Jacques Cousteau: Undersea Explorer and SCUBA Pioneer

Jacques Cousteau wearing diving gear
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Jacques-Yves Cousteau (June 11, 1910 – June 25, 1997) was a famous underwater explorer and conservationist who played a vital role in the history of scuba diving. He helped to develop the Aqua-Lung, the world's first self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA).

Early Years

Born in France in 1910, Jacques Cousteau was the son of Daniel and Elizabeth Cousteau. He attended boarding school in Alsace, completed preparatory studies at the College Stanislas in Paris, and attended École Navale (the French Naval Academy) in Brest. Cousteau was not a particularly good student, but he had a natural curiosity when it came to water and mechanics.

Cousteau planned to become a naval pilot, but a severe automobile accident that broke both of his arms altered his career trajectory. While in recovery, he spent time swimming to build up his strength. During this period, his fascination with the water was born. 

Notable Accomplishments

Jacques Cousteau explored the surface and the depths of the ocean. Some of his work was possible because of his invention of the Aqua-Lung, which he co-created with engineer Emile Gagnan during the winter of 1942–1943. This invention was instrumental to Cousteau's extended deep sea adventures. It also made it much easier to film underwater expeditions. 

In 1950, Cousteau oversaw the modification of a Calypso, a former mine-sweeper that was transformed into an oceanographic vessel. He spent the next four decades sailing Calypso around the world. Cousteau and his crew visited oceans, seas, and rivers aboard Calypso. 

Cousteau shared his undersea adventures through books and documentaries, which helped to introduce thousands of people to the magic of the ocean and marine ecosystems. But Cousteau didn’t just explore the water, he also worked to protect it through numerous conservation efforts. For example, he helped to prevent the dumping of nuclear waste into the Mediterranean Sea in 1960 and personally encouraged the International Whaling Commission to pass a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986.

Personal Life

Jacques Cousteau married Simone Melchior on July 12, 1937. She was instrumental in his explorations and eventually became the first female scuba diver. Cousteau had two children with Simone named Jean-Michel (born 1938) and Philippe (born 1940). When Simone died in 1990 at the age of 71, Cousteau married his longtime mistress, Francine Triplet, with whom he had two children, Diane (born 1980) and Pierre-Yves (born 1982).

Books and Films

Jacques Cousteau made more than 100 television documentaries, short films and movies. His most famous include Cousteau's Rediscovery of the World and The Cousteau Odyssey. In addition to his filmography, Cousteau published numerous books about the ocean and marine life. His best-known works include The Silent World: A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure and The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteu.

Honors and Awards

Jacques Cousteau earned many honors, awards and distinctions for his work in underwater exploration and marine conservation. Some of the most notable include:

  • National Geographic Society's Special Gold Medal (1961)
  • International Environmental Prize (1977)
  • Grand Cross of the National Order of Merit (1985)
  • US Presidential Medal of Freedom (1985)
  • National Geographic Society’s Centennial Award (1988)
  • Honorary Companion of the Order of Australia (1990)

Death and Legacy

On June 25, 1997, Jacques Cousteau died after having a heart attack in Paris, France. He was 87 years old. He was laid to rest in his family's vault in his hometown, Saint-André-de-Cubzac. Cousteau was mourned by people around the world. His death was commemorated by his hometown with a plaque and the renaming of a street that led to his former house.

Jacques Cousteau's pioneering work as an underwater explorer made countless marine discoveries possible. His inventions are still in use today as scientists and scuba divers explore the depths of the ocean. Cousteau also has a philanthropic legacy: the non-profit group The Cousteau Society, which he created in 1974. The 300,000-member group dedicated to environmental protection, participating in actions such as preventing mineral exploitation in Antarctica.

Jacques Cousteau Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Jacques-Yves Cousteau
  • Nickname: The Captain
  • Known For: Explorer, conservationist and inventor of the first self-contained breathing apparatus (SCUBA)
  • Born: June 11, 1910 in Saint-André-de-Cubzac (Gironde), France 
  • Parents’ Names: Daniel and Elisabeth Cousteau
  • Died: June 25, 1997 in Paris, France
  • Education: Graduated from École Navale (French Naval Academy)
  • Major Published Works: The Undersea Discoveries of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau
  • Key Accomplishments: International Environmental Prize (1977), US Presidential Medal of Freedom (1985), National Geographic Society’s Centennial Award (1988)
  • Spouse Name: Simone Melchior (1937-1990), Francine Triplet (1991-1997)
  • Children's Names: Jean-Michel, Philippe, Diane, Pierre-Yves 
  • Famous Quote: “Pollution of the air or of the land all ultimately ends up in the sea.”
  • Offbeat Fact: In 1960, Cousteau predicted that someday humans would be surgically enhanced with gills so that they could spend extended time underwater.

Sources

  • “Explore 100 Famous Scientist Quotes Pages.” Dictionary of Science Quotations and Scientist Quotes, todayinsci.com/C/Cousteau_Jacques/CousteauJacques-Quotations.htm.
  • “Jacques Cousteau Centennial: What He Did, Why He Matters.” National Geographic, 25 May 2016, news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/06/100611-jacques-cousteau-100th-anniversary-birthday-legacy-google/.
  • “The Captain.” The Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau, www.cousteau.org/english/the-captain.php.