Born in 1910 off of the French east coast, the great blue expanses of the ocean which were at the backdrop of his childhood remained a constant in the life of Jacques-Yves Cousteau. The draw of the ocean never relented its hold on Cousteau, and in 1930, he enrolled with the French navy.
It was during this time, serving on a French battleship, that Cousteau turned dream to action and started conducting his first underwater experiments. It was during the tumultuous war that Cousteau began filming prize-winning underwater documentaries, as well as innovate diving technology in groundbreaking ways. The Aqua-Lung, which he helped design, was the first open-circuit, self-contained breathing apparatus ever created.
Cousteau's first film, 18 Meters Deep. His first foray into the world of documentary cinematography. Note the lack of serious diving equipment.
Of course, films and underwater excursions weren’t the only things that Cousteau did in those years, and as a member of the French Resistance movement, he took part in several complicated operations to thwart the Nazis and their axis powers, and help the allied armies.
Sadly, during that very same time, his brother Pierre-Antoine was busying himself with far darker endeavors. Pierre-Antoine Cousteau was a writer for the ominously-named "Je Suis Partout" (“I am everywhere”), a fascist magazine with pro-Nazi leanings, which called for the internment of all French Jews. He remained an unrepentant white supremacist until his death of cancer in 1958.
The stark contrast between the two brothers only serves to shine a light on the one-of-a-kind character of Jacques Cousteau.
After the war, Cousteau helped clear the Mediterranean of mines, using his excursions as an excuse to continue his sea explorations and filming, including the very first unassisted underwater archeology outing, exploring the wreckage of a Roman vessel off the coast of Tunisia.
It wasn’t just the wrecks that littered the bottom of the sea that caught Cousteau’s attention, as the creatures of the ocean enthralled Cousteau even more, and he was actually the first man who correctly predicted the presence of some kind of echolocation system in cetaceans, like dolphins and porpoises.
But it was in the early 60's that he began advocacy for environmentalism when the French Commission for Atomic Energy set in motion a plan to dump radioactive waste into the Mediterranean. It was only due to his activism that wide protest arose against the CAE’s plan and they were forced to nix it.
His growing fame as an author and film-maker earned him a slot in television with the eye-opening program "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau"(1966-1976), which brought Cousteau’s underwater adventures to every living room.
His one of a kind documentaries were the first and only ones to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, until 2004 when Michael Moore won one for “Fahrenheit 9/11”.
Uncovering an underwater monument to Jacques-Yves Cousteau
It is told that during filming in Cuba, Cousteau met with leader Fidel Castro and befriending him, subsequently talking the dictator into releasing some 80 prisoners.
Perhaps most importantly in his efforts to protect marine environments, in 1990, Cousteau got all major powers to sign a petition banning oil drilling in Antarctica, and we can only shudder, imagining what the condition of the ice shelves of the South Pole would have like today if it were not for this great pioneer of diving.