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Jacques Cousteau centennial: The enduring legacy

By Cathy Hunter, Renee Braden, and Michael Jourdan

Third in a three-part series commemorating Jacques Cousteau

In the middle ’50s, I saw the first of the Jacques Cousteau films, Silent World, and I wanted to do that–explore underwater using an Aqua-Lung. I used my paper route money to buy a ‘genuine French Squalle dive mask’ and went down almost every summer day to the Georgetown swimming pool, where I would cruise around the bottom picking up small change (sunken treasure) and hair balls.” – Emory Kristof, National Geographic photographer


This statue of a leaping dolphin with Jacques Cousteau’s trademark red watch cap celebrates the undersea explorer in his birthplace, the French town Saint-André-de-Cubzac. Photo by Ford Cochran

Some 60 years after Jacques Cousteau first joined forces with National Geographic and 13 years after his death, the famed undersea explorer still exerts his influence through new generations of photographers, scientists, and adventurers, who build upon his legacy. Ask Kristof, or National Geographic Emerging Explorer Beverly Goodman, or underwater photographer David Doubilet whom they view as heroes, and Cousteau’s name inevitably comes up.

Greg Marshall and the National Geographic Crittercam team advance Jacques Cousteau’s legacy of underwater photography, giving us a whale’s-eye–or shark’s eye, or tortoise’s-eye–view of life under the sea. Says Marshall, “Jacques Cousteau’s adventures revealed that there are still extraordinary things to discover in our oceans. For me, his images of mysterious ocean scenes–places few humans had ever experienced–helped inspire a passion to explore the unknown reaches of our blue planet. Crittercam was born in that quest … to explore natural phenomena that have never been seen before. Cousteau documented places he could visit, and now Crittercam takes us where only animals can go … into uncharted ocean depths, riding with them into the unknown.” Cousteau and his crew of “menfish” photographers have been succeeded by marine animals themselves.

The environmentally-conscious nature of Cousteau’s work also lives on through the work of NGS Fellow Dr. Enric Sala, a marine ecologist. In collaboration with the Cousteau Society, Sala is now aboard Cousteau’s ship Alcyone with Cousteau’s youngest son, Pierre-Yves Cousteau, and a National Geographic film crew reexamining undersea Mediterranean destinations visited and documented by the oceanographer more than half a century ago.

Cousteau left his mark on Sala even as a child. Asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, Sala replied, “I wanted to be a diver on the Calypso, Jacques Cousteau’s boat, and explore the world’s oceans.” Sala has ventured to some of the last healthy, undisturbed places in the ocean–from Costa Rica’s Gemelas seamounts to the remote reefs of the Northern and Southern Line Islands.

“Most of the ocean is impacted by humans,” says Sala. “There are very few places left where the ocean is as it used to be. These places are our last chance to know what was in the ocean, what we’ve lost, and what the possibilities are for the future.”

Likewise, Emerging Explorer David de Rothschild works to remind us how much damage has been done to the oceans since Cousteau’s day, and the lengths to which we will have to go to make the oceans whole again. De Rothschild created Plastiki, a catamaran made almost entirely from 12,500 reclaimed plastic bottles. The Plastiki began its maiden voyage from San Francisco to Sydney in March 2010 to highlight how plastic waste is choking ocean ecosystems.

Currently, anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of total marine pollution is comprised of plastic materials. De Rothschild hopes that his efforts will encourage people to rethink how we live in order to reduce the human footprint on the natural world. Cousteau once stated “mankind has probably done more damage to the Earth in the 20th century than in all of previous human history.” Now it’s up to Cousteau’s 21st-century successors to inspire people to care about our blue planet.

Other posts in this series:

In collaboration with the Cousteau Society and in recognition of the hundredth anniversary of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s birth on June 11, 2010, National Geographic Fellow and marine ecologist Enric Sala has set sail aboard Cousteau’s ship Alcyone with the legendary marine explorer’s youngest son, Pierre-Yves Cousteau. The expedition will reexamine undersea Mediterranean destinations visited and documented by Jacques Cousteau more than half a century ago. Learn more about the expedition and explore the ocean with National Geographic.


  1. Robert Gleeson
    May 3, 2011, 1:53 pm

    Jacques would be pleased by the recovery of the reefs in the Marine Park surrounding Cozumel Mexico. The one thing that would honor him is a presence in the Cozumel Museum. We need documents on the Cousteau Cozumel visit in 1961 which is credited with the dive tourism industry in Cozumel.