Discoveries That Jacques Cousteau Made

Jacques Cousteau was a scuba pioneer; the first explorer of ocean life.

From 1956 French underwater explorer, Jacques Cousteau brought ocean life to our TV screens in a way never before seen. He discovered life in the coral reefs and deep oceans. His work inspired a generation of scuba divers and marine biologists. Yet his pioneering documentaries were made possible only by his technological discoveries. Cousteau was instrumental in developing scuba gear, underwater cameras, mini-subs and a submarine village.

1 The Aqualung

Cousteau co-developed the aqualung while in the French navy. An early self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA), this was the first such device with regulated air flow. The aqua-lung supplied air only when the diver breathed in, enabling longer dives than previous scuba devices where airflow was continuous. Scuba freed divers from connection via helmets and air lines to a mother ship. This enabled deeper dives and improved maneuverability. Cousteau used the aqua-lung for mine clearance from 1943 and for underwater exploration post-war. His streamlined scuba, developed in 1966, provided greater flexibility and reduced air-consumption.

2 Underwater Photography

Cousteau shot his first underwater film in 1942, holding his breath. The aqualung made his second film easier. He still had technical problems to overcome: studying light rays underwater to discover lighting that would render color accurately and developing underwater scooters to keep pace with swimming creatures. By 1963, Cousteau's cameras with “owl eye” technology could utilize the minimal light available at great depths.

3 Submersibles

In 1959, Cousteau developed the first underwater exploration vehicle -- the diving saucer. "Denise" held two men lying prone, observing the deep ocean through portholes. Denise explored depths to 350 meters. Her movable lamps illuminated life forms never before seen. On-board cameras, tape recorders and a sampling arm documented these new creatures. By 1965 Cousteau developed two similar one-man subs, nicknamed "Sea Fleas."

4 Shipwrecks

These developments also enabled Cousteau to make archaeological discoveries. He was the first to explore many of the world's shipwrecks, retrieving Roman and other treasures. While filming his first documentary, “The Silent World” (1955), Cousteau discovered the “Thistlegorm.” Sunk in 1941, this British warship full of military equipment is today one of the world's most visited wrecks.

5 The Conshelf and the Turbosail

In 1962 Cousteau developed Conshelf 1 – the first undersea laboratory, manned by two "oceanauts". Having thus proved man could live beneath the ocean, Cousteau developed Conshelf II. This underwater village included a submarine garage, equipment stores and a deeper substation where two men lived for a week. Cousteau's 1964 film of this experiment won an Oscar. In 1980 he realized another dream: an eco-friendly boat combining diesel engines with wind power. The Alcyone's Cousteau-Pechiney Turbosails provide up to five times regular sail power and 35-percent fossil-fuel savings.

6 Discoveries of the Natural World

Before scuba, the oceans were unexplored territory. Cousteau explored them and shared his discoveries with others through film. Cousteau captured the first ever footage of swimming nautiluses. Almost nothing was known of this nocturnal, deep sea creature previously. Cousteau was also among the first to document that dolphins use sonar-like communication. His research vessel, Calypso, advanced knowledge of the deep oceans, the Amazon and Mississippi through sampling and photography. Criticized for not studying his discoveries in depth, Cousteau retorted: “I am an explorer, not a settler … My job is to reveal and then move on.”

Based in the Isle of Man, Tamasin Wedgwood has been writing on historical topics since 2007. Her articles have appeared in "The International Journal of Heritage Studies," "Museum and Society" and "Bobbin and Shuttle" magazine. She has a Master of Arts (Distinction) in museum studies from Leicester University.