Obituary: Jacques Cousteau

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As one of the world's most famous adventurers, Jacques Cousteau touched giant whales, befriended shy octopuses, confronted frenzied sharks. He produced and starred in almost a hundred films shown in scores of countries and hosted the most popular documentary series in television history. The author or co-author of some 80 books, Cousteau also co- invented the aqualung, launch- ed the science of undersea archaeology, advanced underwater photography, discovered oil beneath the ocean floor in the Persian Gulf, and built undersea stations and small submarines for oceanographic research.

Cousteau's inventions changed the way we view the world. His films and television shows transported several generations of viewers to exotic and faraway places, and his books educated millions about the wonders beneath the sea.

Yet Jacques Cousteau was perhaps revered less for his accomplishments than for his unique zest for life, his irrepressible curiosity, his youthful sense of wonder. "I spent my life," he said, "amazed by nature and dazzled by the experiences of life."

In private, however, the adventurer-filmmaker suffered and struggled. He endured chronic anaemia and enteritis as a child. His periodic attacks of neurasthenia produced nervous tension and malaise. He remained underweight and susceptible to high altitudes, undersea pressures, and cold water.

Cousteau brushed against death several times: in 1936, when he crashed his father's Salmson on a foggy road in the Vosges Mountains and crushed several ribs, perforated his lungs, and severely fractured his left arm; in 1940, when he went into convulsions after descending too deeply with an experimental oxygen tank; in 1947, when he virtually collapsed from carbon monoxide poisoning at the bottom of the Fontaine-de-Vaucluse; and in 1955, when he beat back frenzied sharks with his camera.

Perhaps Cousteau's worst setback was the death of his youngest son in 1979. Philippe was landing his seaplane on the Tagus River in Portugal when it flipped over and tore apart. The loss shattered Cousteau since Philippe, a film-maker and adventurer too, was to have taken over and continued his father's work. The eldest son, Jean-Michel, returned for a short time to the family business, but then went off on his own.

Although Jacques Cousteau usually avoided reflections on his past, he conceded several years ago that his stimulating career demanded sacrifices. "I have a good wife and a good son, and I'm not complaining," he said. "But if I had it to do over again, I would not get married. It's impossible to be an adventurer and a bureaucrat at the same time, and, if you get married, you should be a bureaucrat and have a stable job. I have tried to save the relationships in spite of my activities, but I could have done better."

The sea, to which Cousteau did devote his attentions, delivered both joy and frustration. "From the very first," he acknowledged, "my sense of wonder at the sea has alternated with a sense of revulsion." He admitted to having been often attracted by a different kind of life, yet he gave himself over, body and soul, to undersea discovery. "My motive in seeking out new sites to explore, in diving even deeper, in staying below even longer, in filming, in fighting, was, certainly, the satisfaction of my curiosity about the sea. But it was also an emotional, almost sexual need . . . I was biologically drawn to the sea, but I knew very well that I would never succeed in possessing it totally."

The second of two sons, Jacques-Yves Cousteau was born in Saint Andre- de-Cubzac, near Bordeaux, in 1910. No sooner did the young Cousteau enter the world than he was bundled up to accompany his itinerant family, his father being a legal adviser and travelling companion for wealthy Americans living in Europe. Jacques' earliest memory was of being rocked to sleep in a train hammock.

He demonstrated diverse talents early. In 1921, at the age of 11, he borrowed the blueprints for a 200-ton floating crane and built a 4ft electric- powered model, devising unique features which engineers later added to the larger structure. Two years later, after a family trip, he wrote, illustrated, typeset, and bound a book entitled An Adventure in Mexico. At the age of 13, he used his allowance to purchase one of the first movie cameras to be sold in France. By 16 he was photographing and directing home-made melodramas, placing himself in front of and behind the camera.

Cousteau graduated in 1933 from the Ecole Navale in Brest, the national naval academy of France. In 1937, he married Simone Melchior, descended from three generations of French admirals. The couple had two sons: Jean- Michel, born in 1938, and Philippe, born in 1939.

During the Second World War, Jacques served as a spy for the Allies within Vichy France, while his brother, Pierre- Antoine, became a German collaborator who wrote racist editorials against Jews, shrill denunciations of the resistance, and apologetic stories of Nazi actions. After the war, a French court condemned Pierre to death for his wartime activities. Jacques' display of loyalty to his collaborationist brother, even testifying at the trial in his formal officer's uniform bearing several war medals, haunted him throughout his three-decade-long naval career. Admirals informally labelled him as undisciplined and suspect. Cousteau would be given responsibilities, but he remained a captain while all his academy classmates who survived the war earned further advancement.

With financial support from a wealthy British seafarer, Cousteau purchased and refurbished a war-surplus minesweeper in 1950, and christened it Calypso. That ship became famous throughout the world for its role with documentary films, industrial projects, and undersea habitations.

Cousteau's best-known feature-length movie, The Silent World, won an Oscar and the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956. In the opening spectacle, five undersea explorers descended into the dark water, each holding a bright torch that sent a thick trail of silver bubbles perking back up toward the surface. Sixty-five feet below them, Cousteau floated in liquid space, recording the underwater flight of this torch team in order to reveal, for the first time to a large audience, the ocean's exquisite and colourful beauty.

Although three other producers released feature-length underwater films at the same time as The Silent World, only Cousteau (along with his co- producer, Louis Malle) edited beautiful images and good music into rhythmic, dramatic adventures. A natural artist who had long been fascinated with film, Cousteau had become a master editor.

Cousteau explained his approach toward undersea exploration as an "almost militant insistence on the necessity of man's presence in the water to arrive at a true understanding of that world". From Calypso's first expedition, Cousteau pushed his crew and the accompanying scientists to adopt his motto of personal observation: "Il faut aller voir" ("We must go and see for ourselves"). The creed translated into a unique documentary film style in which Cousteau's cameras focused as much on Calypso's crew as on undersea animals and plants. Moreover, it produced an anthropomorphic perspective on life within the sea. His television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau ran for eight years and was shown round the world.

In addition to his films, books, and inventions, Cousteau directed the Oceanographic Institute in Monaco, the oldest and largest undersea museum and research centre, and he founded the Cousteau Society, with offices in the United States and France. His ideas were as diverse as his activities, spanning the gulf between the practical and the visionary. He devised the useful aqualung, a breathing aid for divers, but he wrote surrealistic poetry. He built a corporate empire, including multi-million-dollar manufacturing and construction firms, but he believed business was inconsequential compared with the life of a pelican or a dolphin. Over a meal his conversation would range from French wine to whale communications to nuclear war to the phenomenon of the sun rising and setting each day. He played the piano, painted, composed poetry, and commented on international affairs. He spoke English and German fluently, understood Spanish, and read Russian.

"The Captain" was not, however, without his critics. While Cousteau claimed to have made earthshaking scientific discoveries, leading oceanographers complain that he focused more on showmanship than on science. And, although he boasted that he had "rescued countless endangered species and exposed the ecological dangers which are making mankind an equally endangered species", some ecologists argue that he failed to use his substantial political clout to protect the environment.

Yet Jacques Cousteau, talented and charismatic, was clearly one of the 20th century's great men. He transported us into worlds we would never have seen or could barely have imagined.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau, marine explorer and film-maker: born Saint Andre- de-Cubzac, France 11 June 1910; inventor (with Emile Gagnan) of the aqualung 1943; founder, Groupe d'Etudes et de Recherches Sous-marines, Toulon 1946; founder, Campagnes Oceanographiques Francaises, Marseilles 1950; founder, Office Francais de Recherches Sous-marines (Centre d'Etudes Marines Avancees), Marseilles 1952; Director, Musee Oceanographique, Monaco 1957-88; General Secretary, International Commission for Scientific Exploration of the Mediterranean Sea 1966; founder, Cousteau Society 1973; member, Academie Francaise 1988-97; Chairman, Council on Rights of Future Generations 1993- 97; films include The Silent World 1956 (Academy Award 1956), The Golden Fish 1959 (Academy Award 1959), World Without Sun 1965 (Academy Award 1965), Voyage to the Edge of the World 1975, Cries from the Deep 1982, Riders of the Wind 1986, Lilliput in Antarctica 1990; television series include The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau 1968-76, The Cousteau Odyssey 1977-82, Cousteau/ Amazon 1982-85, Cousteau/ Mississippi 1985; Cousteau/ Rediscovery of the World 1985-97; married 1937 Simone Melchior (died 1990; one son, and one son deceased), 1992 Francine Triplet (one son, one daughter); died Paris 25 June 1997.