8 June is celebrated as World Oceans Day. Oceans cover the majority of the earth. In fact, it has often been said that our home should be called Planet Ocean rather than Planet Earth. But compared to terrestrial ecosystems, oceans are still less studied and understood. Scientists are continuing to explore and discover unimagined treasures in the marine world.
One man who understood before others did, how critical our Water Planet is to our survival and who dedicated his life to learning what lay deep in the marine waters, and opened up these hidden treasures for the world, was Jacques Cousteau.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau was born on June 11, 1910 near Bordeaux, in France. He learned to swim when he was just four. When he was 10 his family moved to New York for two years. It was at a summer camp that Jacques first learned how to go diving and snorkelling. He continued to snorkel after the family moved back to the Mediterranean city of Marseilles in France.
In 1930, at the of age 20, Jacques Cousteau passed the tough exams for the French Naval Academy where he trained for two years before spending a year at sea. In 1933, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and spent most of the next two years sailing the world’s seas. In 1935, Cousteau started training to become a naval aircraft pilot. He had almost completed his training when, in 1936, he was involved in a near-fatal car crash. His right side was paralyzed and he had multiple fractures in his arms. This ended his dream of a career in flying. Cousteau underwent months of physical therapy, and spent a lot of time swimming in order to strengthen his fractured arms. He was not satisfied with skimming the surface of the water, he was curious to know what lay deep below. He started diving deeper with a pair of improvised swimming goggles and was amazed to discover the beauty of the sea-floor. He decided that he would make diving his life’s work. He also re-joined the navy as a naval gunnery instructor.
As he attempted deeper dives, Cousteau was frustrated about the limited amount of time that he could remain submerged. The only equipment available for divers then was the Self-contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA) that had been invented in 1926. In 1943, Cousteau met Emil Gagnan a French engineer and together they experimented to develop a device which had compressed air cylinders that would enable divers to remain underwater for a longer time. Thus the diving regulator or aqualung was born, co-invented and patented by Gagnan and Cousteau. Cousteau immediately incorporated the new device into SCUBA apparatus. It gave him exactly what he needed. He could dive freely and stay under longer without the previous cumbersome equipment.
After the war ended, Cousteau began underwater research for the French Navy. In addition to this he also used the new equipment for underwater archaeology work to study the wreck of sunken ships.
In 1951, Cousteau took scientific leave from the Navy and began his own sea expeditions. Cousteau shared his plans to make undersea film documentaries with wealthy British philanthropist Thomas Loel Guinness. Guinness bought an old car ferry and leased it to Cousteau for a token 1 franc a year. Cousteau named the ship Calypso. Cousteau and Calypso would, not too far in the future, become popular names for TV audiences all over the world. But before the ship could become functional, it needed equipment and crew. Cousteau begged for government grants and pleaded with manufacturers for free equipment.
To raise more money, Cousteau and Frédéric Dumas co-authored a book The Silent World, about their pioneering adventures in SCUBA diving. Published in 1953 the book was an instant hit, and has continued to sell; to date it has sold over 5 million copies. In 1956, Cousteau released his first colour movie documentary, also called The Silent World. This was the first time that common people had a peep into a hitherto unimagined underwater world. Today we have access to incredible footage of the marine environment through numerous channels, and with the help of highly sophisticated technology. Cousteau’s film was the first to bring glimpses of this world onto TV screens. The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1957.
Cousteau’s film inspired a lot of people to take up deep sea diving and explore the ocean depths. This also led to a rise in the demand for SCUBA equipment, especially the aqualung.
Cousteau officially retired from the French Navy in 1956 with the rank of Captain. He continued to make underwater documentaries, exploring different facets of the marine environment. His films, and his pioneering work, won many awards. Jacques Cousteau became a familiar name for TV audiences in the 1960s and 1970s.
His work also created a new kind of scientific communication. The simple way of sharing scientific concepts, which characterized his books and films, was soon employed in other disciplines and became one of the most important characteristics of modern TV broadcasting.
Cousteau was more than an inventor, explorer and documenter of the oceans. He inspired generations of marine biologists, teachers, explorers, divers and others for whom the oceans became a personal and professional passion. He was also an activist, and advocate for respectful protection and conservation of the ocean and its resources. In 1973, along with his two sons and Frederick Hyman he created the Cousteau Society for the Protection of Ocean Life. The Cousteau Society continues its mission of exploring the seas, establishing protected areas for endangered species and advocating for the silent world which cannot advocate for itself.
Cousteau believed that people protect what they love. And he made it his life’s mission to create that love for Planet Ocean. Jacques-Yves Cousteau died age 87 of a heart attack on June 25, 1997 in Paris.
When Cousteau first discovered and shared the wonders of the ocean in the 1950s, plastic waste was relatively manageable. Today the oceans are threatened as never before with the issue of plastic pollution with an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic entering the ocean annually. It is estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.
The theme of the recently celebrated World Environment Day (5 June) was Beat Plastic Pollution. The theme of World Oceans Day (8 June) is Planet Ocean. This is a good week to remember Cousteau who gave us the first glimpse of this wondrous planet.