In 1963, the late oceanographer and Renaissance man, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, spent 30 days underwater in the Port of Sudan, setting a world record that remains to this day. His grandson, Fabien Cousteau, will attempt to be beneath the ocean surface exactly one day longer, this time off Florida’s coast. For his own attempt, 45-year-old Fabien will have some conveniences his grandfather may not have imagined those 50 years ago, such as wireless internet and air conditioning.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau was a delicate child and was told by doctors to avoid all strenuous activities. Nevertheless, he compulsively learned to swim and fell in love with the sea. Ultimately, the feats of the adventurer and French national included naval officer, spy, undersea explorer, businessman, researcher, filmmaker and documentary host. He graduated from Ecole Navale as a gunnery officer. When Germany occupied his country he took up espionage work with the French Resistance. This earned him the Legion of Honour, an esteemed medal established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. About the medal, Napoleon famously said “You call these baubles, well, it is with baubles that men are led…. Do you think that you would be able to make men fight by reasoning? Never…. The soldier needs glory, distinctions, rewards.”
Cousteau went on to invent and co-invent a number of diving and scuba devices, including the Aqua-Lung (with French engineer Émile Gagnan). This breakthrough technology made extended, self-contained underwater sessions possible. Cousteau was also involved in the invention of the diving saucer, a sleek, spaceship-looking, highly maneuverable small submarine.
Anyone, especially a Cousteau, could not sincerely think of himself as a Renaissance man without also being a philosopher. Jacques-Yves’ quotes are peppered throughout today’s social media, including this valuable snippet: “However fragmented the world, however intense the national rivalries, it is an inexorable fact that we become more interdependent every day.”
Jacques-Yves Cousteau single-handedly popularized oceanography and scuba diving through his legendary 1953 book Le Monde du silence, or The Silent World: A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure, written with Frédéric Dumas. It was at this point that his name reached “household” status in many parts of the world. He soon converted The Silent World into a documentary film that won both the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or in 1956 and an Academy Award the following year. Cousteau was awarded a total of three Oscars throughout his lifetime.
His greatest fame came from the documentary television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau (1968 – 1975). Co-starring along with the dashing Cousteau and his handsome crew was their ship, Calypso, a white, telegenic converted minesweeper. Each week the team traveled the Earth’s seas in search of adventure, beauty and oddities.
Jacques Cousteau’s personal empire became symbolically and, possibly, financially stratospheric with the incorporation of the Cousteau Group in 1973. The multi-national corporation consisted of engineering, marketing, research and manufacturing organizations, keeping its CEO heavily scheduled for lectures, lobbying and fundraising events. His helicopter would deliver him for a few hours each week to the Calypso, where a camera crew would grab the latest iteration of the thoughtful captain against a darkening sky, standing on his instrument-lit bridge, plotting the next week’s locale.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau the Renaissance man stayed busy indeed, but not all of it was professional. When his wife Simone died in 1990, the Cousteau children – and his legions of fans – were surprised to learn that their father had maintained a second family for almost 20 years. That family now controls the Cousteau estate. Fabien Cousteau, however – a man clearly inspired by his grandfather – counts Simone as his grandmother.
By Gregory Baskin