When people are asked to name one quintessential individual who shaped diving, their minds often go to Jacques Cousteau first and foremost.
Conversely, when people hear the name “Jacques Cousteau,” they automatically think of his diving exploits, and indeed, just about everything Jacques Cousteau did was to advance diving technology.
But people don’t often realize just how far-reaching the results of his achievements are and how many smaller roles he took on in being a diver extraordinaire.
During his lifetime, Cousteau was a naval officer, diver, explorer, marine conservationist, inventor, and tireless advocate of undersea discovery.
And his name and knowledge of his deeds endure nearly two decades after his death in 1997.
The following article provides information on Cousteau’s World War II naval background, diving inventions, and activism.
Continue reading to learn about one of the world’s most influential figures… on land and sea.
Cousteau was interested in diving from a very young age, but it was later during the 1940s when he really started making his mark on the marine world.
Involved in the French Resistance, high profile underwater experiments, and even some dabbling in underwater moviemaking, Cousteau kept himself busy during the Nazi occupation of France.
His work drew additional attention after the war ended, and he continued to make his mark on the world for fifty years to come.
The life of Cousteau during World War II
During the German occupation of France between 1940 and 1944, Cousteau spied on Italian military for the French Resistance and earned the Legion of Honor, among other medals.
Cousteau also served as a gunnery officer, and he forged connections with Emile Gagnan, the engineer with whom he invented the Aqua-Lung in 1943 (see “Inventions” below), and Philippe Taillez, whom Cousteau knew from his time in the navy, having graduated the naval academy in 1933.
Cousteau kept working with French navy for some time after the war ended as head of the Undersea Research Group.
Cousteau wasn’t only up against professional challenges during the War; his sons, Jean-Michel and Philippe Cousteau were born in 1938 and 1940, respectively.
His family had to flee to Megeve in Southern France when the Nazis occupied Paris.
Despite these hardships, Cousteau managed to continue his underwater activities largely uninterrupted, and his observations resulted in myriad inventions and discoveries described in the following sections.
If diving achievements is what Cousteau is best known for, then his diving inventions follow at a close second.
Cousteau’s lifelong obsession with life underwater (“The Silent World,” as he called it in one of his films) motivated him to collect a wealth of information that permanently changed diving over the latter half of the 20th century.
Because Cousteau started early and learned so much about diving at a time when it really mattered (for wartime naval strategy), a lot of modern diving equipment has Cousteau, his colleagues, and his Calypso to thank.
Continue below and read about three of Cousteau’s inventions—Aqua-Lung, submersible, and the underwater camera.
In addition to having a cool-sounding name, the Aqua-Lung has some pretty cool origins.
Not many people can say that their equipment was born during World War II—ideologically, at least.
Most people don’t literally have a 60-year-old Aqua-Lung lying around, but modern Aqua-Lungs are basically the same products that their progenitors were.
This is unique when compared to other modern technology, which evolves pretty drastically: typewriters were replaced by computers, and VHSs were replaced by DVDs.
But Aqua-Lungs have lasted in their initial form for more than half a century, showing the foresight of their inventors.
Aqua-Lungs were the first instruments to allow divers to breathe underwater using the same mouthpiece to inhale and exhale.
It also made diving far less cumbersome by eradicating the need for a breathing tube to run all the way back up to the boat. And it led to some very useful medical discoveries.
During the testing process for Aqua-Lung, Cousteau and Gagnan discovered nitrogen narcosis and decompression illness (the bends) when they dived or ascended too much or too quickly.
With all that said, it’s safe to say that the Aqua-Lung is one of the most significant diving inventions—if not the most significant diving invention—of the 20th century.
The Diving Saucer (or Denise, as Cousteau called her) is a deep-sea diving submersible that was invented by Cousteau and French Centre for Undersea Research engineer Jean Mollard in 1959.
Since the submersible couldn’t operate without a surface support ship and therefore wasn’t a submarine, it was lowered and raised to and from the water via crane, and it could fit up to two people and dive 350 meters deep for four to five hours.
The Diving Saucer has completed a lot of deep-sea exploration and has gone down for approximately 1,500 dives since the 1960s.
Since submersibles are typically more research-geared than submarines (which are often used for military purposes), inventing the Diving Saucer cracked the underwater world wide open for scientists, divers, and explorers.
Submersibles allow people to explore underwater environments in new ways, and the Diving Saucer paved the way for other submersible vehicles as demand for them increased.
Over time, they even became commercially available—to those rich enough to be able to buy it, that is. One such personal submersible is on the market for half a million dollars.
Waterproof Camera by Jacques Cousteau
Jacques Cousteau designed the first amphibious camera, the Calypso, and Jean De Wouters invented it.
Increased water pressure underwater ruined all previous attempts at creating a camera that could function underwater.
After several of his own failed attempts, Cousteau collaborated with Wouters to make a camera that could withstand water pressure at up to 60 meters deep, and together they produced the Calypso in 1960.
In 1963 Nikon bought the design and renamed it Nikonos, and they liked it so much that they produced three Calypso spinoffs in following years.
Nikonos cameras continued with new designs Nikonos IV-A, V, and RS all the way up through the nineties.
Even today, Nikon underwater cameras are generally regarded to be the best of their kind.
And in case an underwater camera (and the first successful underwater camera, at that) isn’t cool enough in its own right, it would be prudent to note that the Nikonos Calypso I made an appearance in the James Bond film Thunderball (with Sean Connery starring as Bond).
No matter which way you look at it, the day Cousteau devised the Calypso camera was one of the best days in the history of diving.
Cousteau’s heart and soul was in diving, and diving framed his perspective on other focuses. That much is clear from his career and self-commentary.
And as an added bonus to the groundbreaking progress in diving, Cousteau’s diving pursuits have positively influenced those aforementioned focuses.
Later in life he became a passionate environmentalist, and he founded the Cousteau Society in 1974 to combat pollution and other relevant environmental concerns as well as to promote further underwater exploration.
Read on to see just how powerfully Cousteau has impacted global issues.
Nuclear Waste Dumping
In 1960 the French government wanted to dump nuclear waste into the Mediterranean Sea.
As a diver, Cousteau was concerned about water pollution, and he publically criticized nuclear power and the handling of toxic waste.
He even went as far as talking to General de Gaulle, the President and former Prime Minister of France.
The train carrying the waste ended up being diverted after women and children sat on the tracks in protest.
Cousteau may not have had anything to do with that, but he probably inspired it. Water is precious—that can’t be gainsaid.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau fights against Commercial Whaling
Cousteau believed not only in keeping Earth’s water pristine, but he also wanted to keep the marine life therein in the same condition.
He was instrumental in passing the International Whaling Commission’s commercial whaling moratorium in 1986, which is still in effect.
The moratorium resulted in a total pause on commercial whaling (inclusive of all whale species), and many countries honor the moratorium.
Some countries still hunt for whales, citing scientific study, but this practice is uncommon.
This hasn’t stopped whaling completely, but it has curbed losses in whale populations and helped combat whale endangerment.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau was a truly intrepid explorer, having created some of the most innovative diving technology and irreversibly shaped diving as both a recreational activity and a tool for scientific study.
Having been involved with diving practically since birth, Cousteau is a leading example of what years of passionate research and exploration can accomplish.
He was directly involved in developing tactics for safe and effective deep-sea diving, and he was surely indirectly involved in hundreds (or thousands) of similar projects.
He also had a very clear idea about how water fit into the rest of the world and prompted people to respect it.
A truly remarkable individual, Jacques Cousteau lives on through his tradition of innovation and discovery.