Jacques Cousteau

Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910-1997) was an undersea explorer, photographer, inventor of diving devices, writer, television producer, and filmmaker. He was also active in the movement to safeguard the oceans from pollution.

"Calypso acquired a buoyant personality that has never left her. I decided from the beginning that those on board were companions in the adventure, whatever their jobs might be. There was no officers' mess; we all ate together. During the tumultuous and jocose mealtimes we discussed plans, made decisions, and learned from each other. No one shouted orders, and no one wore anything resembling a uniform. Pride of outfit began to develop, expressed in customs of our own."

On her first research voyage to the Red Sea the maritime and diving expertise of her crew was combined with the scientific expertise of academic scientists who came aboard. These expeditions advanced knowledge of the deep by the gathering of underwater flora and fauna and by extensive photographing of the underwater world, which is more vast than the surface above water. In this work Captain Cousteau and his companions achieved remarkable success, especially in very deep water photography. They discovered, by using nylon rope, a means of anchoring Calypso in water four and half miles deep in order to lower a camera to that depth.

When the French Ministry of Education finally provided grants to cover two-thirds of the expenses, Cousteau resigned from the navy in 1957 with the rank of lieutenant commander to become director of the Oceanographic Museum at Monaco. He continued deep-sea exploration, aided by the bathyscaphe invented by Auguste and Jacques Piccard. He was also an adviser to the team that in 1959 made a "diving saucer" which resembled a flying saucer. For him the undersea world was the counterpart of the spatial world above and just as precious.

In 1960 Cousteau was an important initiator of the movement to prevent the dumping of French atomic wastes into the Mediterranean Sea. This movement ended in success and, mindful of the rich resources of large bodies of water, encouraged him to state, "Why do we think of the ocean as a mere storehouse of food, oil, and minerals? The sea is not a bargain basement. … The greatest resource of the ocean is not material but the boundless spring of inspiration and well-being we gain from her. Yet we risk poisoning the sea forever just when we are learning her science, art, and philosophy and how to live in her embrace." Modern civilization has become disastrous. "Never before has the marine environment been as raped and poisoned at it is today. All the urban and industrial effluents of 500 million Europeans and Africans flow freely—practically without treatment—into the Mediterranean, a near-closed sea that was once the cradle of civilization. Millions of tons of toxic chemicals are either dumped directly into the ocean or find their way there indirectly by way of river pollution or rain."

Throughout his life, Cousteau enjoyed much recognition for his tireless advocacy of ocean ecology. In 1959 he addressed the first World Oceanic Congress, an event that received widespread coverage and led to his appearance on the cover of Time magazine on March 28, 1960. In April of 1961 Cousteau was awarded the National Geographic's Gold Medal at a White House ceremony hosted by President John F. Kennedy. It was Cousteau's television programs, however, that truly catapulted his work to world renown. In 1966 Cousteau's first hour-long television special, The World of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, was broadcast and received critical acclaim. The program's high ratings were instrumental in landing Cousteau a lucrative contract with the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) and in 1968 resulted in the series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. The program ran for eight seasons and starred Cousteau, his sons, Philippe and Jean-Michel, and sea creatures from around the globe. In order to arouse public opinion against pollution he founded in 1975 the Cousteau Society, an international organization with branches in several countries (including the United States at Norfolk, Virginia). Two years later the Cousteau Odyssey series premiered on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and reflected Cousteau's growing concern about environmental destruction. During the 1980s Cousteau produced programs on the St. Lawrence and Mississippi rivers, and called attention to threatened South American cultures with his Cousteau Amazon series. In all, Cousteau's television programs earned him more than forty Emmy nominations.

In honor of his achievements, Cousteau received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985. In 1987 he was inducted into the Television Academy's Hall of Fame and later received the founder's award from the International Council of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. In 1988 the National Geographic Society honored him with its Centennial Award and in 1989 France admitted him to membership in its prestigious Academy.

Cousteau died on June 25, 1997 at age 87. While some critics have challenged his scientific credentials, Cousteau never claimed "expert status" in any discipline. But perhaps to a greater degree than any of his more learned contemporaries, Cousteau enlightened the public by emphatically demonstrating the irreversible effects of environmental destruction.

Cousteau's major publications include: (with F. Dumas) The Silent World (1953); (with James Dugan) The Living Sea (1963); World Without Sun (1965); (with Philippe Cousteau) The Shark: Splendid Savage of the Sea (1970); Life and Death in a Coral Sea (1971); and Dolphins (1975). His other books dealt with sunken ships, corals, whales, octopi, and seals, as well as places explored by his divers. He also edited an encyclopedia, The Ocean World, in 20 volumes.


Further Reading on Jacques-Yves Cousteau

Cousteau's books contain many facts about his activities and ideas. Also useful for information about his career are James Dugan, Undersea Explorer: The Story of Captain Cousteau (1957) and Muriel Guberlet, Explorers of the Sea (1964). J. Cousteau and Alexis Sivirine, Jacques Cousteau's Calypso (1983) provides a detailed description of the ship, well illustrated.