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Jacques-Yves Cousteau, 87 years of Exploration

Our Tribute to Jacques-Yves Cousteau
Jacques-Yves Cousteau
The door to the private suite in the American Museum of Television and Radio in New York City opened and there he was. He looked frail, his trademark white hair whiter than we remembered from TV. And he looked small, smaller than we thought. Jacques Cousteau certainly looked his age. Suddenly, his face broke into the famous smile, his eyes warm with friendliness, and his hands extended towards us. We had finally met the man whose exploits we had followed so closely since childhood.

Jacques Cousteau was born June 11, 1910 in a small town called St.-Andre’-de-Cubzac, which is north of Bordeaux in France. Cousteau always had a fascination with the sea and with the art of film making and it would be these two interests that would shape his life forever. He began a production company at the age of 16 which produced numerous films, often with Cousteau himself playing the part of the villain in these silent pictures. He joined the French Navy in 1930 because of his “love for water and desire to travel and see the world.” However, in 1935, a serious automobile accident left him partially paralyzed without the use of his arms. After 8 months of intensive therapy, Cousteau regained the mobility in his arms and he began to focus his attention on the underwater world.

In 1936, Cousteau pioneered the use of waterproof housings for movie cameras and he shot his first underwater film. It was in 1943, though, that Cousteau made what many consider to be his greatest contribution to the effort of underwater exploration. Working with Emile Gagnon, Cousteau developed the first SCUBA (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) regulator and, suddenly, mankind was free to “stay longer, go deeper” and capture on film what he saw. For generations to come, the Oceans would now be accessible to many and the sport of SCUBA diving was born.

In 1950, the next step in Cousteau’s dream was fulfilled when he acquired the Calypso, a former minesweeper, and converted her to an oceanographic vessel dedicated to exploring the ocean for scientific purposes. The Calypso would faithfully serve Cousteau for 46 years, until she would sink in a boating accident in Singapore Harbor early in 1996. Calypso’s maiden voyage, however, in 1950 would take Cousteau to the Red Sea to study Coral Reefs.

Cousteau now turned his attention to filming and exploring the world’s oceans. He published his first book, the Silent World, in 1953, and received an Academy Award in 1956 for Best Documentary for the film version of this book. His other accomplishments include the development of the first watertight 35mm still camera, the invention of self-righting underwater sleds for filming in deep water and the modification of torpedoes to be used as underwater scooters to allow divers to cover greater distances.

Cousteau’s exploration continued into the 1960s with experiments in saturation diving and further developments in the art of underwater film. In 1968, however, Cousteau launched a television series titled The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. The 36 episodes in this series were aired between 1968 and 1976 and introduced millions of people to the underwater world. Through the use of television, Cousteau was able to take his fans around the world with him as he studied Sperm Whales off Portugal’s Azore Islands, explored the great Blue Hole of Belize, unlocked the mysteries of sleeping sharks off the Yucatan coast of Mexico and journeyed to the enchanting Antarctic.

Captain Cousteau continued his explorations in 1979 by launching a series of extensive expeditions to the world’s great river systems, including the Amazon and Mississippi Rivers. By now, he had created The Cousteau Society, based in the United States and designed to mobilize public support for protecting the Earth’s resources, and the Fondation Cousteau, in Paris. He also pioneered the development of wind driven vessels which used Turbosail technology and christened the Alcyone, the latest addition to his fleet.

In 1985, Cousteau, in association with Turner Broadcasting, launched an around-the-world expedition and produced a number of films in a series titled The Rediscovery of the World. Films were produced on such diverse locations as Haiti, French Polynesia, Alaska, Cocos Island, Thailand and New Zealand.

Cousteau continues to be a strong advocate for the protecting the Earth’s resources. In 1991, he began an ambitious effort to petition the United nations to adopt a Bill of Rights for Future Generations. The purpose of this is to guarantee every child his/her right to inherit an uncontaminated planet. In 1992, Cousteau addressed the World Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and, in 1994, addressed the UN Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. Cousteau continues to plan for the future and has announced plans for a successor to the fabled Calypso, named Calypso II.

Jacques Cousteau has led a storied and adventurous life. He has made numerous contributions to the exploration of the environment and has captured on film some of the most astonishing spectacles in the world of nature. He has received a multitude of awards throughout his life and is recognized as a true pioneer. Meeting him is difficult, as, even today, he is constantly on the move. His life work of exploring and protecting the world’s environment is fueled by an intense drive on his part which is unequaled. At the age of 86, Cousteau still journeys around the globe at a pace that would tire men half his age. He has continued to dive into his eighties, a physical accomplishment not to be overlooked. When we learned of his upcoming appearance at New York’s Museum of Television and Radio to receive an award honoring him for his work, we leaped into action!

The awards evening was scheduled for an April evening. After ensuring we had tickets to the event by rushing through the streets of Manhattan in a snow storm in February, we contacted the Cousteau Society and began our attempts at arranging a meeting with the man who had so inspired us throughout our lives. After many phones calls, we had succeeded in gaining an appointment to meet Cousteau briefly after the show. We waited in great anticipation as the night approached.

After a moving awards presentation, during which Cousteau adroitly answered questions from the audience, the show was over. Along with a small group of family and friends, we were then led behind the scenes to a private suite, where Cousteau was beginning to enjoy a small party in his honor. We only had 15 minutes or so and this was enough time to meet the man, shake his hand and pose for a few cherished photographs. These treasured photographs will be our only personal reminder of the time we met one of the world’s last great explorers.

Cousteau died at the age of 87 on June 25, 1997 of a heart attack while recovering from a respiratory illness.

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The World of Jacques Cousteau
Flashback Scuba Online Virtual Museum

Flashback Scuba
This gallery showcases over three years of original research conducted by Ryan Spence from FLASHBACK Scuba. You will see rare & never before published images as well as original equipment. The majority of the photos and equipment are from Ryan's personal collection. Note: ALL content on this site cannot be copied unless permission is granted.

Museum Homepage | Jacques Cousteau Museum

  • Journey to the Silent World (1942-1956)
  • World Without Sun: The Conshelf Years (1955- 1972)
  • The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau (1966-1976)
  • The Cousteau Odyssey (1977-1982)
  • Rediscovery of the World (1986-1999)
  • The Cousteau Society Gallery Hampton VA

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Last update on: July 24, 2010

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