By Cathy Hunter, Renee Braden, and Krista Mantsch
First in a three-part series commemorating Jacques Cousteau
“The sea is everything. It covers seven-tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is pure and healthy. It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides. The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the ‘Living Infinite’ … In it is supreme tranquility…. There only is independence! There I recognize no masters! There I am free!” – Captain Nemo, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Such were the sentiments of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, French inventor, engineer, explorer, naturalist, poet, and ultimately prophet. For decades he served as a guide to the undersea world, exerting an influence on the popular imagination like no one else.
“I was four or five years old when I became interested in water,” Cousteau often said. “I loved touching water.” But it was not until he was in the French Naval Academy and training to be a pilot that Cousteau suffered the debilitating automobile accident that would turn his attention fully to the sea. Coaxed by a colleague, he began to swim in the ocean to speed his rehabilitation.
By the summer of 1936 he was spending most of his free time at the beach, and it wasn’t long before he and his friends were using goggles to see better underwater and he was adapting his camera for underwater use.
One limitation to their sport was the necessity of holding their breath when plunging deep underwater. Cousteau was nothing if not inventive, and when faced with a challenge he set out to overcome it. So in the grimmest days of World War II, in the heart of occupied France, Cousteau and an engineer named Emile Gagnan perfected a device that allowed compressed air to be conveyed on demand to a diver’s lungs, always at the correct depth pressure.
Thus was born the Aqua-Lung, the first Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, or scuba. Freely swimming among the fantastic forms and colorful creatures of the underwater world became Cousteau’s passion. Soon Cousteau and his friends were proving the utility of the Aqua-Lung, initially on behalf of the French resistance and, following the war, by making lengthy dives to sunken warships and removing live torpedoes and armed mines.
The next step was inevitable: Using their new freedom to explore the uncharted realms underwater. Various French scientific institutions lent Cousteau support. In Malta, he acquired a surplus 142-foot World War II minesweeper, transforming her into a modern oceangoing research vessel, complete with scientific laboratories, a diving well, and an underwater observation chamber. She was named Calypso for a sea nymph in Homer’s Odyssey.
Discovering that refitting and running an oceanographic research vessel was expensive, Cousteau started casting about for extra funding. He found the publicity he needed in the United States.
For its November 27, 1950, issue, Life magazine presented a spread of dramatic black-and-white pictures, called “Underwater Wonders,” made by and of Cousteau and his team. However, Cousteau had started to move beyond black-and-white underwater photography and was experimenting with color, with promising results. It was at that point that National Geographic began to sit up and take notice.
Other posts in this series:
In collaboration with the Cousteau Society and in recognition of the hundredth anniversary of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s birth on June 11, 2010, National Geographic Fellow and marine ecologist Enric Sala has set sail aboard Cousteau’s ship Alcyone with the legendary marine explorer’s youngest son, Pierre-Yves Cousteau. The expedition will reexamine undersea Mediterranean destinations visited and documented by Jacques Cousteau more than half a century ago. Learn more about the expedition and explore the ocean with National Geographic.