
(Source: Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King by Brad Matsen)
A Trip To The Moon
Jacques Cousteau started becoming a citizen of the world at an early age. At fourteen, he had already crossed the Atlantic, lived in New York City and traveled across Europe with his family. Still, he lacked self-confidence and was desperately shy.
Unsure of how to win acceptance, Cousteau turned to photography and film.
Like most youngsters, Cousteau was fascinated with film. He had seen Georges Melies classic 1902 science fiction film, Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip To The Moon). In it, Melies had taken his audience on an outer space adventure.
Young Jacques Cousteau was thrilled by the incredible images which danced across the screen depicting a fascinating and faraway world. Like Melies, he wanted to take audiences to places they had never gone before.
Jacques Cousteau In The Navy
Cousteau went from filming to flying. Just before receiving his wings, however, tragedy struck. He drove his father’s sports car off a mountain.
Lucky to survive, the injuries Cousteau sustained brought a premature end to his flying career. With his wings clipped, he sought another frontier to explore.
As part of his recovery from his painful injuries, a fellow officer, Philippe Tailliez, suggested that Cousteau begin swimming in the warm waters of the Mediterranean.
Tailliez and Cousteau began exploring these waters together. Soon, the pair were skin diving. They became enthralled by this undersea world and considered how they might spend more time learning about it.
Inventing The Aqua-Lung
By the summer of 1940, France would be under German occupation. For Jacques Cousteau, as for most French citizens, the next four years would be difficult. Despite his country’s dire predicament, Cousteau was unwilling to give up his dream of making films.
At the same time, he wanted to continue his underwater explorations. For Cousteau, this meant finding a way to make underwater films.
Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA)
To turn his dream into a reality, Jacques Cousteau had to solve a problem which had challenged seaman for centuries. How to breathe underwater?
As early as 322 B.C., the Greek Philosopher Aristotle told stories of Alexander the Great being lowered into the sea.
In 1691, famed scientist Edmund Halley, of Halley’s Comet, actually patented a diving bell. His initial design, when descended by cables into the water, acted as an air bubble for the person inside the chamber.
Using a levy system, smaller chambers with fresh air were brought down and the air was piped into the bigger bell. Halley then introduced air pipes which went to the surface and replenished fresh air.
The Development Of Diving Suits
In the nineteenth century, diving suits were developed which allowed air to be pumped to the diver. These suits were bulky, however, and limited mobility which meant that people using them had very limited freedom of action.
To provide divers with the freedom they needed to explore required a more flexible, mobile and lighter weight breathing apparatus.
This is where Jacques Cousteau enters the story. He formed a partnership with Emile Gagnan. Gagnan was an expert on compressed gases.
Together, they solved one of the most challenging puzzles of their time; namely, how to develop a self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA).
By January of 1943, they were ready to test their revolutionary breathing apparatus which they called the Aqua-Lung.
As Brad Matsen writes, “Cousteau, Gagnan, and Air Liquide knew that the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus was a breakthrough with enormous commercial potential, especially in sales to the navy.
Scientists, too, might buy the equipment, which could revolutionize underwater research.”
(Source: Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King by Brad Matsen)
The Undersea Research Group
After the defeat of Nazi Germany, the French Navy created an elite group to conduct underwater explorations. The group was led by Cousteau’s friend, Philippe Tailliez. Cousteau was second-in-commend.
For Jacques Cousteau, the Undersea Research Group offered a unique opportunity to merge his two greatest passions–underwater exploration and filmmaking.
Cousteau and his fellow underwater explorers began exploring shipwrecks and filming their explorations. They discovered artifacts which had been previously hidden.
The footage which they captured underwater was truly breathtaking. Cousteau was convinced that audiences would be as spellbound by these images as he was.
Early Film Success
In the autumn of 1946, the first international film festival was held in the French city of Cannes. Jacques Cousteau entered the film he had made which he titled Epaves. It was a sensation.
“Les Mousquemers, their families, and friends savored the gasps of the audience in the darkened theater watching men swim like fish as they explored shipwrecks that had never before been seen by human eyes.
At the end of the festival, in the great hall of the Casino de Cannes, Epaves was awarded the special prize from the Center for the Arts, Literature, and the Cinema.”
(Source: Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King, Brad Matsen)
Calypso | Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World
Cousteau was at a turning point in his life. He had been told by his naval superiors that it was time for him to do some staff work.
Cousteau was more interested in his life’s work. Realizing he could never pursue his dreams while in uniform, Cousteau left the French Navy and dedicated himself, instead, to building a successful business around the exploration of the world’s oceans.
In seeking funding for his operations, Cousteau discovered other like-minded individuals who believed in what he wanted to do and were willing to fund it.
One was Loel Guiness, the younger brother of the founder of the famous Irish brewery. Guiness gifted Cousteau the ship which would be immortalized as part of his story–Calypso.
The Silent World | Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World
Jacques Cousteau commissioned author James Dugan to write the story of his undersea adventures. Titled, The Silent World, the book would become a best seller and make its subject famous.
Rachel Carson, whose own work, Silent Spring, gave birth to the modern environmental movement, wrote a review of the book and praised Jacques Cousteau for his work in transforming humankind’s relationship with the sea.
Jacques Cousteau received the good news he had been waiting for when he was awarded a grant by The French Ministry of National Education. Cousteau’s ship became a research vessel. He could begin to achieve his twin goals of underwater exploration and cinematography.
With the assistance of French Filmmaker Louis Malle, Cousteau produced a documentary film named after his best-selling book, The Silent World. This underwater documentary left audiences speechless. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1957.
From Films To Television | Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World
For Jacques Cousteau, audience approval translated into financial support. What began in theaters made its way to television screens.
In 1968, ABC announced the premiere of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. This ground-breaking series brought Cousteau’s undersea world into peoples living rooms.
A Platform For Environmentalism
For Jacques, television was about much more than merely entertaining audiences.
It was about informing them. He used each episode to tell a story with a moral. Fred Rogers had used his groundbreaking program, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, to influence our understanding of children and their needs.
Cousteau wanted to use his television program to call attention to the world’s oceans and how they were systematically being destroyed in the name of progress.
The Fragility Of The World’s Oceans
The success of Cousteau’s Undersea World provided him with the familiar red cap and, more importantly, a platform from which to champion environmentalism.
Cousteau used his success to call attention to the fragility of the world’s oceans.
He implored humankind to stop destroying the planet in the name of progress. And, as he noted, all forms of pollution eventually end up in the ocean.
The Cousteau Society | Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World
In the 1970s, Jacques Cousteau established The Cousteau Society. The goal of this society would be to save and protect marine life. It provided a platform for Cousteau and his supporters to conduct marine research, especially underwater exploration and filmmaking.
In the 1970s, The Cousteau Society fundamentally changed the power balance in the environmental movement. A proliferation of organizations followed such as The Sierra Club, Greenpeace and dozens of other international, national and local groups.
Together these groups created a landscape of advocacy in which they succeeded in fund-raising with single issue campaigns such as the slaughter of baby seals for their fur, overfishing, nuclear energy, destructive mining practices and ocean pollution.
A Father Of Environmentalism
To his disappointment, Jacques Cousteau discovered that the major networks had a limited appetite for his type of hard-hitting television specials.
Looking for the funding and the freedom to continue producing the type of programs which appealed to him, Cousteau found an unlikely ally in Ted Turner.
Cousteau wanted to produce television specials examining the growing environmental threat to the planet. Turner wanted to elevate the profile of his WTBS Superstation. Turner agreed to buy the exclusive rights to The Jacques Cousteau Odyssey for $5 million.
The Rediscovery Series | Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World
In the 1980s, Jacques Cousteau undertook what was arguably his most ambitious television series. Titled, “The Rediscovery of the World,” this groundbreaking series examined the impact of people on their planet.
Rather than explore the creatures of the deep, Cousteau turned his filmmaking talents towards educating human beings on their impact on the underwater world.
Focusing On The Unfolding Tragedy Of Human Interaction With The Environment | Cousteau’s Undersea World
In this series, Cousteau didn’t pull any punches. One episode, examining Haiti, pointed out that 90% of its six million inhabitants are descended from African slaves.
Cousteau then went on to document how their descendants, the island’s anchovy fishermen, lacking modern equipment, struggled to capture the small, quick fish and were unable to preserve them long enough for sale in the marketplace.
Throughout the series, his emphasis was on the unfolding tragedy of human interaction with the environment.
Sounding The Alarm
Cousteau increasingly spent more and more time sounding the alarm about the deterioration of the oceans.
He used his international celebrity to appeal to all nations to work together to control population, abolish weapons of mass destruction and move towards clean and renewable sources of energy.
The Legacy Of Jacques Cousteau | Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World
Jacques Cousteau’s amazing career includes over 120 television documentaries, 50 books and hundreds of thousands of members of The Cousteau Society.
He inspired a generation to take up scuba diving, to marvel at the beauty of the undersea world, and to become aware of the man-made problems which threaten their existence.
With the development of the Aqua-Lung, Cousteau solidified his reputation in the history of ocean exploration.
It was the first self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. Before Cousteau’s breakthrough achievement,, diving had required explorers to wear bulky and dangerous suits into which air was continually pumped. Now divers are able to explore the ocean freely.
Cousteau was one of the first to popularize theories of conservationism. He had the courage to tell us that human beings are damaging the planet.
Cousteau was granted membership to the French Academy in 1988.
His Legacy Carried On By His Descendants
1910 – 1997
French naval officer, oceanographer, researcher, scientist, conservationist, filmmaker, and undersea explorer.
Internationally famous documentary host and creator of the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.
Inventor of diving devices and scuba devices such as the Aqua-Lung.
Sources For This Article Included:
- The History Cooperative
- Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King, by Brad Matsen