Aqua Lung Legend: Jacques-Yves Cousteau

Without a doubt, the most prominent figure in the history of Aqua Lung, and all of diving, is Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

He not only was the co-inventor of the Aqua-Lung, he coined the term itself. For the first decade of the modern regulator’s existence, Aqua-Lung (and later versions of the word such as aqualung) became the generic term for diving gear.

Only in the 1960s did the term “scuba” take precedence. For four decades Cousteau was the marketing icon of La Spirotechnique and U.S. Divers, the French and American companies that would eventually merge to form the Aqua Lung brand. Sometimes unrelated incidents, seeming trivial at the time, can change the course of a person’s life. Some, like a wedding or a trip abroad, are happy. Some, like an automobile accident or a war, are tragic. Thus it was with Cousteau.

He was born in 1910 in Saint-André-de-Cubzac, France. His father, Daniel, a prominent lawyer, relocated the family to New York to follow a client when Cousteau was 10 years old. The boy learned English, and at a summer camp in Vermont learned free diving during a lake cleanup. There were no masks and fins at the time, but somehow those early underwater excursions in cold, muddy water led to a lifelong obsession.


Another obsession was filmmaking. As a youth, Cousteau bought a movie camera by saving his allowance. He wrote, filmed and acted out his fantasy plots, and had the mechanical aptitude to repair and modify the camera as needed.


The waters around Marseilles, where Daniel resettled the family after two years in New York, were far more hospitable than the lake in Vermont. In 1930 Cousteau entered the French |36 |194375 YEARS2018 37Naval Academy and was commissioned two years later as a second lieutenant. His primary interest at that time was flying, and he was training to become a naval aviator. But a serious automobile accident in 1936 put an end to that dream. Suffering partial paralysis and many broken bones, Cousteau refused to let surgeons amputate his infected right arm. Nobody guessed at the time, but that accident reset the course of the young officer’s life.


As part of his lengthy rehabilitation, Cousteau swam in the Mediterranean almost daily. It was there he encountered Guy Gilpatric, an American expat and a writer for the Saturday Evening Post. Gilpatric, a combat pilot who settled in France after World War I, was an avid freediver and spearfisherman, who attracted a group of followers including Cousteau, Hans Hass, Philippe Taillez and Frédéric Dumas. Taillez gave Cousteau a set of Fernez goggles, and his clear vision of Mediterranean undersea life changed the course of diving history.


In 1937 Cousteau married Simone Melchior, whose father, Henri, was a senior director of Air Liquide, a producer of industrial gases. Cousteau was in the French Navy when Germany attacked France at the onset of World War II. When the armistice was signed a Nazi occupied zone was created in the north along with a puppet government based in Vichy in the south. Cousteau, living in the Vichy area, had a bit more freedom than the citizens of northern France. The occupying German and Italian troops looked upon his diving as a harmless exercise. It was during that time that he made his first underwater film.

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.

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