Jacques-Yves Cousteau was born in the village of Saint-André-de-Cubzac, in southwestern France, on June 11 1910. The younger of two sons born to Daniel and Elizabeth Cousteau, he suffered from stomach problems and anemia as a young child. At age 4, Cousteau learned to swim and started a lifelong fascination with water. As he entered adolescence, he showed a strong curiosity for mechanical objects and upon purchasing a movie camera, he took it apart to understand how it operated.
They had two sons, Jean-Michel and Phillipe. Both sons, in time, would join their father in underwater world expeditions. Simone died in 1990 and one year later, the senior Cousteau married Francine Triplet, with whom he had a daughter and son (born while Cousteau was married to Simone).
During World War II, when Paris fell to the Nazis, Jacques Cousteau and his family took refuge in the small town of Megreve, near the Swiss border. For the first few years of the war, he quietly continued his underwater experiments and explorations. In 1943 he met Emile Gagnan, a French engineer who shared his passion for discovery. Around this time, compressed air cylinders were invented and Cousteau and Gagnan experimented with snorkel hoses, body suits and breathing apparatus.
In time, they developed the first aqua-lung device allowing divers to stay underwater for long periods of time. Cousteau was also instrumental in the development of a waterproof camera that could withstand the high pressure of deep water. During this time, Cousteau made two documentaries on underwater exploration, ‘Par dix-huit mètres de fond’ (“18 Meters Deep”) and ‘Épaves’ (“Shipwrecks”).
During the war, Cousteau joined the French Resistance movement, spying on Italian armed forces and documenting troop movements. Cousteau was recognized for his resistance efforts and awarded several medals, including the Legion of Honor from France. After the war, Cousteau worked with the French navy to clear underwater mines. Between missions, he continued his underwater explorations performing various tests and filming the underwater excursions.
In 1948, Cousteau, along with Philippe Tailliez and expert divers and academic scientists, undertook an underwater expedition in the Mediterranean Sea to find the Roman shipwreck ‘Mahdia’. This was the first underwater archaeology operation using self-contained diving apparatus and marked the beginning of underwater archeology.
In 1950, Jacques Cousteau leased a one-time British minesweeper and converted it into an oceanographic research vessel he named ‘Calypso’.
After struggling for financing to conduct his voyages, Cousteau soon realized he needed to attract media attention to make people aware of what he was doing and why it was so important. In 1953, he published the book ‘The Silent World’, which was later made into an award-winning film.
This success allowed him to finance another expedition to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean sponsored by the French government and the National Geographic Society. During the rest of the decade, Cousteau conducted several expeditions and brought more attention to mysteries and attractions the underwater world.
In 1966, Jacques Cousteau launched his first hour-long television special, “The World of Jacques-Yves Cousteau” on the ABC television network. In 1968, he produced the television series ‘The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau’, which ran for nine seasons. Millions of people followed Cousteau and his crew traversing the globe presenting intimate exposés of marine life and habitat. It was during this time that Cousteau began to realize how human activity was destroying the oceans.
Jacques Cousteau also wrote several books, including ‘The Shark’ in 1970, ‘Dolphins’ in 1975, and ‘Jacques Cousteau: The Ocean World’ in 1985. With his increased celebrity and the support of many, Cousteau founded the Cousteau Society in 1973, in an effort to raise awareness of the ecosystems of the underwater world. The organization quickly grew and soon boasted 300,000 members worldwide.
In the 80’s, Cousteau continued to produce television specials, but these had a more environmental message and a plea for stronger protection of oceanic wildlife habitat. In June 1979, tragedy struck when Cousteau’s son, Philippe Cousteau, was killed in a plane crash. According to a 1979 article by ‘The Associated Press’, Philippe had been flying the plane during a test flight, and when he attempted to land, the plane clipped a sandbank and crashed into Portugal’s Tagus River.
On January 8, 1996, ‘Calypso’ was accidentally rammed by barge and sank in Singapore Harbor. Jacques Cousteau tried to raise money to build a new vessel, but died unexpectedly in Paris on June 25 1997, at the age of 87. His estate and the foundation fell into dispute among his survivors. Most of the legal disputes were settled by 2000, when his son, Jean-Michel, disassociated himself from the Cousteau Society and formed his own organization the Oceans Futures Society.