Legacy of a legend


THIS year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of a pioneer who changed the world and its oceans forever. The legendary Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau originally planned to pursue a career in naval aviation. But a road accident dashed his hopes and he turned to the oceans instead.

Born in 1910 in Gironde, France, Cousteau graduated from the French Naval Academy as a gunnery officer. He started his underwater experiments even while in the navy. He worked in information service and was sent on missions to various countries in the late 1930s.

A few years after his marriage to Simone Melchior, World War II broke out and the couple and their two sons, Jean-Michel and Philippe, moved to Megeve where Cousteau met mountaineer Marcel Ichac. Sharing a love for exploring the unknown, Cousteau and Ichac made the first French underwater film, 18 Metres Deep, shot by free-diving into the sea. The film won a prize at the Congress Of Documentary Film in 1943. Also in that year, Cousteau, then 33, used a prototype of the aqualung which he had developed with French-Canadian engineer and inventor Emile Gagnan.

After undertaking various expeditions and an archaeological dive to a wreck in Tunisia, Cousteau left the navy in 1949. The next year he founded the French Oceanographic Cam­­paigns, and leased the now-famous Calypso, retrofitting it with a laboratory. Among the things he pioneered during his long career, Cousteau – along with Jean Molland – created the diving saucer, a mini-submersible that carries a crew of two and can go as deep as 350m. In the 1960s, another smaller, one-man version called the Sea Flea was created that could dive to a depth of 500m.

And while astronauts experimented with living in space stations, Cousteau had the vision of “oceanauts” living underwater for long periods. The Conshelf was created as a kind of “underwater village”. By 1965, the Conshelf III was born which could house up to six oceanauts for up to three weeks.

Cousteau also envisioned a propulsion system that partly uses clean renewable energy such as the wind, and the Turbosail was born. He also correctly predicted the sonar-like capabilities of dolphins when he noticed the movements of a group of porpoises that followed his research vessel.

Throughout his career, Cousteau made over 120 TV documentaries and wrote over 50 books. In 1956, his film, The Silent World, co-produced with a young Louis Malle, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Parts of the film were later criticised, such as where Cousteau and crew blow up a coral reef to ascertain the number of sea creatures that lived there. In another scene, the crew brutally and vengefully kills a school of sharks that is feeding on a whale calf accidentally killed by the Calypso’s motors.

However, Cousteau later went on to spearhead marine conservation and brought to the world’s attention various environmental issues plaguing the oceans. In 1960, he managed to rally support through a publicity campaign that ultimately stopped the dumping of toxic waste into the sea by the French Atomic and Alternative Energies Commission.

After his wife’s death in 1991, Cousteau married Francine Triplet, who is today the president of The Cousteau Society. In 1996, the Calypso was rammed by a barge in Singapore and sank. A year later, Cousteau died in Paris at the age of 87.

To mark the anniversary, a year-long celebration is on-going till June next year, and part of it includes the restoration and refurbishment of the Calypso which will go on a global tour as an educational exhibition.

The Cousteau Society (www.cousteau.org) is also establishing an ocean-monitoring programme called Cousteau Divers which will bring together divers worldwide for marine conservation.

Last June, the National Geographic Society went on a month-long filming expedition to document changes in the Mediterranean since Cousteau’s first films in the 1940s, and to promote the expansion of marine reserves. – By Allan Koay

Related story:Philippe Cousteau carries on family tradition


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