Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Jacques Cousteau: 'The most creative and imaginative person I've ever met'

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jacques Cousteau allied an inventive genius to his exploring and photography skills
  • Cousteau collaborator, Susan Schiefelbein remembers the Frenchman's contributions to marine exploration
  • Cousteau helped design the "diving saucer" which helped further knowledge of ocean depths
  • Explorer also campaigned to stop nuclear waste being dumped in the Mediterranean Sea in 1960s

Paris (CNN) -- Dressed in a wet suit, air tanks strapped to his back, poised to head overboard is an image of Jacques Cousteau most people would recognize.

It was a routine the French explorer and conservationist repeated over and over again, hundreds, perhaps thousands of times over his long and adventure-filled life. But less known was that Cousteau was an inventive genius.

"I remember most that he was enchanted with ideas ... He was almost like a little child, but he was the most creative and imaginative person I've ever met," says Susan Schiefelbein, a close collaborator with Cousteau for more than two decades who also helped him write his autobiography.

"He made connections that other people were slow to make. A scientist who would be involved and have a passion in his work could go to Cousteau and say 'A,B' and Cousteau could skip to 'Q' and understand immediately the intermediary steps," she said.

He was almost like a little child, but he was the most creative and imaginative person I've ever met
Susan Schiefelbein

The Frenchman practically invented scuba diving when he developed the regulator valve that made possible breathing air from tanks underwater.

Apart from his scuba equipment, which he called an "aqua lung," Cousteau was perhaps best known for his underwater photography. His stunning documentaries produced for television and cinema had their origins in the adventurer's childhood curiosity.

"He was fascinated by film from the time he was a little child -- he actually pinched chemicals from his grandfather's pharmacy and taught himself how to develop films and he made movies of himself and his friends," Schiefelbein said.

Cousteau's original ambitions were to forge a naval and aviation career, attending the naval academy in Brest. But a serious car accident in which he broke both his arms ended any dreams of becoming a pilot.

"He was strengthening himself by swimming and he became a naval explorer kind of by default," Schiefelbein says.

If he came to diving by accident, it was a fortunate accident indeed. It led Cousteau to a lifelong search to find out what lies beneath the surface of the world's oceans.

Cousteau's endless curiosity led him to explore ever more remote, ever deeper waters. But he needed something to help withstand high water pressures and capable of maneuvering silently like a diver without disturbing the aquatic life around it. Submarines couldn't work because of the turbulence and danger of their propellers. Nothing like he had in mind existed, so Cousteau invented it.

Here was a man who took these devices down enormous depths, not having any idea of what would happen ...
Susan Schiefelbein

"He had the idea for it at lunch. He pulled out a saucer from under a coffee cup and then put another one on top and he said 'something like this,' and in two weeks he had scientists working on the idea," Schiefelbein said.

With the help of Jean Mollard from the French Center for Undersea Research, Cousteau created the "diving saucer," or the SP-350 as it was formally known -- a two-man submarine which could dive to depths of 350 meters for several hours at a time.

He very often insisted on testing his new devices and techniques himself, frequently risking his own life in the process.

"Here was a man who took these devices down enormous depths, not having any idea of what would happen and he had to find out for himself. So it was really trial and error in a very dangerous sense. And he always survived," Schiefelbein said.

But the French explorer's vision was not limited to the world of diving. He saw the need to take on broader issues especially those concerning the environment and the seas.

In the 1960s, he campaigned to stop underwater dumping of nuclear waste in the Mediterranean Sea and helped restrict commercial whaling in the 1980s, doing his bit to protect the world he so enjoyed exploring.

"If somebody said: 'what do you expect to see at the bottom of the Romanche Trench?' -- which they were the first to photograph -- he would say: 'If I knew what I expected to see why would I go? Why would I even look?' So it was 'allez voir,'" Schiefelbein says.

"Allez voir" ("go see") was advice that Cousteau himself followed right until the end.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:13 AM EDT, Tue July 16, 2013
More than two million people are dying every year from the effects of outdoor air pollution, according to a new study.
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Fri July 12, 2013
What's better than fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables? How about fresh, locally-grown, free fruits and vegetables, all within an easy walk of your home or office?
updated 6:17 AM EDT, Mon July 8, 2013
Living amid the garbage-strewn sewage canals, residents of Haiti's Cite Soleil endure a grim battle for survival every single day.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Wed July 10, 2013
In just 12 years Vietnam cut the country's malnutrition rate in half by investing in small scale farming. Now other countries are following suit.
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Thu July 4, 2013
We're all familiar with the phrase "waste not, want not," but how well are we applying these words today?
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu June 27, 2013
Sodo, known as Haiti's sacred heart, is one of the few remaining forests in the country.
Take a look into CNN Special Correspondent Philippe Costeau's photo diary of how Haiti can break a vicious cycle of deforestation.
updated 10:44 AM EDT, Wed March 27, 2013
Philippe Cousteau recalls his grandfather's advice and asks how you'd like to look at the ocean in 10 years' time -- with regret or awe.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Wed March 27, 2013
We need to rebuild the ocean's abundance, variety and vitality. Without such action, our own future is bleak, say marine scientists.
updated 6:27 AM EDT, Fri March 22, 2013
Getting water to every person on the planet can and should be done by 2030, argues WaterAid's Chief Executive Barbara Frost.
updated 11:50 AM EDT, Wed March 20, 2013
This deep-sea angler fish was collected from a submersible. Just 3 inches long but fierce-looking, it has a long spine tipped with bioluminescent tissue that it can dangle in front of its mouth.
Oceans cover more than two-thirds of our planet producing half of the oxygen we breathe and helping regulate our climate.
updated 6:57 AM EST, Fri March 8, 2013
Global warming has propelled Earth's climate from one of its coldest decades since the last ice age to one of its hottest -- in just one century.
updated 4:07 AM EDT, Tue July 17, 2012
Dressed in a wet suit, air tanks on his back is an image of Jacques Cousteau most people would recognize. But he was also an inventive genius.
ADVERTISEMENT