Naval officer, inventor, explorer, environmentalist, filmmaker, writer, and international media sensation—Jacques-Yves Cousteau's life was the stuff of legends. He was born in June of 1910. In our modern era of environmental concerns and done-nothing celebs, it's time to revisit the life and work of an extraordinary man.
Childhood among the Rich
Jacques' father, Daniel—always known in his family as Daddy, served as advisor to multi-millionaires who enjoyed the life of high society and amateur sports. One required that Daniel not only give him financial advice but also be able to match him in tennis, swimming, and golf.
Jacques was very sickly as a child. His doctors advised that he avoid strenuous activity. Fortunately for humanity, Daniel's employer insisted that strenuous activity, particularly swimming, was exactly what was needed to improve the boy's health. He was correct, and, as the world would come to know, Jacques-Yves Cousteau loved the water, later referring to himself as a member of Homo Aquaticus.
When the millionaire returned home to America for a time, the family accompanied him. Jacques went to public school in New York City's upper West Side. He played stickball, learned English, and was taught to dive at summer camp. Upon returning to Paris, teenage Jacques took up amateur filmmaking. He was not a very attentive student, but engineering exercises fascinated him.
The French Resistance
Jacques Cousteau graduated from the French naval academy in 1929. At the time, he could imagine himself with one of three careers: naval officer, radiologist, or film director. The onset of World War II would make the decision for him. He was originally assigned to the aviation school, but a nearly fatal car accident made it impossible for him to become an airman.
His arm, broken in five places, required months to heal and was almost amputated due to infection. Although he was greatly depressed at the time, this accident may have saved his life. Only one other student from his aviation class survived the opening weeks of the war. Cousteau received the Legion d'Honneur for his work as a gunnery officer and later as a saboteur and spy for the French resistance. It was he who trained divers to lay mines against their own ships, so this part of the navy could be scuttled quickly to keep it out of enemy hands.
A Traitor in the Family
Cousteau opened himself to controversy at the end of the war when he appeared in full dress uniform to testify in his brother's defense. Pierre, Jacques' elder brother, was accused and convicted of collaborating with the enemy. While Jacques was setting mines to scuttle the fleet at Toulon and posing as an Italian officer to photograph a code book for the Allies, his brother had been enjoying the good life of occupied Paris, writing inflammatory anti-Semitic articles for Paris magazines and hosting dinner parties for the conquerors. Pierre may have believed himself a realist, but the restored French government had another word for it: collabo, or collaborator. He likely would have been sentenced to death had his little brother not testified on his behalf. As it was, he received 10 years in prison and was not particularly grateful to Jacques.
During the war, Cousteau had made friends with two men who shared his interest in underwater exploration. Philippe Tailliez, a naval lieutenant, and Frederic Dumas, a civilian, used aviator goggles and pearl diver spectacles (Dumas had dived for pearls in the South Seas) to be able to get a clear view of what lay beneath the water's surface. To stay down longer, they made masks from inner tubes and snorkels from garden hoses. Then Cousteau began to experiment with mechanical breathing devices, including oxygen tanks. Twice, he nearly killed himself.
The three men talked to naval underwater expert Yves de Corlieu, who with Cousteau continued to work on the project. They kept working on it throughout the war, consulting with Emile Gagnan, an expert on pressurized gases.
At last the aqualung was ready to handle the changes in pressure. As the dives became more and more interesting, Cousteau would bring along his waterproof camera. His first short film was called "At a Depth of Eighteen Meters."
Five months after D-Day, Cousteau tried to interest the Allies in his Aqualung. The British dubbed his invention the Self-Contained-Underwater-Breathing-Apparatus, or Scuba for short. Cousteau told them that divers wearing the suits could lay torpedoes stealthily and accurately in enemy waters. He had no takers. But in the post-war years, SCUBA would capture the world's imagination, and JYC as Cousteau often styled himself would demonstrate to audiences the joy of exploring the awesome depths.
The Silent World
Cousteau and Dumas wrote a landmark book on the invention the SCUBA system and their early dives entitled Le Monde de Silence, or The Silent World. In 1956, Cousteau and his crew transformed hours of amazing film into a documentary of the same title which earned the first of his three Oscars and the Palme d'Or. Cousteau would go on to produce dozens of films and a long-running, Emmy Award-winning U.S. television series, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.
Calypso Days: Exploring "the Water Planet"
Almost as famous as Cousteau himself, his ship, the Calypso, a former Royal Navy minesweeper, was outfitted with the best scientific equipment available. From the arctic to the equator, the men and women who adventured on board the Calpyso dove and drove two undersea explorer vessels, called bathyscaps. They shot many hours of film which was shared with the world through Cousteau's books, films, and television series.
It was said among the crews that the heart of Calypso was Cousteau's wife, Simone. Born into a well-off family with a long tradition of naval service, Simone was happiest aboard the ship. She and Jacques married during World War II and had two sons who would grow up immersed in their parents' adventuring world. Simone was nicknamed "La Bergere," the shepherdess. She took care of everyone on board, serving as nurse, confidante, deckhand, and sometimes diver. During the early days she sold her jewels and furs when the Calypso was in need money for re-rigging.
The Death of a Son
In 1979, Philippe Cousteau—Jacques' heir apparent to his film and oceanography work, died when his World War II vintage Catalina aircraft called the Flying Calypso smashed while on a test flight over the Tagus River near Lisbon. He left behind his wife Jan, 3-year-old Alexandra, and a soon-to-be-born son who would be named Philippe after his father. The Cousteau extended family--including the crew of the Calypso, were devastated.
Through his television specials, Jacques became known everywhere. He spoke out on global environmental issues: overpopulation, ocean pollution, and animal rights. His foundation provided educational materials to classrooms, and the crews' continued explorations were captured on film and in print. However, Jacques did not always accompany these voyages. By the mid-1980s, he spent only about a third of his time on the ship. The other time was split between America and France. His face and name were known worldwide, and his star power brought in money needed to keep both the Calypso and the foundation going. He received the Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan in 1985.
Upon Simone's death in 1990, Jacques' son Jean-Michel was shocked to discover that he had a brother and a sister from his father's long-term relationship with a former Air France stewardess, Francine Triplet. Francine and Jacques married in 1991.
Jacques sued Jean-Michel for using the Cousteau name for an eco-vacation center in Fiji. When Francine became a director of the Cousteau Society, Jean-Michel resigned his position on the board in protest, where he had been a most able administrator. He has since started the Ocean Futures Society to carry on the spirit of his father's work.
Jacques Cousteau died in June 1997 of cerebral meningitis. In his will, he left control of the Cousteau Society and the rights to his films, books, and so forth to Francine. In recent years, the Cousteaus have continued to battle over use of the family name and the fate of aged Calypso, deteriorating and consigned to dry dock.
The Next Generations
The Cousteau Society continues, with Francine at its helm, now based in Hampton, Virginia. In addition to the conflicts with Jean-Michel, she and the Cousteau Society have also been embroiled in legal disputes with Philippe's children (Jacques' grandchildren). Alexandra and Philippe the younger are now grown and have also become devoted to global environmental causes. A lawsuit forced them to change the name of their Philippe Cousteau Foundation to EarthEcho Foundation.
Based in Washington, D.C., EarthEcho is endeavoring to use newer media forms to interest young people in the plight of the oceans. As Philippe told the press during an interview in WashingtonLife, "There's a new generation to win over that has never heard of Jacques Cousteau, there are a lot of ways to carry the movement forward." Philippe may also be seen on Animal Planet, where he is the chief ocean correspondent. Alexandra has made documentaries for the French cable channel, Planete Thalassa.
Jean-Michel's son, Fabien, is an aquatic filmmaker and explorer. His documentary on sharks, Mind of a Demon, premiered on CBS in 2006. Jean-Michel's documentary, Voyage to Kure, inspired President George W. Bush to create the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Monument, the largest marine protected area in the world. Daughter Celine works with her brother and father to produce documentary films for PBS.
Francine's son, Yves-Pierre, studied biochemistry and has had an internship with NASA. His sister Diane is on the board of the Cousteau Society.
Discover Cousteau in the Library
The Central Rappahannock Regional Library owns several books about and/or by Jacques Cousteau that make for fascinating reading. Many of the points in this article were taken from Cousteau: An Unauthorized Biography, by Axel Madsen. Published in 1986, it takes a fair look at the explorer's many triumphs as well as the known tragedies of his private life.
Three Adventures: Galapagos, Titicaca, the Blue Holes, written and photographed by Jacques Cousteau in 1973, is the best sort of true adventure story. Although never formally trained in oceanography, Cousteau had an amazing gift for sharing his observations and enthusiasm with the world. This book hides like one of JYC's forgotten treasure ships in our oceanography section. It's easily passed by because of its plain blue cover, but it really should be explored.
The Silent World, by Jacques Cousteau and Frédéric Dumas, was the first book on SCUBA. The authors tell how they developed the apparatus, what those early dives were like, and how it was to travel under the sea during World War II. Readers might expect it to be dry, despite its subject, and in another writer's hands it would have been. Instead, Cousteau and Dumas conveyed in decidedly non-scientific language the joy of discovery and offered visionary encouragement to generations of divers who followed them.