Jacques Cousteau & Underwater Exploration

Very few individuals are able to claim the title of pioneer in their respective fields. To be a pioneer is to push the boundaries of your craft beyond what anyone else around can see, or even imagine. It is to redefine and lead the way for all those that come after. When it comes to the daring world of underwater exploration, Captain Jacques Cousteau is a pioneer. 


Having joined the French Navy in 1933, Cousteau’s early career was defined by the Second World War. It was in that conflict in 1943 that Cousteau, a gunnery officer, and engineer Emile Gagnan invented the very first Aqua Lung. This landmark creation opened up a new world to those looking to study life underwater. Cousteau’s innovative prowess would become a hallmark of his career – if the necessary tools did not exist yet, he would simply invent them himself. 


After the war, Captain Cousteau continued his work of underwater exploration with the French Navy and began creating new methods and equipment to carry out his research. In 1950 he converted a former British minesweeper into a vessel from which he would perform his expeditions – the Calypso.


These exploits would be documented in a book he and Frédéric Dumas authored in 1953 called The Silent World. It was in 1956 that this book became the basis of a documentary film. The Silent World was a landmark creation, utilising new technologies including purpose built underwater camera casings to show the world the new possibilities of scuba diving and marine research. The film won 3 Oscars in 1957 and is one of two documentaries to ever win the prestigious Palme d’Or award. Some of our most beloved marine wildlife films such as The Blue Planet have been directly influenced by the visionary work of Cousteau and his team. 


Cousteau would go on to help create and star in numerous films and television series exploring life beneath the waves. He helped to familiarise millions of people with extraordinary creatures that have made the seas and oceans their home. In doing so, he fulfilled an overarching ambition of the entire genre – by connecting people more intimately with nature, there is a greater chance of people protecting and conserving the natural world. 


The more time Cousteau spent filming and studying marine life, the more he understood the necessity of trying to protect it. In the 1960s he successfully campaigned against the French government who were planning on throwing radioactive waste into the Mediterranean Sea. Cousteau was also a key figure in promoting the 1986 ban on commercial whaling, personally meeting with heads of states to influence their agreement to the moratorium. 


Throughout the entirety of his career, however, it cannot be said that Cousteau was regarded as a model conservationist. As demonstrated by his earlier work, he displayed a sometimes cold indifference to the lives of marine animals. However, the journey of Captain Cousteau can be seen as reflective of our shared common journey in relation to marine life. In the past we saw the oceans and seas as endless water wildernesses, inexhaustible and ours to command. However, as time progressed and we discovered more of its precious beauty, we have come to revere and cherish the blue parts of this blue planet with all the creatures that live there.


For his outstanding achievements Captain Cousteau received numerous honours throughout his life. He was awarded the Legion of Honour, France’s highest military and civilian honour in 1972, National Geographic gave him the Special Gold Medal in 1961 and he even received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985. 


Above all else, however, Cousteau will forever be remembered as someone who opened the eyes of man to the rarely-seen-before underwater world. He helped blaze a trail for entire future generations of marine biologists, explorers, and conservationists. For a great many people, he ignited a passion for life under the waves.


It is for all these reasons and more that we here at Wildscreen Festival would like to recognise the incredible work and life of captain Jacques Cousteau.


Written by Liam Curran.

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