When I was growing up in the 1970s, the name Cousteau was as much a part of every day pop culture as Muhammad Ali or Wonder Woman. Maybe none of those names are familiar to today’s generation, but to compare, he was the equivalent then of modern conservation icons like Steve Irwin or David Attenborough. Bigger! He was and remains a visionary legend of ocean exploration. Sailing the seas on his 130-foot ship, the Calypso, he pursued his mission to educate people about the world’s ocean environments.
The recent celebration of what would have been Cousteau’s 100th birthday shed a new light on his conservation legacy, and will perhaps give our kids the chance to be aware of and appreciate his contributions.
Early Life Of Jacques-Yves Cousteau
Jacques Cousteau was born in the southwest of France in 1910. An early love of swimming evolved into his lifelong passion for the sea. He bought a movie camera in his youth, and learned what to do with it, inside and out. His training in the French Navy for over 25 years (1930-1957) taught him how to operate boats and made him perfectly at home on the water. With that, he had all the essential ingredients for what came next…
Marine Exploration & Television Exposure
Throughout the rest of his life, Cousteau sailed the globe and documented the wonders of the oceans. Along the way he was an innovator who paved the way for later marine explorers, with his inventions and approaches. Amazingly, Cousteau was the co-inventor of the first scuba gear. During World War II, he and an engineer created the “Aqua-Lung”, a device that allowed divers to breathe compressed air under water. This enabled the investigation of deep-sea life in a way that had never before been possible.
Moreover, Cousteau and his team used this innovation to explore new frontiers under the sea, and to share them with captive viewers around the world. They were true pioneers in filming the first-ever underwater nature documentaries. Their award-winning work culminated in a TV documentary series that was an international sensation for a decade, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau (1966-1976).
The series documented the world travels of the Calypso’s crew. The nimble captain Cousteau narrated much of the footage, sporting his signature red toque. Each one-hour episode investigated some type of sea life, from invertebrates to fish to birds to mammals. And wouldn’t you know it, the very first show was called “Sharks”! This choice of introductory subject fit the theme of the whole series: it aimed to challenge myths, provide realistic views of what the oceans are really like, and to contribute findings to the collective knowledge about marine science.
That first episode looked at shark behavior, sailing from Monaco in the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. You can watch the first episode below:
Just as fascinating as the shark footage are the insights into how marine research is conducted. Cousteau’s approach was to give the audience insight into the scientific process of marine research, showing experiments in action. Famed shark biologist Eugenie Clark was an invited guest on the vessel. The team tested new tranquilizers for use in shark research, and demonstrated how tagging is used to track migratory routes of shark. They investigated how sharks respond to the presence of people. They also conducted experiments to compare the relative importance of different sensory cues in triggering shark attacks (sight, sound, smell). Their tests showed that sharks see well, have a keen sense of smell, and that they perceive and respond to vibrations in the water (such as the movements of a thrashing fish). Team members also showed ways to avoid risky encounters with sharks, testing different kinds of repellants.
In addition to all of the studies conducted right in the water, the episode shows how the team’s work continued during informal discussions at shared meals and on the boat. The episode also included some fantastic footage of a swimming whale shark. Overall, in contrast to the prevailing view of sharks as “fearsome brutes”, Cousteau showed that while some species are dangerous, many sharks are completely harmless.
His description of the series’ take on ocean life from the opening monologue could apply equally to sharks: “sometimes serene, sometimes savage, and always beautiful.”
Jacques-Yves Cousteau Authorship
Jacques Cousteau also wrote several books about marine life, including The Shark (1970).
This classic account is a journal of the Calypso crew’s encounters with sharks. The journeys described include thousands of dives and the many obstacles that were faced in conducting the research voyages (financial, logistical, weather at sea). Cousteau and his son Philippe addressed many of the common questions about sharks, including how sharks feed, and what it’s like to encounter large sharks when the only thing separating you from them is your camera.
Jacques Cousteau didn’t necessarily start out as a conservationist. Initially, he was a spear fisherman and a naval adventurer. The message to viewers was to come join him on a fascinating mission of exploration. His series gave the public an unprecedented look at the Earth’s oceans, and inevitably, this education inspired marine protection.
The TV series made Cousteau a celebrity. Building on wide public support, he founded the Cousteau Society to raise awareness about ocean protection. Into his later years he became a more vocal environmentalist and spoke out about human degradation of marine ecosystems. One of his great contributions was organizing a campaign against the dumping of nuclear waste into the Mediterranean Sea in 1960. He also influenced the decision of the International Whaling Commission to ban commercial whaling in 1986.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau Later Years
Jacques Cousteau died suddenly in 1997. His family and former colleagues seem to agree that if he were still alive, he would be saddened, but not hopeless, about the state of the world’s oceans today. The main threats of development, pollution, and overfishing continue unabated. Perhaps that would make him even more vocal in demanding action to protect marine ecosystems. Reflecting about his legacy reminds us that we should respond in the same way.
Written By: Kara Levevre
- Biography Channel
- Cousteau society
- IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base)
- Ocean Futures Society (an organization run by Cousteau’s family)
- Than K (2010). Marking Cousteau’s hundredth anniversary-five successes, one great legacy. National Geographic News, June 11, 2010.
- The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, Episode 1: Sharks (TV episode, 60 min, 8 Jan. 1968).
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