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How Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World Changed Ours (Know This)

Jacques Cousteau’s dream of a world beyond the sea would be undaunted by the German Occupation of France.

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.

The more I look back on my father’s life and work, the more I realize what a visionary he was… He was a pioneer who broke barriers with his inventions such as the aqua-lung, scuba diving apparatuses and submersibles; his name became synonymous with underwater exploration, ocean photography and conservation.

–Jean-Michel Cousteau, National Geographic, 2010

A Love Of The Water | Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World

Cousteau's undersea world began as a child when the water soothed him and banished all fear.
The water soothed him and banished all fear.” (Courtesy of Wikimedia Creative Commons)

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 As a young child, he was shy and withdrawn.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’s Undersea World

A Trip To The Moon showcased Melies world of outer space and became an inspiration for Cousteau's undersea world.
A Trip To The Moon-Georges Melies classic 1902 science fiction film sparked the imagination of Jacques Cousteau. He dreamt of taking audiences to places they had never gone before. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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.

A Trip To The Moon

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.

In The Navy

With his wings clipped, Jacques Cousteau began to dream of other frontiers to explore such as Cousteau's undersea world.
An automotive accident brought an early end to Jacques Cousteau’s flying career. With his wings clipped, he sought another frontier to explore. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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.

Philippe Tailliez

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.

“The reason I love the sea I cannot explain. I only know that sometimes we are lucky enough to know that our lives have been changed, to discard the old, embrace the new, and run headlong down an immutable course. It happened to me on that summer’s day, when my eyes were opened on the sea.”

-Jacques Cousteau quoted in Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King, Brad Matsen
It was as a young sailor in the French Navy that he would first explore Cousteau's Undersea World.
A young Jacques Cousteau found his life transformed by the sea. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Inventing The Aqua-Lung

The fall of France in 1940.
The German Occupation of France would be a difficult time for most French. Jacques Cousteau, as a French naval officer, would be no exception. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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

This 1907 air lock diving bell plant was built for use of the British Admiralty at Gibraltar. The vessel is 85 ft. long 40 ft. beam; the diving bell weighing 50 tons, and in addition to all the usual equipment of the ordinary diving bells contains a rock drill operated by compressed air. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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.

Edmund Halley, famed for discovering Halley’s Comet, designed an underwater breathing apparatus. (Courtesy of Wikimedia) | Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World

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. 

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.
(Courtesy of Wikimedia) | Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World

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.

Emile Gagnan

Cousteau's Undersea World would be opened up by his revolutionary Aqua-Lung.
Jacques Cousteau would solve the problem of how to breathe underwater and move about freely. He opened up a new world to humankind. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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.

“I was playing when we invented the Aqua-Lung. I am still playing.”

-Jacques Cousteau

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

Cousteau's undersea world and its treasures were brought to life for millions.
Cousteau and his team discovered artifacts which had been previously hidden. The footage which they captured underwater was truly breathtaking. (Courtesy of Wikimedia) | Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World

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

Audience would be thrilled by Cousteau's undersea world at the first Cannes Film Festival.
Jacques Cousteau’s Epaves would thrill audiences at the first Cannes Film Festival. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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

Jacques Cousteau on Calypso. (Courtesy of Wikimedia) |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.

Loel Guiness

Jacques Cousteau's undersea world would be made possible with the gift of Calypso.
Irishman Loel Guiness would provide Jacques Cousteau with the ship which would enable him to explore his undersea world. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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.

“I cannot help thinking that the men of the Calypso resemble, in many ways, those of Jules Verne’s Nautilus–men who have been wounded by life on land, and who thereafter put their trust in the sea.”

-Jacques Cousteau cited in Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King, by Brad Matsen

The Silent World | Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World

Rachel Carson was so impressed with Cousteau's undersea world that she would write a favorable review of The Silent World.
Rachel Carson viewed Jacques Cousteau as an ally who was also committed to protecting the planet. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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.

RELATED: A Woman Started The Environmental Movement (Can It Continue?)

Louis Malle

Louis Malle worked to bring Cousteau's undersea world to life.
Jacques Cousteau enlisted the services of filmmaker Louis Malle. Together the produced a film which dazzled audiences and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1957. (Courtesy of Wikimedia) |Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World

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.

“Not a single member of the audience at Cannes or in the thousands of theaters in which The Silent World was shown had ever seen anything like the dance of the dolphins.”

-Brad Matsen, Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King

From Films To Television | Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World

Jacques Cousteau's undersea world transformed him into an international celebrity.
The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau brought Cousteau’s undersea world into peoples living rooms. (Courtesy of Wikimedia) | 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.

The formula was simple. Each episode would pose a challenging question about the sea and its inhabitants. In an hour, Cousteau and his men would answer it. For instance, are sharks the vicious killers everybody thinks they are? Or how do the creatures of the coral reef depend upon one another for survival?

-Brad Matsen, Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King

A Platform For Environmentalism

Fred Rogers reached out to children in his neighborhood just as Jacque Cousteau did in Cousteau's undersea world.
Like Fred Rogers, Jacques Cousteau used his program to educate his audiences. Whereas Rogers focused on the needs and proper care of children, Cousteau focused on the needs and proper care of the world’s oceans. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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.

“One may wonder why so little care has been given to the ocean. The reason is very simple. People have thought that the legendary immensity of the ocean was such that man could do nothing against such a gigantic force. Well, now we know that the size of the ocean, although it covers a great amount of surface, the real volume of the ocean is very small compared to the volume of the earth.

In publication, in conferences, in international units the matters are generally divided into air pollution, land pollution and water pollution. In fact, there is only one pollution because every single thing, every chemical whether in the air or on land will end up in the ocean.”

-Jacques Cousteau, Our Oceans Are Dying, New York Times, November 14, 1971

The Cousteau Society | Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World

Cousteau's undersea world would garner praise from world leaders including President John F. Kennedy.
President John F. Kennedy presents the National Geographic Society’s Gold Medal to Captain Jacques Cousteau. (Courtesy of Wikimedia) | 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

Ted Turner would become an unlikely ally because he believed in Cousteau's undersea world.
Jacques Cousteau found an unlikely ally in Ted Turner who agreed to finance his undersea adventures. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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.

“If there is a mother of the environmental movement it was Rachel Carson. If there is a father, it is Jacques Cousteau.”

-Ted Turner

The Rediscovery Series | Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World

Jacques Cousteau's Undersea World
Cousteau sounded the alarm about the negative impact humans are having on the planet. (Courtesy of Wikimedia) | 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.

“If we were logical, the future would be bleak, indeed. But we are more than logical. We are human beings, and we have faith, and we have hope, and we can work.”

-Jacques Cousteau

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.

“Mankind has probably done more damage to the Earth in the 20th century than in all of previous human history. The real cure for our environmental problems is to understand that our job is to salvage Mother Nature. We are facing a formidable enemy in this field.”

-Jacques Cousteau

Sounding The Alarm

Through Cousteau's undersea world, we learned about the threats to our enviroment.
Jacques Cousteau spent his final years speaking out against humankind’s destruction of its environment. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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 Undersea World
(Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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.

“If we go on the way we have, the fault is our greed and if we are not willing to change, we will disappear from the face of the globe, to be replaced by the insect.”

-Jacques Cousteau

His Legacy Carried On By His Descendants

Cousteau's undersea world would be carried on by his descendants.
Today, Jacques Cousteau’s legacy is carried on by his grandson, Philippe Cousteau, and Philippe’s wife, Ashlan Cousteau. The pair have their own show on the Travel Channel, “Caribbean Pirate Treasure,” where they explore some of the best-known legends and myths of shipwrecks and buried treasure in the Caribbean. (Courtesy of the Travel Channel) | Cousteau’s Undersea World

“The world is not what it was. We must plan long-term. Accordingly, to save it for our distant children, we must establish four priorities. The first one is peace. We know it is difficult, but there must be ways to live in peace other than leaving it in the hands of governments.

The second priority is limiting our own numbers. Rich nations have stable populations. Poor nations are a time bomb. The third priority is education. If we want to do something for peace and population, for the Third World and the environment, we have to demonstrate the problem. The fourth priority is the environment.

Each one of us must do something to fight for peace, for better cooperation among people, for education and the environment.”

-Jacques Cousteau

Jacques Cousteau

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
Tony Pattiz

Tony Pattiz is a retired history teacher currently researching and writing articles for More Than Just Parks.

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