Culture & Art
Jun 1, 2017
THE ETERNAL CAPTAIN
The French consider him one of the most important personalities of their history. If such was not reducer, it could even be true. The truth is, however, this gentleman, whose picture is associate immediately to the red beanie, was one of the most striking and important personalities of the 20th century for the whole world.
The best way to resume his importance, comes in an obituary, dated from 1997, the day after he died, written by Hélène Crie-Wiesner, on the French daily newspaper Libération: "before him, the sea was a black hole, as it was space before the first crew mission ever being equipped with photographic cameras".
If, as already referred in the pages of this magazine: so far, only 5 percent of the oceans are explored (see pages 64 to 67, in April 2017's edition), we can almost deliver him the share of being responsible by 3 percent of such number.
Commander of the French Navy, documentarian and filmmaker in love with movies, oceanographer, inventor, researcher, prestigious academic, ferocious negotiator and privileged interlocutor of the most important personalities of his time, we would also dedicate himself to the ecological cause, where he got an important part of his world recognition.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau (JYC or "Jique" to his friends and collaborators), was born June, 11th, 1910, in Saint-André-de-Cubzac, on the region of Gironde, in France. Son of Daniel and Élisabeth Cousteau, Jacques-Yves was the second of two brothers.
He fulfilled his graduation on the Collége Stanislas, in Paris; prestige college of religion character, founded in 1804.
In 1930, Jacques-Yves enters the Navy School where he would graduate as an officer. He, then, signs up in the aviation course of the Navy's School of pilots in d'Hourtin (still in Gironde) in 1935, but his dream of filming the world from the skies above, suddenly ends a few months later, against a tree, in a car crash, at the wheel of a sports car.
This withdrawal ends up being fortunate, as all his fellows from the aviation course and up dead in the first weeks of World War II.
He marries in 1937 with Simone Melchior, daughter of a Navy officer and double grand-daughter of two Admirals. The wedding takes place in the church of "Les Invalides", surrounded of all military honours and sided by the famous Swiss Guard.
He returns thus, to the navy's artillery where he would get to know his fellow divers of the led diving bells who explored the rivers in the Marseille region.
During this period he begins to worry about the lack of movements a agility of his mates and decides to start working on the invention of prototypes of oxygen breathing devices within a closed circuit and also manages to escape twice to certain death during diving, still ignoring that oxygen becomes toxic at ten metres deep.
In 1942, he participates in the sinking of the French fleet in Toulon, with the rank of lieutenant, which doesn't stop him from taking the first photos of the water world. He set his camera inside a watertight plastic bag to take his pictures, only rising above from time to time to breathe.
Already in Paris, JYC gets acquainted with the liquid air engineer Emile Gagnan. This engineer had just perfected the pressure valve system, with appliance to the aerators of water engines. This was what Cousteau needed to supply compressed air at breathing rhythm.
Still deep into World War II, in 1943, at Bandol beach (Côte d'Azur, southeast of Marseille), Aqualung (it stands for aquatic lung), built by both, showed his efficiency and autonomy. This is "merely" the same principle used today in similar devices.
Cousteau leaves to England in 1944, not to reunite with Charles De Gaulle, rather to sell his device to the allies.
After the war and up to the end of the decade, Jacques-Yves Cousteau remains in the French Navy's service, diving regularly with the mission of searching and destroying lost ammunition, cargo ships or sunk submarines. But JYC was dreaming about growing his own horizons and set his mind definitely into oceanography; he wanted his own boat, to be able to go wherever he might want.
He finds then an English patron who gives him, at low price, a mine sweeper used after the war, baptized as Calypso. Jacques-Yves decides to retire from the Navy and uses all the service bonus money equipping his future oceanographic ship.
And, by July 19, 1950, Jacques-Yves Cousteau becomes, finally, ship captain in civil life.
Since the beginning that the projects e carries out reveal to be extremely rich in knowledge and profitable for the expedition sponsors. Something that made the bells ring in the all world (once again). This time, through a United Nations senior official who signals, "Life" magazine, the existence of JYC, underwater movie director and co-inventor of the first scuba.
This is the opening to the American market, which never left while alive. When reading the first theme from Life magazine "Universal Pictures" acquired immediately all copyrights of the already known movies: Par Dix-Huit Métres de Fond (1943); Epaves (1946); Paysages du Silence (1947) and Un Plongée du 'Rubis' (1950).
This purchase allowed even better equipment for the Calypso and sail towards the first true long-haul and duration expedition. Destiny: Red Sea; sponsor and client: National Geographic Society.
It was the year 1951. Aboard the Calypso, 11 members of the crew, including his wife Simone. Around the Calypso, several boats, loaded with film makers and their equipment sail with the expedition and become aware that, the usual black and white is too poor for the underwater registry and all the glamour of the show they were watching.
Once again, the world's most famous captain's team, got their hands on the job and developed the best lighting techniques for the best coloured shooting. These developments are still in use today, by all the film makers for this kind of shootings.
Following a very intense listing of world distinction: Palme d'Or in 1956 for the movie "World of Silence", directed by young (23 years of age) Louis Malle; one Hollywood Academy Oscar the next year and, also in 1957, the appointment by Prince Rainier to the presidency of the oceanographic museum of Monaco.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau will also (during the 1960's) to be hired by oil companies for the exploration of the underwater oil basins in the Persian Gulf. Cousteau accepts it because he is eager to film the coral banks.
Up to 1972, JYC gets involved in several disastrous projects of underwater research and almost stops sailing.
In 1972, Simone (who he will respect until his own death), assumes her address aboard the Calypso, as "mother of the crew" and the great expeditions return. She will keep this post until the day she dies in 1990.
In 1996, Calypso would sank at the coast of Singapore – as the result of a crash against a barge – when it was sailing for a new expedition, this time, destined to the Yellow Sea, in China. The iconic ship was rescued in 2007 and, after ten years of repair work, it sailed again in 2016.
Even when, in the late 1970's, JYC falls in love with Francine Triplet, and air stewardess, he promises her he will never get the relation official as long as Simone lives.
Even the existence of two kids (Diane and Pierre-Yves) out of this relation with Francine, will only be known in 1992.
Though he participated actively in many industrial international projects, little by little Cousteau becomes aware of the impact this was causing to the world he so much loved. And, even though considered by many as a mere engineer, JYC was already an important intermediary between the general public and decision-makers worldwide.
Until, September 1995, when Jacques Chirac approves nuclear tests on the known Mururoa Atoll (in the French Polynesia, Pacific Ocean), Cousteau rebels as never before: "Stop! Stop immediately"!
Bernard Violet and Richard Munson described Cousteau, in a hateful hated biography: "he is a false resistant, false sailor and a false ecologist".
But his contribution to the knowledge of the oceans is something that no one dares to challenge.