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Having graduated from a strict boarding school in Alsace (where he had been sent after an audacious window-smashing jaunt) and passed through two years at the prestigious École Navale in Brest, Cousteau was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1933 and spent the next two years at sea with the French navy. Despite his obvious connection with the sea, the 25-year-old had always intended on becoming a naval aviator rather than a seaman or submariner. However, this dream was dashed in 1936 when he narrowly escaped with his life from a terrible car accident.
The crash left him paralyzed on his right side and with a dozen broken bones, including multiple fractures in his arms. The damage was so severe that at one point his doctors advised amputation. However, Cousteau refused to allow this and chose a long, painful recovery instead. As part of his rehabilitation, he swam in the Mediterranean every day. One day, he took his old aviator goggles into the sea with him and dove beneath the waves. From that point on, his fascination with the seafloor’s flora and fauna was complete and his mission in life clear to him.
Before World War II began, Cousteau was recruited into the French intelligence services. While the Vichy government controlled the southern half of France, he was busy working for the French Resistance, reporting on the movements of Italian troops to the Allies. For his efforts, he was later awarded several medals, including the Légion d’Honneur. Cousteau continued serving his country after the war ended by aiding the French navy in its efforts to clear shipping lanes of underwater mines.
Cousteau is most famous for having co-invented the Aqualung with Émile Gagnan in 1943. This revolutionary piece of equipment allowed divers to stay down for far longer than ever before by combining the SCUBA apparatus created by Yves Paul Gaston Le Prieur in 1926 and a demand regulator that Gagnan had conceived in 1942 with gas engines in mind. However, Cousteau and his team devised numerous other bits of underwater gear, including the first submersible scooters, a mini-submarine (which he nicknamed Denise), and many of the lighting systems and waterproof cameras that are still used today.
As revolutionary as Cousteau’s newly developed equipment was, he was actually a dab hand at free diving. In 1947, as part of his research with the French navy, he set a world record after descending to a distance of 300 feet. Nevertheless, the Aqualung came in handy when he accompanied a group of scientists on an expedition off the coast of Tunisia in 1948. Their goal was to explore the Roman shipwreck that lay on the seabed near the town of Mahdia. It soon became apparent that Cousteau’s self-contained submersible device had given birth to a whole new discipline: underwater archaeology.
Around this time, Cousteau made the acquaintance of British millionaire and philanthropist Thomas Loel Guinness. The member of the famous brewing dynasty also happened to be passionate about the oceans and wanted to help Cousteau realize his dream of making underwater documentaries in whatever way he could. In 1950, Guinness purchased a 40-year-old former car ferry and leased it to his new friend for just one franc per year. The ship was christened Calypso and became as recognized and loved as Cousteau himself. It was badly damaged in 1996 and, following a protracted legal battle, is still being renovated today.
In a 1960 interview with Time, Cousteau predicted that the medical science would one day exist to allow humans to live underwater. (Little did he know then that we might one day have no choice but to do so.) He envisaged a reversible surgery that would give people gills like a fish, capable of extracting oxygen from the water. He mused that, ‘Everything that has been done on the surface will sooner or later be done underwater. It will be the conquest of a whole new world.’
Cousteau took home his first gong from the Academy Awards in 1957 for his landmark documentary The Silent World. It also won the Palme d’Or at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival and was the only documentary to have done so for 48 years until Michael Moore won the award in 2004 with Fahrenheit 9/11. More Oscar success came in 1960, the year Cousteau turned 50, when The Golden Fish won for Best Short Film. The hat trick was completed in 1964 with World Without Sun.
It seems like nobody could get enough of old Jacques-Yves. In 1985, he and his crew sailed to Cuba to study the nation’s lobster management program. In the course of their research, the team invited Fidel Castro on board for dinner. Apparently, the dictator took quite a shine to the Frenchman. So much so that he permitted him to liberate no less than 80 political prisoners. The diver and his crew also became the first non-Cubans to enter Guantanamo Bay since the missile crisis of 1962.
In 1937, Cousteau married Simone Melchior, who accompanied him on many of his voyages and earned the nickname La Bergère (The Shepherdess) for the care she took of the crew. The couple also had two sons, one of whom died tragically in a plane crash in 1979. A year after Simone’s own death from cancer in 1990, Cousteau announced that he had been having an affair with a woman 30 years younger than him, Francine Triplet, and that they had already had two children together. In typically French style, this revelation raised few French eyebrows and certainly didn’t tarnish his reputation.