Diver, explorer, military man, filmmaker, scientist, environmentalist, popularizer and inventor. Jacques-Yves Cousteau , born on 11 June 1910 , was undoubtedly a man who lived his passion to the full. And his was the sea : love that broke out on a summer day in 1936, when the young French Air Force soldier recovered his physical condition in the waters of Toulon after a bad car accident.
“One Sunday morning, swimming in the crystal clear water of the Mediterranean, I looked in amazement at the seabed of Le Mourillon… Rocks covered with green, brown and silver algae forests and fish unknown to me ,” Cousteau recalls in his memoirs. “ Sometimes we are lucky enough to recognize the moment when our life changes forever. This is what happened to me that summer day in Mourillon, when my eyes opened to the sea ”.
Never satisfied with the show, Cousteau , who had also begun to devote himself to underwater photography, was whipped by the limits within which he was literally forced: at the time the only way to stay underwater for a long time was to wear one of those bulky diving suits. complete with a metal helmet into which air was pumped from the surface through a long umbilical cord . The suit, however, limited movement , while the tube reduced the chances of moving away from the boat.
Had it been up to him, he would have dedicated every moment to the sea. But at the time Jacques-Yves was also a soldier, and he fulfilled his duty on the cruiser Dupleix, taking advantage of the opportunity offered him by the Navy to travel and explore the world. After the German invasion, however, Cousteau and his family – in 1937 he married Simone Melchior and the marriage had two children, Jean-Michel and Philippe – fled to the still unoccupied South. Here he joined the resistance and, above all, dedicated himself to developing more comfortable and practical diving suits.
In fact, his most famous invention dates back to this period, that of the Aqua-Lung . In the south of France, the young man had found an old acquaintance: Emile Gagnan, an engineer with whom he had collaborated before the war. In a short time, the two men developed a regulator capable of supplying the diver with compressed air from a cylinder that he carried on his back. The device was patented in 1943. And when perfected, it became universally known as the Scuba ( Self contained underwater breathing apparatus , aka Autonomous Underwater Breathing Apparatus), and changed the world of underwater exploration forever.
In those years Cousteau also managed to carry out another of his ambitious projects: to reveal the secrets of the sea to the world through a film. With Par dix-huit mètres de fond ( At 18 meters deep ), made with friends Philippe Tailez and Frederich Dumas, he won first prize at the 1943 Documentary Festival. With his second film, Épave (Shipwreck), he convinced instead Admiral Lemmonier to set up the Army’s Submarine Research Group (GRs), of which he became responsible. Thus began his career as a researcher, which however did not prevent him from continuing that of filmmaker, photographer and explorer. The tasks of the GRS (today Cephismer) ranged from underwater exploration, to the identification and defusing of marine mines, to the study of the seabed.
In 1949 the Frenchman left the navy to devote himself completely to research and dissemination. The following year Thomas Loel Guinness gave him a mine ship that he renamed Calypso, promptly transformed into a laboratory for field research, at the symbolic price of one franc. With his ship, Cousteau explored the waters of almost the whole world, shooting shots to be transformed into films and writing countless books. The most famous is The Silent World, which Captain Cousteau later transformed into the documentary that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1956.
A great connoisseur of the sea, he was also an ante-litteram ecologist: much of his research and his cinematographic products had the aim of informing the public of the risks that these wonders ran every day. The apex of his environmental struggle was the battle against the then Euratom (the European Atomic Energy Community ), which had decided to store a cargo of radioactive waste in the Mediterranean. To prevent the destruction, Cousteau organized a real blitz: on the day of the operation, the train on which the waste was traveling was stopped (and returned to the sender) by hundreds of women and children sitting on the tracks in protest.
Not surprisingly, the last years of his life were dedicated to the defense of the environment. In 1992 he was invited to participate in the Rio de Janeiro International Conference, and then became a consultant for the United Nations and the World Bank. He held this role until the day of his death, June 25, 1997. Only then did Jacques Yves Cousteau, after touring all over the world, finally return to his hometown, Saint-André-de-Cubzac, in Aquitaine. Which since then has had one more street: “ Rue du commandant Cousteau ”.