Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Jacques-Yves Cousteau

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Jacques-Yves Cousteau

Article excerpt

The French oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau is internationally renowned as a marine explorer and defender of the oceans. A pioneer of undersea investigation, he has sailed all over the world on oceanographic expeditions and has also written and produced films about the oceans which have attracted immense audiences. He is now preoccupied with the protection of the environment in an age of rapid economic expansion and population growth.

* How did you come to be interested in nature and particularly in nature in aquatic surroundings?

-- I have always been curious about things. When I was a child I used to go out bird-watching at night. I ran into a certain amount of opposition from my parents, who weren't very keen on curiosity if it exposed me to risks.

I first really started to learn about water when I was ten years old. I was in a holiday camp near a lake in the United States. We had to collect garbage from under the children's diving platform, and to do that I learned how to dive and swim under water. I had no goggles or any other special equipment and bringing the garbage to the surface was quite a job. I spent two or three weeks diving into that lake and eventually I learned how to hold my breath under water.

Later, when I was fourteen, I improved my underwater swimming techniques. There was a swimming pool at my school in Alsace, and I used all kinds of contraptions made from tubes and pumps in order to breathe under water. I wasn't trying to observe the natural world. I was imitating the James Fenimore Cooper heroes who hid under water and breathed through hollow reeds when trying to escape from their pursuers.

I slowly became convinced that I wanted to be a sailor. I passed my baccalaureate and then, when I was twenty, I won a place at the French naval academy. Two years later, during a round-the-world voyage on a training ship, the Jeanne d'Arc, I witnessed a scene that had a decisive impact on my life. At Cam Ranh Bay in Indochina, at the hottest time of day, between noon and two o'clock, I saw people diving from their boats and then surfacing with fish in their hands. They told me that while the fish were having their siesta they were very easy to catch! I thought that this was so extraordinary that I decided to improve my underwater swimming techniques further.

For the time being, however, I had no opportunity to do so. I was given command of the French naval base at Shanghai, providing supplies for ships which docked at the French concession. It was only later, when I returned to France and thought about the people of Cam Ranh Bay, that I came back to the idea of developing underwater swimming techniques. In the meantime I had become friendly with Frederic Dumas and Philippe Taillez. We became the Three Musketeers of underwater adventure.

I became obsessed with the problem of breathing underwater. My friends and I tested all the breathing apparatus that existed at that time and found that none of it was satisfactory.

Then came the war and the occupation. That was when I met Emile Gagnan, an engineer with the Air Liquide company who had developed a motor vehicle powered by carbon dioxide produced from burning wood. The combustible gas reached the engine via a special feeder valve. This system is used in the underwater breathing device with which my name is associated, millions of which have been sold. In my device, which is entirely self-contained, the gas passing through the feeder valve is compressed air. Using this system, Dumas, Taillez and I were able to extend the possibilities of underwater swimming and start to make films.

When the war was over, I told officials at the Navy Ministry about this entirely new system we had developed and suggested that a study centre be opened at Toulon. As a result, a centre for underwater study and research was created in the Arsenal at Toulon.

* You didn't stay there very long. …

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