Jacques Cousteau, Ocean Explorer, Born (1910)

A favorite trivia question is, what does “scuba” stand for?  The answer, of course, is self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.  A much better question would be who was the famous co-inventor of scuba?  The answer is the same as the answer to the question who’s the most famous ocean explorer?  Right, Jacques Cousteau.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau (photo by NASA)

            Jacques-Yves Cousteau was born on June 11, 1910, in a small town near Bordeaux, France (died 1997).  Although he was anemic and sickly as a child, he learned to swim at an early age.  He said, “I loved touching water.  Physically.  Sensually.  Water fascinated me.”  Not surprisingly, he enlisted in the French navy.  His attraction was to the air, however, not the water—he trained to be a navy pilot.  But a traffic accident near the end of his training broke both his arms, ending his dreams to fly.  He swam daily in the Mediterranean as physical therapy for his arms, and when, in 1936,  a friend loaned him a pair of goggles for his swim, he saw his future clearly: ”Rocks covered with green, brown and silver forests of algae and fishes unknown to me, swimming in crystalline water. Sometimes we are lucky enough to know that our lives have been changed, to discard the old, embrace the new, and run headlong down an immutable course. It happened to me on that summer’s day, when my eyes were opened on the sea.”

            World War II delayed his sea adventures for a time.  He was a gunnery officer for the Navy and later served as a spy in Italy for the French Resistance (his heroics earned him the Legion of Honour Award from the French people).  As the war ended, he convinced the navy to let him lead an Undersea Research Group that swept harbors and shipping lanes for mine.

            In 1943, he began working with an engineer, Emile Gagnan, to free divers from heavy, constraining, and surfaced-tethered diving gear.  Compressed air-tanks had been perfected for wartime use, with one-way valves to control air flow.  Cousteau and Gagnan adapted the tanks for underwater use, patenting the “Aqua-lung,” that we now call scuba, in 1946.  They also invented a waterproof case for cameras that could descend hundreds of feet.

Cousteau in 1948, during his early years of ocean diving (photo by Philippe Tailiez)

            Armed with an Aqua-lung and movie camera, Cousteau began the work for which he became famous.  Although not trained as an oceanographer, he explored the world’s oceans with the eyes of both a scientist and an artist.  He became, as eulogized at his death, “the Rachel Carson of the oceans.”  His first book, The Silent World, published in 1953, sold more than 5 million copies and has been translated into 22 languages.  A movie of the same name expanded his fame—and public appreciation of the oceans—even more.  He renovated a World War 2 minesweeper into an oceanographic research vessel that he named Calypso and sailed to all corners of the world’s oceans.  He made 120 documentaries about the ocean (including 9 seasons of the U.S. based “The Undersea World of Jacque Cousteau”), wrote more than 50 books, received several Oscars and the Palm d’Or.  He was a “popularizer of genius.”

            During his long career, Cousteau’s accomplishments went well beyond producing movies and publishing books.  He headed Monaco’s Oceanographic Institute for more than 30 years.  His early work with scuba demonstrated its utility for salvaging ancient artifacts, establishing the field of underwater archeology.  He invented the aqua-disk, a one-person submarine.  He experimented with long-term underwater habitation, in both shallow and deep water.

Cousteau’s famous research vessel, Calypso, in Montreal in 1980 (photo by Rene Beauchamp)

            He used his mastery of mass media to spread the need for conservation of the oceans and the earth as a whole.  In 1974, he founded the Cousteau Society, a U.S.-based non-profit group dedicated to “the protection and improvement of the quality of life for present and future generations.”  He considered himself not an “ecologist for the animals,” but “an ecologist for people.”  He was outspoken about what he felt were the fundamental problems facing our future.  “You see a beer can and you pick it up.  You think you’ve done a great thing for the environment….But these are just symptoms of our sickness….It is the economic system that confuses price and value.  This confusion causes us to hurt and deplete our natural resources and damage the environment we are living in.” 

            Cousteau lived by a principle that drove him for all his 87 years on earth.  In English it reads, “We must go and see for ourselves.”  He went everywhere to see for himself, especially to the depths of the oceans.  As John Denver sang in his elegy to Cousteau, Calypso, “Aye Calypso the places you’ve been to; The things that you’ve shown us; The stories you tell; Aye Calypso, I sing to your spirit….”  (learn more about John Denver here). May I suggest that we follow Cousteau’s example—and go see a bit of the outdoors, today!


Cousteau Society.  About the Cousteau Society.  Available at:  https://web.archive.org/web/20090122055053/http://cousteau.org/about.html.  Accessed February 24, 2020.

Encyclopedia Britannica.  Jacques Cousteau, French Ocean Explorer and Engineer.  Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/technology/transportation-technology. Accessed February 24, 2020.

Kraft, Scott.  1995.  Lose Angeles Times Interview:  Jacques Cousteau:  A Lifetime Spent Fighting for the Environment.  Los Angeles Times, Oct. 1, 1995.  Available at:  https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1995-10-01-op-52539-story.html

Accessed February 24, 2020.

Jonas, Gerald.  1997.  Jacques Cousteau, Oceans’ Impressario, Dies.  The New York times, June 26, 1997.  Available at:  https://www.nytimes.com/1997/06/26/world/jacques-cousteau-oceans-impresario-dies.html. Accessed February 24, 2020.

Sea and Sky.  Meet the Ocean Explorers – Jacques Cousteau.  Available at:  http://www.seasky.org/ocean-exploration/ocean-explorers-jacques-cousteau.html. Accessed February 24, 2020.

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 16
Alvaro Uglade, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 17
Sombath Somphone, Laotian Environmentalist, Born (1952)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 18
World Pangolin Day
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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