If you’re like me, you have a somewhat vague understanding of Jacques Cousteau: a French guy who started the watchman’s cap trend, narrated nature films better than David Attenborough, and had something to do with ocean exploration. Oh, and a loopy Bill Murray plays a character loosely based on him in a Wes Anderson film. And sure, I always suspected there was a lot more to him—there’s a reason a guy born in 1910 found his way into a 1990s-kid’s cultural conscious. But finally diving in (pun intended) to his legacy of invention, education and exploration taught me that Cousteau was one of the most versatile public figures in conservation, period. He pioneered the sport of diving, did critical research about ocean life (Cousteau was the first to propose that whales communicate and navigate by echolocation), and, through his documentary work, gave much of the world their first glimpse into the wetter half of our world.
The legendary Captain Cousteau spent his earliest years in Saint-André-de-Cubzac, a French town near Bordeaux, and moved stateside briefly when he was a pre-teen, where he learned to speak English. A troublemaker with a penchant for swimming, snorkeling, and taking machines apart to figure out how they work (he did this with his first camera, when he was a teen), Cousteau’s wide-ranging interests as a kid speak to his diverse accomplishments as an adult. Cousteau entered the French Naval Academy in 1930 and the subsequent years were turbulent, including a failed career as a pilot due to injuries sustained in a serious car crash and, of course, World War II. However, his naval training and recovery from his injury (which included lots of swimming) helped Cousteau build the skills he’d need for his career as an ocean explorer, and the diving he did during those years, wearing aviation goggles as a proto-swim goggle, opened his eyes to the vast and enchanting world under the surface of the ocean. Passion born and techniques honed, he began to explore that underwater world, camera in hand, in 1942. The first film he made, 18 Meters Deep, filmed with a friend in the Mediterranean, won an arts award.
One of the crowning achievements of Cousteau’s career, the co-invention of the diving regulator, came out of necessity. Diving equipment in the earlier half of the 20th century didn’t allow divers to spend much time underwater, because flow from the air tanks was inconsistent and unregulated. After experimenting with breathing pure oxygen (which left him unconscious at 45 feet underwater), Cousteau teamed up with French engineer Émile Gagnan, who had invented a regulator for gas flow in engines. Together, they patented the Aqua-Lung, which limited the flow of air to only when a diver breathed in, and set the industry standard for breathing devices. The new invention dramatically streamlined diving equipment, allowing increased freedom of movement and giving divers more sustained time underwater.
After setting records for deep free dives and conducting underwater research for the Navy, Cousteau left the service in 1956 and pursued a career as a documentary filmmaker and captain of the Calypso, his research vessel. In need of funds to conduct his research (a philanthropist leased him the vessel for the symbolic price of 1 franc a year), Cousteau co-authored his first book, The Silent World, in 1953. His first color documentary, released in 1956, bore the same name. With it, he captivated the world. Diving exploded, and an understanding that an entire, vibrant, alien world existed just beneath the waves began to catch on. It also earned him his first Academy Award. He continued to make films, winning his second Academy Award for his documentary The Golden Fish, and a third for a documentary about establishing livable ocean-floor bases called World Without Sun.
Like underwater space stations, these underwater bases, called Conshelfs, were habitable and allowed divers to spend weeks at a time underwater conducting research. Cousteau eventually abandoned the project, which was in part funded by French oil companies hoping to eventually drill on the ocean floor.
As he gained traction as a filmmaker and public figure and began to understand the threat to our oceans posed by climate change and continued industrial development, Cousteau turned his focus fully to conservation. Notably, he helped spearhead a movement to stop the French government from dumping nuclear waste into the Mediterranean Sea in 1960 and played a key role in restricting commercial whaling. His children and grandchildren have continued his fight to protect our oceans after his death in 1997. At left is Cousteau with his granddaughter, Alexandra, in the late 1970s.
His track record was far from perfect when he devoted himself fully to environmentalism; in The Silent World, a sperm whale and sharks are killed on camera by the crew, and Cousteau’s early films perpetuated the myth that the ocean is endlessly bountiful, an boundless world unalterable by man. Later in his life, though, he refused to sweep his early mistakes under the rug and used them as teachable moments for himself and his vast audience, a symbol of how far we’ve come in our understanding of good stewardship of the oceans.
Beyond making huge strides in undersea exploration, inventing critical diving technology, and doing groundbreaking research about oceanic life, Cousteau pioneered a form of storytelling that lets plant and animal life take center stage. Not “how do plants and animals make man feel?” or “how might they connect to and inform human emotion and experience?” but truly: “What is it like for a shark, or a dolphin, or a coral reef? How do they survive? What mysteries might they hold?” By placing human experience aside, Cousteau invited a mentality typically only represented in scientific fields into mainstream storytelling, and helped shape the way we understand the natural world: as a thriving ecosystem worth more than what it can offer to the human species, one with thousands of stories of its own to share.
Photos courtesy Alexandra Cousteau