Jacques Cousteau is one of, if not the most influential person in the history of exploring the underwater realm. Born 11th June 1910 to a French family, he had been fascinated by the underwater world all his life. He decided, alongside one of his friends Marcel Ichac during the Second World War, that they wanted to open up to the general public new and undiscovered locations.
For Ichac he wanted to explore the mountains whereas Cousteau was fascinated by the oceans. Cousteau had always wanted to be in the Navy until he unfortunately had a car accident and decided to take on his other passion which was underwater adventuring.
Having tried out earlier models of the Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus – S.C.U.B.A as it is known today – created by Yves le Prieur in 1926, he felt it didn’t allow the user enough time underwater.
Alongside French engineer Émile Gagnan, Cousteau designed a prototype for the modern day Scuba Cylinder and demand valve regulator.
A demand valve regulator means with every inhalation you take, air is delivered to you, whereas before the demand valve there was a switch that would open the tank and deliver your air. This was obviously unsafe as there could be problems with the switch not opening and also there was wasted air because excess air escaped through the mask.
Cousteau’s design eradicated this, meaning you could spend more time underwater with extra safety.
Underwater Propulsion Vehicles
In 1943 Jacques Cousteau tested out his S.C.U.B.A for the first time and spent unparalleled time underwater.
Although still to introduce a Buoyancy Control Device (BCD), this was still the first step towards what we now know as modern day scuba diving and obviously contributed immensely to enabling both you and I to participate in our PADI Open Water Diver course.
Without the BCD, Cousteau could only use the volume of his lungs and small amounts of weights to descend underwater, as well as a little more kicking than we would do today.
Cousteau is also seen using the earlier types of Diver Propulsion Vehicles (DPV) which allowed him to get around underwater a lot quicker.
We still use them today, although they are a lot more advanced and PADI offers a training course, the PADI Diver Propulsion Vehicle specialty course, that will help you learn more.
Cousteau also created an underwater “diving saucer” – as he called it, which was a first generation recreational submarine. He used this submarine to film documentaries, sometimes down to depths of 350 metres. Nine years later Cousteau created two other submersible vehicles that could reach depths of 500 metres. He filmed documentaries specifically about marine life found in the deep.
After having finished the SCUBA unit, Cousteau embarked on many underwater activities that interested him. He bought Calypso, a converted U.S. minesweeper, set sail on the Red Sea and completed many ecological dives, discovering and studying different species of fish that live on the coral reefs.
Unfortunately at first he used alternative methods to what we use today that are not eco-friendly such as using dynamite, which as we now know, is not the best way to preserve the reef.
In October 1960, a large amount of radioactive waste was going to be dumped in the Mediterranean Sea by the Commissariat à l’énergie Atomique (CEA), but Cousteau organised a public campaign and women and children sat on railway tracks to stop the train containing the waste.
In recognition of all his contributions to the diving world, in 1977 together with Peter Scott, Cousteau received the UN International Environment prize. In the years to follow, he acquired many more awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Legion of Honor, Founder’s Gold Medal and an International Emmy Award.
Film Documentaries and Recognition
Wanting to share his passion with the world, Jacques Cousteau documented his work in the form of films and underwater documentary television series, the first of which ran for ten years.
His legacy includes more than 120 television documentaries and short films, more than 50 books, an environmental protection foundation with 300,000 members, 4 books written about him and a number of Academy and Emmy awards for his work.
Cousteau led the world into unknown territories and enlightened all of us, as scuba divers, on the beauty of the underwater world. He was a showman, a teacher and an environmental ambassador with a passion for nature.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau died of a heart attack on June 25th at his home in Paris, aged 87.
The Cousteau society is still very active today and is attempting to make the original Calypso into a museum to continue his Legacy.
Author: Matt Bolton (PADI CD #463559)