In 1942, Cousteau bought a 35mm movie camera from a pawnshop in Marseilles. A brilliant machinist, Léon Vêche, designed a housing. Movie film was impossible to obtain, so Jacques bought all the 35mm still camera film he could get his hands on. At night, he and Simone huddled under blankets, splicing the rolls into 50-foot strips. With this primitive equipment, he made his first underwater film, Eighteen Meters Deep, featuring Dumas diving and spearfishing off the Riviera. All the action and shooting was done free diving. The film received rave reviews at its Paris premiere.
Cousteau’s introduction to Air Liquide engineer Emile Gagnan and their co-invention of the regulator in 1943 changed everything, and it wasn’t long before he put the invention to work. His first project with the Aqua-Lung was another film, Epaves (Wrecks). Copies can be seen today on YouTube and Vimeo. Even using primitive camera gear in black and white, and having to make every shot count due to the film shortage, it’s easy to see Cousteau’s instincts for flow and composition. The long, slim triple tanks, the rectangular regulator, and divers using their hands swimming provide a first-hand look into the history of modern diving. European divers will recognize the broken ship’s wheel of the Dalton, which sank in Marseille, which later became an iconic part of the Spirotechnique logo. The diver in the logo is Dumas. The 30-minute film, released in 1946, was an award winner at the first Cannes film festival.
Although he was listed as a co-director of La Spirotechnique (the company formed by Air Liquide to make and market the Aqua-Lung), Cousteau continued to serve in the French Navy as head of the Underwater Research Group, GERS (Groupement de Recherches Sous-Marines). The group, which included Taillez and Dumas, salvaged an ancient Roman wreck off Tunisia and helped rescue the bathyscaphe Trieste off Dakar. Cousteau left the navy in 1949, and the following year took over the former minesweeper and ferry, called Calypso. To help pay for refitting the ship, he wrote The Silent World, which became an international bestseller. Although Frédéric Dumas is listed as co-author, James Dugan, an American journalist, did most of the serious writing. Dugan continued to collaborate with Cousteau on subsequent books.
The new sport of diving needed a face, and Cousteau became it with the 1956 release of his film, The Silent World. Directed by a young Louis Malle, it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and the Academy Award for Best Documentary in Hollywood. Eight years later his World Without Sun repeated that sweep. It depicted undersea habitats through which flew diving saucer submersibles. The submersibles were inspired by Cousteau but turned into reality by talented engineers. Cousteau had a knack for attracting talented researchers, filmmakers, inventors and writers who helped him expand his reach worldwide.
The legend and exploits of Jacques-Yves Cousteau are well known and beyond the scope of this book. Films, television shows, and books have covered his adventures, his achievements, his environmental crusades, and his tragedies, especially the untimely death of his son and heir apparent, Philippe, in a plane crash.
For the remainder of his life, the captain remained the face and the symbol of Spirotechnique and U.S. Divers. Cousteau passed away in Paris in 1997, age 87.