Born on 11 June 1910 to Daniel and Elisabeth Cousteau and raised in France, a young Jacques-Yves Cousteau enjoyed spending many hours at the beach where he enjoyed sailing and swimming. By the age of 13, he developed a passion for amateur filmmaking that later proved part of the legend the world knew simply as Jacques Cousteau - old man of the sea.
His career began in 1930 where Jacques Cousteau attended the French Naval Academy and began training with the naval aviation school. Injuries suffered in a car crash at age 26 resulted in a transfer to sea duty and the end of his flying ambitions. After qualifying as a gunnery officer, Jacques Cousteau began to experiment in his free time at sea using a camera fitted in a glass bowl as he explored shipwrecks in the Mediterranean. Divers of the time required a heavy suit connected to surface air using a long hose supplied by air pumps from a surface vessel.
Diving with such restricted movement and vision, Jacques Cousteau began to think about ways to explore underwater in freedom. With the help of his friend Emile Gagnan, Jacques Cousteau developed what they called an Aqua-lung in 1943 consisting of a self-contained pressurised air cylinder connected to a regulator through which breathing was possible through a demand valve. The demand valve worked by increasing supply air pressure in proportion to the increasing water pressure as the diver descended. Pressure compensation via the demand valve enabled divers to draw breath at depths where water pressure would otherwise overcome the body's ability to inhale.
Invention of the aqua-lung was only the first of many groundbreaking contributions to the world of underwater sea exploration pioneered by Jacques Cousteau. Having solved the problem of unrestricted freedom underwater, Jacques Cousteau began to explore in earnest, and made his first underwater films in the mid-1940s with engineer Emile Gagnan.
In August 1956 Cousteau had a serious brush with death because of carbon-monoxide contamination from a diesel-powered compressor while exploring a deep underground river with Frederic Dumas. Lethargy and disorientation set in at a depth of 150 feet, both divers helped each other back to the cave mouth. This experience served to be one of many valuable lessons benefiting divers today where the dangers of compressed air contamination are well understood.
Jacques Cousteau proved the most successful underwater documentary maker with three Oscars, television specials and his series, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau (1966). In his later years Cousteau devoted himself to educating the public on environmental issues, and working with the Cousteau Foundation, founded in 1973 to further marine research and exploration.
Today, we call the aqua-lung SCUBA, or Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, and scuba diving is both a recreational sport and a working career of millions the world over. Without the pioneering efforts, experimentation and lessons learned by Jacques Cousteau and his love of the underwater world, so much of what we know about our oceans and seas.
Jacques Cousteau died of a heart attack in June 1997 however his legacy lives on in films, books, and documentaries. The Cousteau Society for the protection of ocean life still thrives with a membership today exceeding 300 000 members.