Jacques Cousteau

As early as 1825 an Englishman, named William James had produced a design for a compressed-air diving apparatus, with the tank strapped to the body.  But,  it was never developed. In the 1830s divers were still dependent on suits connected to surface air pumps.

Another 30 years passed before Benoit Rouquayrol and Auguste Denayrouze invented a valve which supplied air at a balanced pressure from a portable tank whenever the wearer of their diving suit inhaled. By 1867 these suits were in commercial production, and they were featured in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870). But diving was still limited to about 100 feet.

Having tried out earlier models of the Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus – S.C.U.B.A as it is known today – created by Yves le Prieur in 1926, Jacques Cousteau felt it didn’t allow the user enough time underwater.

In 1943 Cousteau and a Paris engineer called Emile Gagnon succeeded in fitting a similar valve to small high-pressure liquid-air cylinders to create the Aqua-Lung, or scuba, thus giving divers an unprecedented mobility. Cousteau recalled his excitement when testing the Aqua-Lung. “I experimented with every kind of maneuver – loops, somersaults, barrel rolls. I stood upside down on one finger and burst out laughing . . . Delivered from gravity and buoyancy, I flew about in space.” {Note: A demand valve regulator means every inhalation you take, air is delivered to you, whereas before the demand valve there was a switch that would open the tank and deliver you air.}

Within a decade the world was invited to share the experience. The Silent World, published in 1953, sold more than five million copies, and was followed three years later by a film of the same title, directed by Louis Malle, which won an Oscar. Another film, The Golden Fish (1959) secured an Academy Award in the short subjects category.

In 1965 the film of his book World Without Sun, about a group of oceanauts who lived for a month 40 feet below the waves in the Red Sea, carried off a third Oscar – though it was later learned that part of the film had been made in a hangar in Marseilles.

Nonetheless, Cousteau’s preferred medium was television. “Making films and writing books is good,” he said, “but not as thrilling. With television you know that on one evening 35 to 40 million people are going to see dolphins.” He invented an underwater television process, and in 1966 produced his first important documentary for the small screen, The World of Jacques-Yves Cousteau. This was followed from 1968 by a series of programs under the title The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. One of the most spectacular was Beneath the Frozen World, filmed in the Antarctic in 1972. In all Cousteau’s films the remarkable pictures were given an added dimension by his commentaries, which were not lacking in Gallic philosophizing.

Tall and lean, with a mien that struck observers as both aristocratic and ravaged – a few even reminded one of an amiable but wary eagle.  Jacques Cousteau impressed as a character no less than as an oceanographer. In France he attained an almost mythical status, voted “top French personality” in magazine polls, and gaining official recognition with his election to the French Academy in 1988.

His enthusiasm and inventiveness created a new sport, as millions discovered the excitement of a new realm where they could join endless varieties of fish in their natural habitat and wonder at the strangeness of the marine landscape. Yet Cousteau was sharply aware that the underwater world which he had opened up was under threat from pollution. The human race could not survive, he warned a conference on the Law of the Sea at Geneva in 1975, if it continued to treat the oceans as objects of pillage and destruction. “There is no more time for consideration of narrow national interests,” he insisted. “We are talking about the survival of our children – not our grandchildren – our children.”

On a more positive note, he indulged us with wild dreams about the oceans’ potential, envisaging a time when the world’s energy crisis would be solved by channeling the force of the tidal and temperature changes in the sea.  When metal ores would be mined from the ocean bed. When farmers in diving suits would provide mankind’s food supply from plantations hundreds of feet below the surface.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau was born on June 11, 1910 near Bordeaux, at St Andre-de-Cubzac, a little town in France, to which his parents had repaired for the event because they had both been born there themselves. A few days later the baby was taken back to Paris to join his elder brother. His father was a companion and assistant to an American millionaire, which meant that the family was constantly travelling. Jacques-Yves’s earliest memory was of being rocked to sleep on a train in America. He was a sickly child, who suffered from anemia and chronic enteritis, and his doctors advised against strenuous exercise of any kind. But he learned to swim, and soon became absorbed by the mysteries of the oceans. When he was 11 he produced a four-foot working model of a 200-ton marine crane.

At school, Cousteau was a bored, precocious pupil who was once expelled for breaking 17 windows. Nevertheless, in 1930 he graduated from the College Stanislas in Paris, and had no difficulty in passing the stiff entrance examination to the French Naval Academy at Brest.

In 1933 he joined the Navy as a Second Lieutenant. Serving in the Far East, he was intrigued to see Chinese fishermen diving without any equipment to catch fish with their bare hands. And when some pearl divers gave him a pair of goggles, he had his first concentrated glimpse of the underwater world. Cousteau began experimenting with equipment to enable him to dive and stay under the sea for long periods without having to don the cumbersome suits and metal domes then used by divers. This work was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. He joined the Resistance, and spied on the movements of German and Italian warships. Disguised as an Italian officer, he slipped one night into an Italian naval base at Sete on the Mediterranean Golfe du Lion. He discovered the cipher department and photographed the Italian navy’s code book and other secret documents. To the Germans, Cousteau was an eccentric French Naval Officer serving in a fort near Toulon. He was permitted to make underwater films and experiments with breathing apparatus which resulted in the development of the first Aqua-Lung. At the end of the Second World War his spying exploits earned him the Legion d’honneur, and the Croix de Guerre with palm.

The first commercial Aqua-Lung was manufactured in 1946 and sold throughout the world. Cousteau, meanwhile, founded the French Navy’s Undersea Research Group, which cleared mines from Mediterranean ports and made films of submarines on operations. He also inaugurated archaeological expeditions and recovered Roman art treasures from a wreck 100 feet beneath the sea off Tunisia. In 1947, he set up the world’s first free diving record of 300 feet, although it was broken by one of his colleagues a year later. In 1951 Cousteau converted a British minesweeper into a research vessel, Calypso, which bristled with antennae and the latest marine equipment. He sailed to the Red Sea and made the first color film to be taken at a depth of 150 feet.

His marine exploration expanded further with the creation of Campagnes Oceaniques Franaises in 1950, and of the Centre d’Etudes Marines Avancees two years later. In 1952 he set off on a four-year, round-the-world expedition sponsored by the National Geographic Society.

Cousteau resigned from the French Navy in 1956 as a commander. In that year he anchored Calypso over the 24,500 feet deep Romanche Trench in the Atlantic and dropped specially designed gear to photograph the sea bed four and a half miles below.

In 1957 Cousteau was appointed director of the Institute of Oceanography in Monaco, where he built up an invaluable collection of data on marine biology, botany and ecology. In a series of experiments he examined human reactions to living and working for prolonged periods at depth on the Continental shelf. The Conshelf Saturation Dive Programme, as it was called, developed metal structures which oceanauts were able to occupy for weeks at a time on the beds of the Red Sea and Mediterranean, at depths of as much as 300 feet. There were rooms for eating and sleeping, exits for excursions along the sea bed, stores for drinking-water and fruit juices, and decompression chambers. The occupants breathed heliox – a mixture of 98 per cent helium and two per cent oxygen – recycled and purified by a machine which removed carbon monoxide and other gases and reduced humidity.

Another of Cousteau’s inventions was a one-man submarine powered by jet propulsion. Yet his technical expertise was combined with a romantic streak. In 1975 he investigated the origins of the legend of Atlantis, the lost continent of antiquity, focusing his research on the Greek island of Santorini. The results of his archaeological diving expedition were inconclusive.

His various enterprises were welded together into the Cousteau Group, which covered every kind of marine development and research, including the manufacture of diving equipment, the production of films and television programs, and the conduct of ecological campaigns. Cousteau received a five per cent royalty on every Aqua-Lung sold, but gave the money to his environmental charity, Fondation Cousteau.

Cousteau lived on his Navy pension and his salary as a director of the Oceanographic Institute and Museum. Though he had houses in Monaco and Paris he preferred to live on Calypso. He was secretary general of the International Commission for the Scientific Exploration of the Mediterranean, and chairman of Eurocean, a combine of 25 European firms concerned with exploring and safeguarding the oceans. But the range of his activities did not prevent him from writing some 30 books and making 90-odd films. His energy remained undimmed to the end of his life.