The Forgotten Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau

Captain Jacques Yves Cousteau wearing the Calypso red beanie
Captain Jacques Yves Cousteau wearing the Calypso red beanie

For an entire generation, the name Jacques Cousteau was synonymous with undersea exploration.  He was a famous French explorer, inventor, and researcher. He co-invented the Aqua-Lung, better known today as Scuba.  On board his equally famous ship, the Calypso, he hosted dozens of TV documentaries from the 1960s thru the 1980s, exploring the world’s oceans. He started the non-profit Cousteau Society for the preservation of the earth’s polluted seas.  But today, he is nearly an after-thought, often forgotten, or worse yet, completely unknown to the millennial generation.  Who was this famous explorer of the oceans?

Jacques-Yves Cousteau was born near Bordeaux, France in 1910. He learned to swim and snorkel at an early age, and to speak English fluently.  As a teenager in the Mediterranean city of Marseilles, he bought a movie camera and began to experiment with filming underwater.  In 1930, he entered the Ecole Navale (French Naval Academy), later joining the French Navy’s information service as a 2nd Lieutenant.

Cousteau took his movie camera with him and began filming throughout the South Pacific.

He started training to become a naval aircraft pilot, but a near-fatal car crash brought that hope to an end. Cousteau swam in the sea daily to strengthen his battered body. The beauty of the sea-floor made such a impression on him, he decided to make diving his life’s work.  In 1937, Cousteau married Simone Melchior and they had two sons together, Jean-Michel and Philippe. Both sons, in time, would join their father in his underwater expeditions.

During World War II, when France surrendered to Nazi Germany, Cousteau and his family stayed in the country. He worked with the French Resistance in intelligence operations, for which he was awarded France’s Military Cross and Legion of Honor.  In 1943, he met Emile Gagnan, a French engineer who shared his passion for exploration. Compressed air cylinders had been invented and the pair experimented with a new on-demand breathing regulator.

Together they developed and patented the Aqua-Lung, allowing divers to stay underwater for long periods of time without hoses connected to the surface. Cousteau also helped develope a waterproof movie camera that could withstand deep pressures. During this time, he made his first documentary on underwater exploration, Par dix-huit mètres de fond (18 Meters Deep).

After the war, Cousteau worked with the French navy to clear underwater mines. Between missions, he continued his underwater explorations while filming all his excursions. His wife Simone traveled with Cousteau at sea, even selling her jewels once to help buy boat fuel. Their two sons, Jean-Michel and Philippe, went off to boarding school.

Cousteau set a new depth record in 1947 for free diving, descending to 300 feet under the sea. 

The Aqua-Lung allowed him to swim freely under the ocean’s surface without a heavy helmet, diving suit, and surface air tubes. In 1948, Cousteau and Philippe Tailliez, completed an underwater expedition in the Mediterranean to find the Roman shipwreck Mahdia off the Tunisian coast.  This was the first ever underwater archaeology expedition using Scuba.

Cousteau shared his idea to make more undersea explorations with wealthy British philanthropist Thomas Guinness in 1950. Guinness was so impressed with the Frenchman, he bought a former British minesweeper, leasing it to Cousteau for a mere 1 franc a year.  Jacques refurbished it for exploration, renaming it Calypso, after the Greek nymph.  Like Cousteau, the ship was destined to become equally famous the world over. 

The next year, Cousteau took scientific leave from the French Navy to begin sea exploration full time.  To fund it, he conducted underwater surveys of the Red Sea on behalf of British Petroleum. To pay for it without oil money, he needed media attention.  Captain Cousteau co-authored the 1953 book The Silent World, about their adventures in Scuba diving.  The book was an instant best seller and has sold over 5 million copies. In it, Cousteau was the first to theorize that whales and dolphins were able navigate using echo-location.

In 1956, Cousteau released a color movie documentary, The Silent World.

The movie was an international hit, transforming people’s ideas about the amazing plethora of life beneath the surface of the blue-grey oceans. It won Cousteau the 1957 Academy Award for Best Documentary. He had succeeded in capturing the world’s imagination and there was now a huge demand for Scuba equipment and Scuba diving.

The success allowed him to finance another expedition to the Indian Ocean, sponsored by the French government and the National Geographic Society.  In 1960, Cousteau’s documentary, The Golden Fish, won the Academy Award for Best Short Film. The 50-year-old was then featured on the cover of Time magazine and became world famous. In 1961, American President Kennedy presented the National Geographic Society’s Gold Medal to Cousteau.

Over the the years, Captain Cousteau became an environmentalist and organized a campaign against the French-government’s plan to dump nuclear waste into the Mediterranean in 1960—taking his fight all the way to President General Charles de Gualle.  The train carrying the waste to Marseilles was turned back after French women and children staged a sit-in on the tracks!

“For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it.

By 1963, Cousteau and his Calypso team experimented with manned bases on the sea-floor, using divers as ‘oceanauts.’  The 3 Conshelf Bases were partly funded by French petroleum companies, who were interested in exploring the sea-floor for oil – a fact he was later criticized for.  The documentary on the Conshelf bases, World Without Sun, won him his 3rd Academy Award, for Best Documentary, in 1965.

Exploration was expensive and Cousteau needed constant funding.  In 1966, he approached ABC TV and produced his 1st special, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. It too was a hit and in 1968 became a regular TV series, running for 9 seasons. Millions of people, including myself, followed the red-beanied Calypso team and their adventures around the globe.  With his French accent, Cousteau narrated the series himself, offering his personal experiences on marine life and their habitat.

The crew now included his two sons, Jean-Michel and the bearded Philippe, his heir apparent.

Jacques and sons Philippe and Jean-Michel Cousteau
Jacques and sons Philippe and Jean-Michel Cousteau

Cousteau began to realize how human activity was destroying the oceans. Using his celebrity, he founded The Cousteau Society for the Protection of Ocean Life in 1973, to raise awareness of the underwater ecosystems of the world. The organization quickly grew and soon had over 300,000 worldwide.  Cousteau also wrote several more books, including The Ocean World in 1985. That same year, on his 75th birthday, American President Reagan presented him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 1975, folk singer John Denver sailed with Cousteau and released the tribute song Calypso on his album Windsong, which became a hit, reaching No. 2 on the charts. A 2nd docu-series, The Cousteau Odyssey, ran from 1977 to 1982 on public television stations.  These now had a more environmental message and a plea for stronger protection of ocean habitats.  

In 1979, tragedy struck when Cousteau’s younger son, Philippe, died unexpectedly.  He was an experienced pilot and was killed while piloting their Catalina flying boat, crashing in a river near Lisbon, Portugal.  He was only 39.  Captain Cousteau was devastated, and his grand ambitions were never quite the same. Philippe left behind a wife and two children.  Jean-Michel stepped in to take his place.

Though Cousteau’s films made the oceans seem like a bountiful, endless wonderland, the captain knew better. The ocean flora and fauna were at risk from human water pollution and Cousteau never hesitated to point that out.  He intervened with heads of state and helped get passed the International Whaling Commission moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986.   That moratorium remains in place today.

The sea, the great unifier, is man’s only hope. Now, as never before, as the old phrase says: ‘We are all in the same boat.

His wife Simone, who had lived her life aboard Calypso, died after a battle with cancer in 1990.  A year later, Cousteau, now in his eighties, married Francine Triplet.  He had fathered a daughter, Diane, and a son, Pierre-Yves, who were born in the 1980s.  Cousteau then had a legal battle with his son, Jean-Michel, over his son’s wish to use the Cousteau name for commercial purposes. In 1995, he sued his son, who was advertising the “Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort.”

In 1996, Calypso was rammed by barge and sank in Singapore Harbor! It was raised and towed back to France.  Cousteau tried to raise money to build a new vessel, but tragedy then struck again.  Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau died of a heart attack in Paris in 1996 at age 87.   His estate fell into dispute among his survivors, most of which were settled by 2000.  His son, Jean-Michel, left the Cousteau Society and formed his own organization, The Oceans Futures Society. Philippe’s two children likewise formed EarthEcho International.

If Jacques Cousteau were alive today, he would probably be deeply saddened by how little has been done to address global air and water pollution, overfishing, and the very real threat to the world’s seas by climate change and ocean warmingThe Cousteau Society still exists today, with Cousteau’s second wife Francine as President. The Society continues the captain’s legacy with its ongoing mission to Explore, Document and Advocate for our Water Planet.

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Published by andrewspaulw

LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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