Jacques-Yves Cousteau – Interview with a man of the sea

08.02.2017 by ricardo

Species: Homo aquaticus. Name: Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Profession: ?


We meet at the ocean. Where else. The man opposite me is slim, sinewy and strong.

– Monsieur Cousteau, what are you? A former marine lieutenant, a pioneer of deep-sea research or an ocean activist? A treasure hunter, an adventurer or the inventor of underwater scooters, cameras and bright yellow mini-submarines? Are you the captain of the world-famous research vessel Calypso or a businessman? A 100-fold filmmaker, three-time Academy Award winner, or 50-fold book author? Are you the architect and constructor or three underwater stations …

He smiles, interrupts me:

– My 3 Précontinents, also called Conshelf I to III. Wow! You have extensively researched! Habitable deep-sea houses with all the trimmings. In 1962 we started with the mission Précontinent I.

I complement with:

– One steel cylinder, 2.50 x 5 m, 11 m under the surface of water. Installed off Marseille.

Exactement. 2 Oceanauts, 7 days, life in a type of lab-apartment en miniature. One year later: Précontinent II, sunken in the Red Sea off the coast of Sudan. And then in 1965 the two-storied underwater station, Précontinent III. For 22 days, six of us lived at a depth of 100 m off the coast of Monte Carlo in the Mediterranean.

– Living in the deep sea? Aren’t you a visionary then? In the sixties you drew a picture of aqua-nautical farmers, who milked whales and harvested seafood. There have been many critics and head shakers. It does sound a little quirky. Monsieur Cousteau, a Utopian?

– A realist! With an oversized portion of fantasy maybe, a man with many visions certainly. There’s no harm in it, right? For me, the largest option for humanity was never in space, but rather always at the bottom of the sea.

– Monsieur Cousteau, …

The sun breaks through the clouds. He takes his trademark, his little red bonnet, off his head.

– Simply call me Jacques.

– Jacques, how would you describe yourself, how do you see yourself?

– I don’t know what I am. I only know, what I would like to be: A Homo aquaticus, a waterman, adapted to life in cities at the bottom of the sea, equipped with refinements such as liquid breathing and artificial gills.

– Even today this still sounds like science fiction!

– In 1960 I was absolutely certain that research would soon manage to invent artificial gills.

– If I remember correctly, an American couple of biochemists of North Carolina actually developed an oxygen absorber in the mid-seventies. Their so-called Hemosponge was supposed to be able to filter oxygen from water.

– Yes, that’s correct. And in the eighties the bad news circulated that the problem was almost solved. There was even a trial with a hamster in an aquarium. But at that point in time, development stagnated.

– In that respect, not much has been done in the last 75 years since you invented the Aqua-Lung.

– The Aqua-Lung is not my invention. It is the results of further developments, optimisations and combinations of the performances of excellent inventors. Without the groundwork, the early technical concepts and trials of people like Rouquayrol and Denayrouze or Le Prier, the pioneers of autonomous diving, the Aqua-Lung might have never been born or its development might have been delayed considerably. For hundreds of years people have developed ideas in order to be able to go walking under water. They dove with air bags made from mutton skin, put barrels over their heads, stuck reeds or tubes in their mouths, squeezed themselves into monstrous metal constructions, strapped metal canisters filled with compressed air on their backs, some breathed pure oxygen, countless risked their lives with self-experiments. A lot of brilliant concepts fell into oblivion, others proved to be deadly, and still others were strokes of genius.

Émile Gagnan and you managed such a stroke of genius in 1943. By the way, thank you from all SCUBA users on Earth, Jacques!

He grins:

– You’re welcome. My pleasure. At the beginning, however, the construction of the Aqua-Lung was primarily quite a self-serving project. Only one lung full with air, that was always too little for me personally. Relatively early it became clear to me: If I wanted to move around unhindered, deeply and for a long time like a fish man under water, if I wanted to shoot underwater films, then I had to solve the problems of oxygen and compressed air regulation.  That was the key. I wanted a bottle with compressed air for the back, which supplied the vital gas to the mouthpiece, in a manner that was suitable for the lungs, reliable and safe, in spite of the rising pressure resulting from increased depth. I wanted an autonomous device, which would automatically adapt the air pressure and the necessary air quantity to my needs as a diver, to my breathing.

– In 1925, another Frenchman had already tried to do that.

– You mean Yves Le Prieur, don’t you? Yes, he had developed a very interesting diving device. In part it was based on the famous model of the Rouquayrol and Denayrouze team from 1864, an already autonomous compressed air diving device, which had been further developed from a breathing apparatus for rescuing miners involved in accidents to a diving device. Even back then, you strapped a tank on your back. A filling capacity of about 30 litres. The air was compressed at 30 to 40 bar.

– Long seabed hikes at a significant depth were not possible though with those, right?

– No, but at the time the device turned out to be a real top seller, which was produced in different model variants for decades. The good news:  The Rouquayrol-Denayrouze compressed air diving device already disposed of a regulating valve. The bad news: This essential, brilliant construction detail part fell completely into oblivion.

– So actually a really great construction …

– … with the shortcoming of insufficient air supply.

– Sixty years later Le Prieur managed to channel the compressed air into a full face mask with its 3 l pressurized air tank of 135 bar and a manual control. The first dives with stays of up to 30 minutes at a water depth of 7 metres or of 10 minutes at 12 metres were possible.

– But there was also a crux with this device: The constant air flow. Excess breathable air flowed unhindered pass the ears of the diver up to the surface.

– Pure waste of air!

– Unfortunately! The consumption-based diving regulator which had fallen into oblivion had to be invented all over again, in order to optimise the temporal operating life of the compressed air in the bottles. That was exactly my dream:  An automatic, demand-based regulator in combination with powerful, stable bottles.

– All the more fantastic that you and Émile Gagnan were brought together by chance in 1942.

– Yes, at the time Gagnan was working as an engineer for the company Air Liquide and was looking for a solution to the fuel shortage problem, which resulted from the German occupation of France.  By coincidence one of the mentioned models by Rouquayrol and Denayrouze was at his disposal. He downsized this device and combined it with car carburators in such a way that gas, which was actually used for cooking, could be conducted in the exact quantity that the nozzle required.

– This means, he enabled a supply according to demand via a gas regulator, so exactly with the type of component that you were missing. Not bad.

C’est ça. That’s it. That is exactly what I was looking for to optimise the compressed air diving device. My father-in-law was Gagnan’s boss, he knew of my interest and my wish and brought Gagnan and I together. In December ’42, we began to think and to discuss, prototypes arose, we tested and very promptly, a few weeks later, in 1943, we already applied for a first patent.

– And, in one fell swoop, the Aqua-Lung was born.

– A reliable diving regulator, which automatically adapted the air pressure and the quantity of air at disposal to the breathing activity of the diver, fixed on resilient, strong, pressurised air bottles, which withstood up to 200 bar, finally increased the diving time to more than 60 minutes and enabled stays at significant depths as well. The results of teamwork, tested in the Mediterranean with my two friends Philippe Tailliez and Frédéric Dumas. We were also called the musketeers of the sea, Les Mousquemers. A great time.

– In 1943 you shot your first film together: Épaves.*¹

– Yes, I think that was one of the factors that made diving popular in France, so to say what provoked the initial SCUBA wave. In the film we used two of the very first Aqua-Lung prototypes.

– Impressive for people of the forties. Actually for me as well. I have watched the film: Sea people wearing rubber fins climb courageously and manly into the tides.

– Yes, including their own underwater takes. But I was admittedly not the first one though. Jean Painlevé developed underwater film recording techniques back in the twenties. His devices though still had quite a cumbersome dimension. Look here, I just happen to have a photo of them on me: In 1935 with Le Prieur’s *² compressed air diving device!

He pulls a crumpled page from a newspaper out of his pocket and hands it to me.

– Jacques, since we’re just roaming through Who is Who of the underwater enthusiastics: Does the name Hans Hass ring a bell?

– Of course. Hans was – like me and many others –  consumed by diving, with Drägerwerk he developed a skin diving device by modifying a so-called escape set in 1941. A different system than ours where the diver breathes in a bag on his back. The air was enhanced by oxygen from a bottle, which you wore on your stomach. Hass could dive up to an hour and at a depth of 25 m with it, completely without any disturbing air bubbles, which was particularly advantageous while filming.  He was a very committed person, a protector of the sea as well. In 1940, he already shot an underwater film in the Caribbean, but only equipped with diving goggles and fins, without any breathing apparatus. However, since we already said his name, it would be a faux pas not to at least mention my compatriot Georges Commeinhes at least in passing. Another inventor, who almost simultaneously with Gagnan and myself also invented a consumption-based diving regulator. Already in 1942, he applied for a patent for his model. Nevertheless, our Aqua-Lung prevailed over his device on the market.  At the time, the inventions were suddenly appearing in one swoop.

– The time was probably simply ripe, to dive deeper and longer.

He laughs out loud. Congenial. No arrogant distance. Open.

– But coming back to you, Jacques: Why is the Aqua-Lung actually called the Aqua-Lung? You are French, born in the region of Bordeaux (Gironde). The Grande Nation loves its own language above all. Why then an English name for a French invention?

Oui, je suis français, I am French, I grew up near the sea. But if you want to be successful internationally, you have to think globally linguistically. In France, a company bearing the patent name CG45 or Scaphandre Cousteau-Gagnan, in other words Diving Device Cousteau-Gagnan, no problem. But in order to sell this invention in English-speaking countries, we needed an appealing name that had an international touch and followed English language standards. So the name Aqua-Lung was born. And we started mass production, in France in 1946, in Great Britain, Canada and the USA at the beginning of the 50s.

– So is Jacques Cousteau an international businessman?

– That is quite correct. If you want to do something – worldwide, ocean wide, if you want to promote, implement projects, then you have to be able to find funding. Difficult, I can assure you of that. I believe that being a businessman is part of it. Not everyone is as generous as the Irish Brewery Guinness, which offered me the Calypso in 1950.

– THE research ship per se, originally built and used as a mine hunter, later transformed into a ferry, then bought by Guinness and put at your disposal. How lucky was that!

– Huge luck! We adapted the Calypso, trimmed it completely to the needs of our research trips, and equipped it with a whole lot of technology.

– And … you enlarged it distinctively: For example the so-called false nose or the underwater observation room at the bow, equipped with 8, with 8 (!) portholes.

– For a maximum view of the world down under.

–  In 1951, the maiden voyage took place in the Red Sea. 42,35 metres of floating wood was a lab, a film studio and living space for 28 crew members until 1996.

– Yes, a wonderful ship. A wonderful time.

– Apropos time, Jacques. I could still talk for hours with you. About the Cousteau Society for the protection of the sea, your films, your committed family …

– My women?

He winks at me. He knows, what has been written. I know what privacy means and what makes people human.

– I really would have liked to talk about your views and your experiences. Or about your first rapture of the deep in 1947.

– Oh là là! Don’t remind me about that! At a depth of 70 metres, I was thoroughly analysing the colour of the water, but I could not decide between navy blue, ultramarine or Prussian blue, then I was assaulted by my childhood nightmares: Incredibly terrifying. And at a depth of 90 m, I would have loved to give artificial respiration to the fish with my mouthpiece. The rapture of the big deep destroyed my life instinct, you know.

– There is still so much more, which I would like to mention and ask you about. Mais, c‘est la vie. You are French, Jacques, you understand this sentence. It’s time.

– Let’s simply arrange another meeting. One year from today? Same time, same place?

Avec plaisir, Monsieur Cousteau.

– Jacques please, simply just Jacques.

– One last word for those out there, the SCUBA divers of this world, the sea people?

We are the main “users” of the ocean’s beauty. Let us become its immune system.*³

He kisses me on the cheeks, grabs his compressed air bottle & Co. and climbs into the sea.

I still call Au revoir! and Merci for everything, Jacques, above all for the Aqua-lung! But he cannot hear me anymore.  Jacques Cousteau, born in 1910, died in 1997.


This interview took place in my head in 2017, somewhere on the shore of an ocean. Jacques could not be with me. He had already been dead for 20 years. He shaped me with his films, his utopias, his energy. The only thing that I never wanted was his red bonnet. Then I hate woollen hats. But I, I also have more hair than he had.


Tips. References. Impressions. Sources. Inspirers. Thoughts-effervescent.

  1. Film. Épaves. 1943: https://vimeo.com/22584246
  2. *² Search on Google, Images, with the keywords: Jean Painlevé avec scaphandre
  3. Quote from the source: http://www.cousteau.org/cousteau-divers/

More films. More picture documents. Websites.

  1. SCUBA. First tests of the Aqua-Lung 1943: http://www.cousteau.org/technology/ (significant: the wrong year mentioned in the film)
  2. Search on Google, Images, with the keywords: Jacques Cousteau aqua-lung
  3. Search on Google, Images, with the keywords: Tailliez Cousteau Dumas
  4. http://www.cousteau.org
  5. Film. The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau – Those Incredible Diving Machines: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MfW-VRDnZuY
  6. Film. The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau – Conshelf Adventure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8BtsK4uE9-E
  7. Film. Cousteau’s Calypso: An introduction by the musician John Denver, who composed the song Calypso in Jacques Cousteau’s honour. It is followed by a montage worth seeing of film and photographic material from Cousteau’s expeditions aboard his research ship Calypso. At the end of the video, a message by Cousteau, to protect the sea together: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rqiHM7X6BAw.
  8. The famous Cousteau Film: Le Monde du Silence (Jacques Cousteau). Produced in 1954/ 55 and first released in 1956. A French documentary, which Cousteau filmed together with the still unknown, young and up-and-coming director at the time Louis Malle. Le Monde du Silence became famous as one of the first underwater films, which showed coloured footage of the depths of the ocean. It won, among others, an Oscar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p49uc8exPSY

Note: In its day highly-praised and admired for the remarkable impressions of this unknown world, decades later a volley of criticism fell upon it: From the point of view of environmentalists, many images of the film footage must have seemed incompatible with Cousteau’s image as protector of the seas and its inhabitants. Let us look at it critically, realistically, appraisingly and reservedly:  In the mid-fifties, the awareness for and the knowledge concerning the fragility of the environment was still completely different. The film is an impressive contemporary document and should be perceived as such.