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Jacques Cousteau
1910 - 1997



Jacques-Yves was born in Saint-Andre-de-Dubzac, France, to Daniel and Elizabeth Cousteau on June 11, 1910. Cousteau always loved the water and in his early teens, he became interested in machines. At the age of 11, Cousteau built a model crane and at 13, he built a battery-operated car. Also in his early teens, Cousteau became fascinated with films. He saved his money and bought a home movie camera.

In high school, Cousteau became bored with school and began to cause trouble. As a result, his parents sent him to a strict boarding school. Cousteau excelled in this new environment and upon graduation, he entered the Ecole Navale (Naval Academy) in Brest. In 1933, Cousteau joined the French Navy as a gunnery officer. It was during this time that he began his underwater explorations and began working on a breathing machine for longer dives.

In 1937, Cousteau married Simone Melchoir, and they had two sons, Jean-Michel and Phillipe. Two years after their marriage, Cousteau fought for the French in World War II. He spent time as a spy and was awarded several medals. During the war, Cousteau still found time to continue his underwater work. In 1943, he and French engineer Emile Gagnan perfected the aqualung, which allowed a diver to stay underwater for several hours. Divers used the aqualung to located and remove enemy mines after World War II.

Cousteau was named a capitaine de corvette of the French navy in 1948, and two years later he became president of the French Oceanographic Campaigns. That same year, Cousteau purchased the ship Calypso to further his explorations. To finance his trips and increase public awareness of his undersea investigations, Cousteau produced numerous films and published many books. His films include The Silent World (1956) and World Without Sun (1966). Both won Academy Awards for best documentary. His books include The Living Sea (1963), Dolphins (1975), and Jacques Cousteau: The Ocean World (1985).

Because of his many projects, Cousteau retired from the French navy. In 1957, he became director of the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco, founded the Underseas Research Group at Toulon, and headed the Conshelf Saturation Dive Program. The Conshelf program was an experiment in which men lived and worked underwater for extended periods of time.

In 1968, Cousteau was asked to make a TV series. For the next 8 years, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau introduced the public to a world of sharks, whales, dolphins, sunken treasure, and coral reefs. In 1974, Cousteau started the Cousteau Society to protect ocean life. The membership of this non-profit group has grown to include more than 300,000 members worldwide. Cousteau was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Reagan in 1985 and in 1989, he was honored by France with membership in the French Academy.

On January 11, 1996 the Calypso sank in Singapore harbor. In his last years, Cousteau was involved in a legal battle with his son, Jean-Michael over the use of the Cousteau name. Cousteau died on June 25, 1997.


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.











This web page was last updated on: 09 December, 2008