Jacques-Yves Cousteau, born on June 11, 1910 in Saint-André-de-Cubzac (Gironde) and died on June 25, 1997 in Paris 17th, was a French naval officer and oceanographic explorer.
Nicknamed “Commandant Cousteau”, “JYC” or “the Pasha”, he is known for having perfected with Emile Gagnan the principle of scuba diving with the invention of the regulator bearing their names, an essential part of modern scuba diving.
The films and television documentaries of his underwater explorations as commander of the Calypso met a large audience.
Youth and early career (1910-1942)
Daniel Cousteau, Jacques-Yves” father, is an international lawyer and assistant to an American businessman. His mother”s name is Elizabeth Cousteau. Her parents had a pharmacy in Saint-André-de-Cubzac, near Bordeaux, where she insisted on giving birth (although she had been living in Paris since 1904). This is why Jacques-Yves was born in Saint-André and is buried there, like his parents. From 1920 to 1923, the family lived in the United States where the young Jacques-Yves discovered swimming and freediving in a lake environment (in Vermont). Upon his return to France, he discovered the sea in the calanques near Marseille where the family now lived. At that time, France already had a famous marine and polar explorer, whose adventures made young people dream: Jean-Baptiste Charcot, who sailed on his famous ship, the Pourquoi Pas?
In 1930, after completing his preparatory studies at the Collège Stanislas in Paris, Jacques-Yves Cousteau entered the Brest Naval Academy and embarked on the Jeanne d”Arc, a Navy training ship. He became a gunnery officer in 1933. He intended to become a naval aviation pilot, but a traffic accident in 1935 forced him to convalesce in Toulon, a convalescence that ended in 1936 with an assignment to the battleship Condorcet. It was on board this ship that Cousteau met Philippe Tailliez for the first time, who immediately lent him Fernez underwater goggles, the ancestors of today”s swimming goggles. He used them at Mourillon and was impressed by the beauty of the underwater life that evolved on the rocky bottom and in the seagrass beds. Realizing that the underwater world represents more than two-thirds of the Earth, he decided to devote his life to underwater exploration.
On July 12, 1937, he married Simone Melchior, the daughter of a former rear admiral of the French Navy and an executive of Air Liquide, with whom he had two children: Jean-Michel in 1938 and Philippe in 1940. In 1938, Tailliez met another hunter named Frédéric Dumas during a submarine hunt, whom he introduced to Cousteau. Thus reunited, the three formed a trio of friends dedicated to underwater research, a trio that Tailliez would baptize in 1975 with the affectionate nickname of “Mousquemers. Like Alexandre Dumas” musketeers, the “Mousquemers” were also four, with Léon Vêche providing the logistics, as Cousteau recounts in his book Le Monde du Silence.
On several occasions in 1939 and 1942, they already used Louis de Corlieu”s swimming fins (initially invented for sea rescuers), underwater cameras developed by Hans Hass, Maurice Fernez”s diving mask with non-return valve (supplied with surface air by a rubber snorkel), the “Le Prieur” pressure reducer for compressed air cylinders, and two rebreathers running on pure oxygen.
At the time, Cousteau belonged to the intelligence service of the French Navy and as such was sent on a mission to Shanghai. In 1940, he was assigned to the counter-espionage service in Marseilles, and his commander gave him every opportunity to continue his diving experiments when his service permitted.
Facts of war (1939-1944)
Like all French sailors, Jacques-Yves Cousteau took part in Allied operations from September 1939 to June 1940, and particularly, as a gunnery officer, in Operation Vado against Italy. Having friends among his Italian counterparts, he reported crying on duty during the bombing of Genoa. Put on armistice leave after June 1940, like his colleagues, he did not stop his activities and in 1941, at the request of his neighbor François Darlan, he mounted an operation against the Italian intelligence services in France. For his war record, Cousteau received several military decorations, including the Second World War cross “with palm and two commendations”. However, these distinctions were contested by some of his teammates, such as the Resistance fighter Dimitri Véliacheff, also decorated for the same acts, with whom he operated near the French-Italian border, who was 10 years older than him and his superior in these intelligence operations (which Jacques-Yves Cousteau claimed to be his father after the war): Imprisoned and tortured in San Gimignano, Véliacheff blamed Jacques-Yves Cousteau for having fled in the face of the threat and abandoned the mission in progress, without caring about the fate of the rest of the team.
The beginning of modern scuba diving (1942-1946)
During the Second World War, after the 1940 armistice, Jacques-Yves found himself on “armistice leave”. With his wife and children, he met the Ichac family in Megève. Cousteau and Marcel Ichac shared the same desire to make the general public discover unknown and inaccessible places: for the first, it was the underwater world; for the second, it was the high mountains. The two neighbors won first prize ex aequo at the 1943 Documentary Film Congress for the first French underwater film: Par dix-huit mètres de fond. This film was shot underwater the previous year in Les Embiez with Philippe Tailliez (who wrote the commentary) and Frédéric Dumas (who played the lead role), thanks to the waterproof underwater camera housing designed by the mechanical engineer Léon Vèche, an engineer from the Arts et Métiers and the Naval School. Marcel Ichac won the prize for his film À l”assaut des aiguilles du Diable.
In 1943, Cousteau, Tailliez and Dumas filmed Epaves, with the support of the Marcellin salvage company in Marseille. While Par dix-huit mètres de fond had been shot underwater in 1942, Épaves was the first underwater film shot using self-contained diving suits. The two prototypes used in the film are those supplied by the Air Liquide company; they are mentioned in the credits under the heading “Air Liquide self-contained suit” “Cousteau system”.
The GRS and the Élie Monnier (1945-1949)
In 1945, Cousteau showed the film Wrecks to the Navy”s Chief of Staff, Admiral André Lemonnier. Lemonnier asked Tailliez, Cousteau and Dumas to set up the French Navy”s Groupement de Recherches Sous-marines (GRS) in Toulon, known since 2009 as the CEllule Plongée Humaine et Intervention Sous la MER (CEPHISMER).
In 1948, between missions of mine clearance, underwater exploration and technological and physiological tests, Cousteau undertook a first campaign in the Mediterranean aboard the Élie-Monnier, a GRS base ship with Philippe Tailliez, Frédéric Dumas, Jean Alinat and the filmmaker Marcel Ichac. The team also explored the Roman wreck of Mahdia in Tunisia. The expedition is considered by Tailliez as the “first large-scale underwater operation involving exploration and work at great depths, in a self-contained diving suit. Cousteau and Marcel Ichac brought back from this expedition the film “Carnet de plongée”, presented at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival. In 1957, Marcel Ichac”s assistant, Jacques Ertaud, made his film La Galère engloutie (The Sunken Ship) about the Mahdia galley.
Cousteau, Tailliez, Dumas and the Élie-Monnier then participated in the rescue of Professor Jacques Piccard”s bathyscaphe, the FNRS II (which had just been lost at sea following an unmanned test dive), during the 1949 expedition to Dakar. Following this rescue, the French Navy wanted to reuse the sphere of the bathyscaphe to build the FNRS III, which was impossible, “the float of the FNRS 2, is indeed a pile of scrap metal.
The adventures of this period are recounted in the two books, The Silent World by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, James Dugan and Frédéric Dumas (in 1953) and Plongées sans câble by Philippe Tailliez (in 1954).
In 1958, with Tailliez, Alinat, Morandière, Dumas, Broussard, Lehoux, and Girault, he was awarded an honorary diving diploma by the new FFESSM, so named since 1955, after having been created in 1948 by Jean Flavien Borelli (deceased in 1956) under the name FSPNES.
Calypso and the French oceanographic campaigns (1949-1972)
In 1949, having attained the rank of Lieutenant Commander, Cousteau left the Navy to found the “Campagnes océanographiques françaises” (COF) in 1950. Since 1950, the year in which Abenteuer im Roten Meer (“Adventures in the Red Sea” by Hans Hass) won an award at the Venice Biennale, Cousteau had a project for an underwater film in color, but he needed the means to do so and, to do this, he had to convince patrons: on July 19, 1950, in Nice, the millionaire Loël Guiness bought him a boat, the Calypso, with which he could travel the globe. He first carried out underwater archaeological excavations in the Mediterranean, in particular on the site of Grand-Congloué in 1952. His crew was composed of the great names of French diving: Frédéric Dumas, Albert Falco, André Laban, Claude Wesly, André Galerne.
In 1953, Cousteau and Dumas recounted the underwater experiments carried out since the mid-1930s in a book, The Silent World. The film, co-directed by Cousteau and Louis Malle in 1955, did not include the underwater scenes described in the book of the same name, since the scenes in the film were shot in the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf independently of the events described in the book. Calypso becomes the base, the secondary location and the discreet star. The documentary won the Palme d”Or at the Cannes Film Festival when it was released the following year, in 1956. We can already see Cousteau and his crew wearing the red cap that, a few years later, would become their emblem: According to Alain Perrier, its color dates back to the time of the Toulon prison, when convicts or former convicts were “designated volunteers” for dangerous interventions in diving suits; indeed, the convict”s cap was red.
In 1957, Jacques-Yves Cousteau was elected director of the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco and was admitted to the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.
In the 1960”s, he directed the Precontinent experiments of saturation dives during long-term immersions or experiments of life in houses under the sea off the coast of Cagnes-sur-Mer and in the Red Sea. The film Le Monde sans soleil (The World Without Sun) relates these adventures and won the Oscar for best documentary film in 1965.
Between 1970 and 1972, he took, thanks to his bathyscaphe, thousands of photos of the seabed on which the pipes of the future Algerian gas pipeline, Transmed, would be laid.
In 1972 he was named Commander of the Legion of Honor by the Prime Minister.
In the same year, he rearranged the skeleton of a humpback whale butchered in Antarctica by cetacean hunters, near the Brazilian base Comandante Ferraz, as a reminder of the extermination of animal species in the 20th century.
The Cousteau Society (1973-1990)
The year 1973 saw the French Oceanographic Campaigns give way to a society humorously named The Associated Sharks, while in the United States the Cousteau Society was created, later based in Norfolk, Virginia.
In 1975, Cousteau found the wreck of the Britannic, Titanic”s sister ship, at a depth of 120 meters. He had to wait until 1976 to dive on the wreck and penetrate its interior. Also in 1975, in December, the Cousteau Society launched an expedition to Antarctica and shot Cousteau”s third and last full-length documentary film, Voyage to the End of the World, which he co-directed with his son Philippe. Although a tragedy occurred during the expedition, the first mate on board Calypso, Michel Laval, was killed on land (on Deception Island) by the tail propeller of the expedition”s helicopter. The filming continued and the film was released in France in November 1976.
On June 28, 1979, during a Calypso mission to Portugal, his second son and designated successor, Philippe, with whom he had co-produced all of his films since 1969, was killed by the propeller of his Catalina seaplane. Cousteau was deeply affected. He then called his eldest son, Jean-Michel, to his side. This collaboration lasted until 1991.
In 1981, Jacques-Yves Cousteau approached the Norfolk City Council to build an “ocean park” whose particularity would be to contain neither aquariums nor live animals. The city was home to the largest naval base in the United States, and the municipality also wanted to promote the Navy”s activities. Cousteau was adamant about the purely civilian concept of the park and did not agree to modify it. The project cost twenty-five million dollars and Cousteau committed five million. The city abandoned the project in 1987 because it considered that the commandant was slow to make his contribution.
In 1985, the oceanographic ship Alcyone was launched in La Rochelle.
These years were rich in awards for Cousteau, with the “Pahlavi Prize” of the United Nations Environment Program received in 1977 with Peter Scott, and then the World 500 Award in 1988.
He became an Officer of the Order of Maritime Merit in 1980 and was awarded the Claude Foussier Prize by the Académie des Sports for his actions to protect nature and the quality of life in 1983. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom and he became Grand Cross of the National Order of Merit. On November 24, 1988, he was elected to the French Academy and succeeded Jean Delay in the 17th chair. His official reception under the dome takes place on June 22, 1989, the response to his speech of reception being delivered by Bertrand Poirot-Delpech. Erik Orsenna succeeded him on May 28, 1998.
On December 1, 1990, Simone Cousteau died of cancer. She was a favorite of the Cousteau team, who nicknamed her “the shepherdess,” and spent more time than her husband aboard Calypso. Cousteau waited seven months before remarrying Francine Triplet on June 28, 1991, with whom he already had two children: Diane Elisabeth in 1979 and Pierre-Yves in 1981. Francine Cousteau became head of The Cousteau Foundation and The Cousteau Society to continue her husband”s work; Jean-Michel Cousteau did the same, later followed by his descendants and those of his brother Philippe. This dissociation became public in 1996, when Jacques-Yves Cousteau, suing Jean-Michel who wished to open a “Cousteau” vacation center in the Fiji Islands, gave interviews in which he had humiliating words for his son.
In 1992, Jacques-Yves Cousteau was the only “non-politician” invited as an expert to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. He then became a regular advisor to the UN and later to the World Bank, as well as president of the Council for the Rights of Future Generations.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau died on June 25, 1997 in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. He bequeathed all and exclusive rights to the use of his name, his image and his work to The Cousteau Society, as well as the mission to continue his work. His death was felt as far away as the United States and Canada, where he was one of the most popular Frenchmen. James Cameron, for example, says he “got his ecological vein” from Cousteau”s films:
“He developed the imagination of a whole generation. I think he had a profound impact on every man on the planet.”
His funeral took place at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris before an audience of renowned personalities, including his family, for once reunited if not reconciled, several of his fellow academics, former Calypso and Navy personnel, and French and foreign politicians, both former and current. He is buried in the family vault in Saint-André-de-Cubzac (Gironde). His city paid tribute to him by inaugurating a “rue du Commandant Cousteau”, which leads to his birthplace (his grandfather”s former pharmacy), and by placing a commemorative plaque on it.
In 2008, more than ten years after his death, he remained the second most influential personality in France, behind Abbé Pierre, and the one who “over the last 20 years, has most often occupied the first place in the JDD Top 50”.
The modern autonomous diving suit
Among the devices and technologies that Cousteau and his friends Dumas and Tailliez tried between 1938 and 1942 were Maurice Fernez”s device with a non-return valve (supplied with surface air by a rubber tube), the hand-adjustable “Le Prieur” regulator and two pure oxygen rebreathers. They abandoned the use of the Fernez apparatus when one day Dumas suffered a rupture of the flexible air supply tube. The “Le Prieur” apparatus did not meet their expectations either, as it had to be manually adjusted to release the compressed air, which at a constant flow rate represented a significant waste of the air supply. As for the pure oxygen devices, Cousteau had them made by Navy armourers, inspired by the Davis rebreather of the Royal Navy. He tried them in 1939, each one on two different occasions, and during each test, having reached depths of seventeen and fifteen meters respectively, he suffered serious symptoms related to hyperoxia and lost consciousness. He survived each time having been assisted by sailors who remained on the surface to help him in case of need. These accidents, each of which resulted in near drowning, were enough for him to stop the experiments with oxygen.
The development of the prototype of the first modern regulator began in December 1942, when Cousteau met Émile Gagnan. Gagnan, an engineer at Air Liquide, had obtained a Rouquayrol-Denayrouze regulator from the Bernard Piel company and adapted it to operate car gasifiers because the German occupiers were requisitioning gasoline. He had filed a patent for a miniaturized bakelite regulator. Henri Melchior, his boss, thought that this regulator could be of service to his son-in-law, Jacques-Yves Cousteau. He put the two men in contact with each other and in 1943 they filed a patent for the modern scuba diver. It was an improvement and a modernization of the patents for the regulator invented by Rouquayrol and Denayrouze in the 19th century and for the cylinders invented at the beginning of the 20th century: the compressed air cylinders of the Air Liquide company are much safer and have a greater air reserve capacity than the iron tank of Rouquayrol and Denayrouze.
Other inventions and innovations
In 1946, he improved the so-called “constant volume” suit (the principle of which already existed), intended for very cold waters. The diver inflates it with air by blowing directly into his mask and thus obtains not only a stabilization system but also an efficient thermal insulation. This garment is the ancestor of the current dry suits.
With the help of Jean Mollard, he creates in the 1950s the “diving saucer (SP-350)”, a two-seater underwater vehicle, piloted by Albert Falco and André Laban, which can reach a depth of 350 m. The successful experiment is quickly repeated in 1965 with two vehicles which can reach 500 m (SP-500).
Inspired by the Magnus effect, he created with the engineer Lucien Malavard the principle of the turbosail which equipped his boat Alcyone.
Philippe Tailliez already had an environmentalist vision of the sea and the Earth, and his frequent visits gradually modified Cousteau”s way of seeing, transforming the gunnery officer into what journalists would later describe as a “missionary of the environment” capable of “marveling the public”, even if he initially found it normal to hunt marine animals in order to produce spectacular images in his films. Moreover, since Cousteau”s oceanographic and cinematographic campaigns took place over more than 50 years (1945-1997), he was able to see for himself the degradation of the environment in situ, precisely measured by the many scientists invited on Calypso and described by Yves Paccalet. Thus, he progressively became an advocate of the environment and used his worldwide fame to promote the idea of “the Earth, a limited and fragile spacecraft, to be preserved”.
Environmental protection actions
In October 1960, 6,500 drums of waste representing 2,000 tons of radioactive waste were to be immersed between Corsica and Antibes by the CEA. Cousteau and Prince Rainier organized a press campaign that moved the population along the Mediterranean. The operation was finally postponed by the French government on October 12 and only twenty drums were immersed, “as an experiment.
The meeting with American television (ABC, Metromedia, NBC) gave birth to the Cousteau team”s Underwater Odyssey series, designed to give the films a “personalized adventure” style rather than a “didactic documentary” style. About them, Cousteau explains: “People protect and respect what they love, and to make them love the sea, you have to amaze them as much as inform them.
In 1973, he created The Cousteau Society in the United States, an organization dedicated to “the protection of aquatic, maritime and river environments for the well-being of present and future generations. In 2011, it claims more than 50,000 members.
In 1983, the signatories of the treaty that had protected Antarctica since 1959 began negotiating the right to exploit the continent”s mineral resources. In 1988, the Wellington Convention provided for the authorization of mining zones. Several NGOs, including Greenpeace, opposed this project and Cousteau also became involved in this cause, particularly following the sinking of the Exxon Valdez. He presented a petition of approximately 1.2 million signatures to the French government, which refused, along with Australia, to sign the convention. In 1990, with six children from six continents, he “came to symbolically take possession of Antarctica in the name of future generations” and established a global protection of the environment in Antarctica for at least fifty years.
The discovery of the underwater world by the general public
Jacques-Yves Cousteau did not define himself as a scientist but as a “sailor, oceanographic and film technician”. He said he loved nature, especially the sea, recognizing that his vision had evolved with the times, from explorer-hunter and fisherman to logistician for scientists and protectors. With his big smile, and through television, he made millions of viewers discover the life of the “blue continent”. His son Jean-Michel said: “It was he who made us discover the beauty of our ocean planet, who made us aware of the determining role of the sea, of its impact on the environment and the climate. He is the one who suggested to us to change our behavior”.
He received several awards for his actions and was invited to the Rio Summit in 1992. Towards the end of his life, he devoted himself to finding positive ways for the future of humanity, writing in particular Man, the Octopus and the Orchid in collaboration with Susan Shiefelbein. But he became a pessimist; he stated to Yves Paccalet: “An earth and a humanity in equilibrium would be a population of one hundred to five hundred million people, but educated and capable of self-sufficiency. The aging of the population is not the problem. It”s a terrible thing to say, but to stabilize the world”s population, we have to lose 350,000 people a day. It”s a terrible thing to say, but not saying anything is even more terrible. Paccalet will go even further in this direction with his book L”Humanité disparaîtra, bon débarras! He remains one of the great figures of the second half of the 20th century for the discovery and exploration of underwater worlds.
According to the testimonies of his close friends, employees and companions, collected by his biographers, Jacques-Yves Cousteau was an extremely lively and sensitive man, spirited and sometimes carefree, a true “animal of action” with a remarkable intelligence, “a formidable gift equal to beauty”, but also with a mood that could be very contrasted, sometimes generous, warm, charming, loving his interlocutors, humanity, the planet… sometimes dry, sharp and contemptuous, capable of displaying her anger in front of journalists, including towards her own son Jean-Michel.
Concerned about his image, Cousteau awkwardly tried to hide the “shadowy areas” of his life, such as the career of his brother Pierre-Antoine (a “feathered anti-Semite”, editor of the collaborationist newspaper Je suis partout, sentenced to death at the Liberation, then pardoned in 1954), his own opinions during the war (those of a whole generation intoxicated by Vichy propaganda), the conditions of the shooting of the films Par dix-huit mètres de fond and Épaves made in 1942-43 under the surveillance and with the agreement of the Kriegsmarine, but also, after the war, his side as a businessman and industrial prospector (1954 campaign in the Persian Gulf for B. P.), his separation from his wife Simone, his second family with Francine Triplet; he was unable to reconcile his two descendants and prevent them from tearing each other apart after him. In spite of his efforts, this information remained accessible to investigators, giving grist to the mill to “unauthorized biographers”.
Since politics risked bringing back these “grey areas”, Cousteau avoided getting involved (in the ranks of the ecologists), stating that he should not take sides because the environment was everyone”s business. This attitude earned him severe criticism.
Finally, scientific mediation by means of books, television and cinema also exposes Cousteau to criticism. He was criticized for having niggers, even though he cited their names and more than one, such as James Dugan (cinema and television demanded that the Calypso crew be portrayed), Cousteau with his red diving cap (and, at the beginning, his pipe), André Laban with his bald head and his cello, Albert Falco, the Cousteau sons… According to Jacques Constans, this was not a cult of personality (or personalities) but, at the request of sponsors such as Ted Turner, a way to get the spectators to “adopt” the team: that”s why, in many of the Cousteau team”s Underwater Odyssey episodes, designed to air on television at dinner time, there is a meal scene in the saloon of the boat. On this point, the audio-visual work of the Cousteau team was also contested:
“It is then that the first protests, which sometimes turn to insults, arise. The commander was summoned to the court of science. Experts, more or less patent, reproach him with loud cries of errors of detail, misleading shortcuts, unspeakable approximations… “.
Thus, many scenes in the film The Silent World (such as the massacre of sharks, the dynamite fishing, the laceration of sperm whales, the destruction of coral, the endangerment of sea turtles, the dubbing of a native of the Maldives or the Seychelles in “French nigger”, or the scene during which two divers fish for lobster at a depth of 60 meters: On the way back, one of them is sent to the decompression chamber to come back up from a deep dive without respecting the decompression stop, and the other one goes to eat the lobsters with the rest of the crew) seem to be criticizable in the eyes of the current Western opinion but did not shock the spectators of 1956, the man-nature relationships being then much more “innocently violent” than at the beginning of the XXIst century.
After his death, his legacy fell victim to the internal but public divisions of his family (old team and descendants of his first wife on one side, new team and descendants of his second wife on the other) which generated on the one hand a legal and media battle about the ownership of the wreck of Calypso and on the other hand the publication of “unauthorized” biographies such as L”Homme, la Pieuvre et l”Orchidée.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau has participated in the making of more than one hundred films and has won several international awards:
Places, roads and institutions named after Cousteau
Cousteau in the movies
The life of Jacques-Yves Cousteau has inspired the following films: