Legends of Scuba Diving: Jacques-Yves Cousteau
Cousteau was born in Gironde, France, and following university studies in Paris, he joined the French Air Force, planning to become a pilot. A car accident, however, altered his destiny, and meant that he didn’t meet the physical requirements, so he transferred to the Navy. He was stationed on a vessel in Toulon in the Mediterranean, and a friend of his, Philippe Tailliez, lent him an early version of swimming goggles, with which he would explore the local waters. Tailliez also worked with Cousteau on his first documentary film, 18 Meters Deep, made without breathing apparatus.
Cousteau took a keen interest in the underwater world, and during World War II went on to experiment with a self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA), which was easier to use than the oxygen rebreathers that were the only option at the time. Along with Emile Gagnan he developed the idea of breathing ordinary surface air, compressed and stored in pressurized tanks, a relatively new concept at the time. It was also during this time that he pioneered underwater documentaries, the milieu in which he would later become a legend, by inventing one of the world’s first underwater cameras able to withstand pressure at depth.
Eventually, Cousteau and Gagnan perfected the design of what they called the “aqua-lung,” the predecessor of the modern scuba unit. With this, they, along with Tailliez, undertook several expeditions in the Mediterranean, and eventually, in other parts of the world. In 1950 they leased a decommissioned British minesweeper, which, after considerable modifications, became the famous explorer vessel, the Calypso. It was on this ship that Cousteau undertook his most famous expeditions, depicted in his TV shows and films.
Cousteau and his teams were among the first to dive in places such as the Red Sea and the Sea of Cortez, and they both discovered and re-discovered many long-lost wrecks. Cousteau also fathered four children during his two marriages, many of which have also become underwater explorers and advocates, as have a number of his grandchildren.
In the 1980s, Cousteau became increasingly concerned about the state of the world’s oceans, and many of his articles, books, and TV productions took on an environmental message, urging for better protection of the oceans. He continued this work until his death in Paris in 1997.
As can be expected with someone as well known as Cousteau, he has not been without controversy. Other submarine explorers have accused him of stealing the world’s attention, and perhaps not sharing the limelight with other, equally deserving, explorers. He also had a tendency to keep his discoveries to himself, including the location of several wrecks, such as the Thistlegorm, rather than sharing them with the dive community. Other controversy involves practices early in his work that are not what we’d consider sustainable or ethical today. Cousteau himself acknowledged this controversy, stating that when he first undertook marine exploration, many common practices were based on ignorance, but that he, as others, changed these practices once their ramifications become known.
Probably the most common controversy surrounding Cousteau centers on his mantle as the “inventor of scuba diving.” No one person can lay claim to inventing scuba diving though, as modern scuba is the result of the work of many pioneers, of which Cousteau was definitely one. However, if we revisit some of his work, he says himself that he did not invent his aqua-lung alone, as well as acknowledging that other experiments were going on elsewhere in the world.
Whatever one’s opinion of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, it’s difficult to argue that modern scuba diving would be anywhere near where it is today without him, both through the invention of the aqua-lung and the popularization of a sport that’s piqued the world’s curiosity ever since.