Jacques Cousteau: Ocean Ambassador

Jacques Cousteau: Ocean Ambassador

This article is the second of a three-part series examining Jacques Cousteau’s legacy in the world of diving and underwater exploration. The first one delved into the history of scuba diving. This part focuses on Cousteau as the educator who taught the world about the ocean.

One would be hard-pressed to find someone who has done more to contribute to public understanding of the ocean than Jacques Cousteau. For much of the 20th century, Cousteau served as a guide to an underwater world that most people knew nothing about. Through books, documentaries and television shows, he brought the first glimpses of the wonders of the deep blue sea and its mysterious inhabitants into the living rooms of people around the world. He was the world’s first true ocean ambassador and he fulfilled that role with zeal.

Early Connection to the Ocean

Cousteau’s connection to the water began at a very early age. He learned to swim at the age of four and first went diving as part of a lake cleanup effort at a children’s summer camp he attended when he was ten. In his twenties, he joined the French Naval Academy and spent many of the next few years sailing to exotic ports-o-call or stationed at French Navy outposts.

Cousteau also displayed an early interest in photography and videography. He was a prolific photographer on his journeys around the world while in the Navy. He soon adapted his camera for underwater use and began experimenting with underwater videography. Along with his friend Marcel Ichac, he released 18 Meters Deep in 1942. This short documentary shot in black-and-white was one of the first works of underwater videography and was quite an advanced piece of work for its time.

When Cousteau created the Aqua-Lung at the age of 33, it was only the beginning of a lifelong journey that would take him across—and under—oceans the world over. The Aqua-Lung became a tool that allowed Cousteau to change focus on and pursue his true passions: ocean exploration, scientific research and underwater videography.

When the war ended, Cousteau quickly put his invention to use by participating in military cleanup efforts to remove live mines and torpedoes from the ocean floor. He was appointed the first director of the French Navy’s Underwater Research Group, responsible for conducting scientific experiments and producing research about the ocean.

His first major undersea expedition, conducted with colleague Philippe Taillez and a group of academic scientists, was to the Roman shipwreck, Mahdia, which was located near Tunis, Tunisia. It was the first underwater archaeology operation using scuba equipment.

Expeditions Aboard the Calypso

Cousteau soon felt compelled to branch out on his own. He wanted to explore the unexplored, learn more about marine life, and create documentaries about the ocean. After sharing his intentions with Thomas Loel Guinness, a British businessman and philanthropist, Guinness provided the money for Cousteau to lease a decommissioned British minesweeper called the Calypso. Cousteau turned Calypso into an oceanographic research vessel outfitted with scientific laboratories, a diving well, and an underwater observation chamber. Calypso would become his seafaring headquarters for most of the next 46 years.


The Calypso in all its glory.  Source: The Cousteau Society.

Cousteau took leave from the French Navy in 1951 and set sail for the first of countless worldwide expeditions. His first expedition took him to the Red Sea to study coral. Cousteau and his team made numerous discoveries on this trip, identifying previously unknown plant and animal species and locating volcanic basins beneath the Red Sea. On the way back to France, Cousteau’s crew investigated an uncharted shipwreck, discovering an ancient Roman wreck in the process. Cousteau and his divers made several scuba dives to the ship, recovering artifacts and other treasures that had been buried for centuries.

Cousteau published The Silent World in 1953, a book based on the daily logs he kept during his first expedition. The book detailed Cousteau’s ground-breaking scuba diving adventures and the results of his initial underwater explorations. Cousteau was the first to correctly hypothesize, based on his observations, that whales and dolphins used echolocation for navigation purposes. The book met with commercial success and to this day has sold over 5 million copies.

Documentary and Television Success

Cousteau’s second major expedition was undertaken in partnership with the National Geographic Society in 1955. The 22,200-kilometer (13,800-mile) journey would bring the crew of the Calypso to the Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Video cameras were rolling throughout, both aboard the Calypso and under water, providing footage for the movie version of The Silent World, Cousteau’s first underwater documentary shot in full color. Upon its release in 1956, the film received high critical acclaim and won two major awards: The Prix d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Documentary.

The film featured footage of the Cousteau and his crew aboard the Calypso, discussing and preparing for their dives, as well as underwater footage of fish, coral and other marine species. Cousteau narrates the movie, his voice filled with a contagious sense of curiosity and wonder. The Silent World is arguably the most influential underwater documentary of the 20th century. For many viewers, it was their first up-close view of what life was like under the sea. It opened the eyes of a generation to the mysteries of the oceans and the life they contain.


Still from The Silent World.

The success of his books and documentaries began to raise Cousteau’s profile and garnered him lots of media attention. In 1957, he became the director of the Oceanographic Institute at the Museum of Monaco. The next year he was invited to address the first World Oceanic Congress, an event that received widespread coverage and led to his appearance on the cover of Time magazine in March 1960.

Cousteau did not stop there but continued traversing the globe, exploring, researching, and producing documentaries and books based on his adventures. To fund his seemingly endless expeditions, Cousteau relied on a mixture of philanthropy, research grants and income from his business activities. Various French scientific organizations lent their support by providing funding for Cousteau’s research. French manufacturers provided equipment and technical know-how for the various machines and inventions Cousteau thought up along the way. Cousteau also earned income from publishing photographs and articles in magazines such as National Geographic and Life, and from his books and movies.

In 1966, Cousteau put together his first television special. Sponsored by National Geographic, The World of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, captured the imagination of millions of viewers. Its success led to a long-term deal with the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) to create The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, a television documentary series that ran for eight seasons, from 1968–1975. The show was hosted by Cousteau and focused on marine diversity. Cousteau and his crew were filmed doing things that no-one had ever seen before: swimming and interacting with whales, octopuses and sea turtles. This was his best-known work and has since been broadcast in over 100 countries.

Marine Conservation Efforts

Early in his career, Cousteau was criticized for producing environmental damage and harming marine life during the filming of his movies. For example, one scene in The Silent World shows Cousteau and his crew killing a school of sharks while another reveals Cousteau igniting dynamite and causing significant harm to a coral reef. He was also known to capture marine life for display in aquariums. Most of this activity was the result of ignorance, though, not malice.

As Cousteau grew older, he began to realize the negative impact that human activity was having on the oceans and he became more environmentally conscious. As someone who knew the oceans better than most, he witnessed changes that troubled him, including pollution and the decimation of fish stocks. These developments caused him to worry about the very survival of the delicate ecosystems which the ocean was home to.

He decided to take the lead in protecting the ocean and in 1973 he founded The Cousteau Society, a non-profit educational organization dedicated to ocean conservation. Cousteau believed that people would only protect what they loved, so he sought through the society to promote the ocean through films, lectures and writings and to educate the world’s population about the importance of preserving the ocean. By 1975, the organization had grown to over 120,000 members while today its membership has shrunk to around 50,000.

His television specials and documentaries began to emphasize conservation issues. The Cousteau Odyssey, which ran from 1977–1982, focused on the theme of environmental degradation as opposed to marine life. The Cousteau Amazon series focused on threats to the Amazon Rainforest and the creatures in the world’s longest river. Cousteau/Mississippi: Reluctant Allyexamined the human impact on the Mississippi River and went on to win an Emmy for outstanding informational special.

Cousteau also engaged in political activity to protect oceanic wildlife habitats. He used his connections to politicians and legislators and educated them about the dangers to the oceans. He intervened personally and used his influence to help shepherd the passage of the moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986.

Awards and Accomplishments

Throughout his career, Cousteau received numerous awards for his efforts. In 1961, he was awarded the National Geographic Society’s Gold Medal. Presented by US president John F. Kennedy, it was inscribed with the words: “To earthbound man he gave the key to the silent world.” In 1985, he received the Grand Cross of the French National Order of Merit and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from US President Ronald Reagan. Two years later he was inducted into the Television Academy’s Hall of Fame. In 1988, the National Geographic Society honored him with its Centennial Award for special contributions to mankind throughout the years. In total, his television shows were nominated for over 40 Emmy awards and he received 3 Oscars for his documentaries.


Cousteau receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from US President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Source: National Geographic.


While a late-convert to the environmental movement, Cousteau inspired generations of future scuba divers, underwater photographers and marine biologists to develop an interest and a love for the world’s oceans. While some scientists challenged his scientific credentials, Cousteau never claimed to be a scientific expert. His work was more educational than scientific in nature and conveyed a genuine sense of wonderment and love of nature. At heart, he was a pioneering ocean explorer willing to go places no one had ever gone before—and to tell the world about it. Cousteau’s exploits increased human understanding of the sea and the life contained within it. He has become a towering figure in pop culture and will go down in history as one of the ocean’s greatest defenders.


By: Ryan Patrick Jones, Community Editor at Deepblu