Jacques Cousteau, with his little red hat and his charming grin, is a familiar fellow. He is the subject of over 50 books, 120 television documentaries, and he’s mentioned in over a dozen songs. As a friend and pioneer of the ocean, Cousteau is a backyard hero.
Despite his fame, few people know that Cousteau kept a secret family for over a decade.
In 1938, Cousteau married Simone Melchior. They had two sons, both of whom were born on the kitchen table. While still married, Cousteau fathered two more children with a second woman: Francine Triplet. In 1991, a year after his first wife died, he married Francine, a hostess whom he had met on a Concorde, 40 years his junior.
Cousteau’s son, Jean-Michel, had a difficult relationship with his stepmother, and the two of them became involved in legal battles over the use of the name Cousteau. In 1996, Cousteau himself sued Jean-Michel, who intended to open a resort in the Fiji Islands named Cousteau. He did not sue his son out of malice; Cousteau simply did not want his own non-profit organizations tangled up in for-profit ventures.
It seems that Cousteau’s priority, and lifelong love, was the ocean. That’s why his legacy goes far beyond familial battles. He was, indeed, the man who opened our eyes to what happens underneath the boat. He was a great advocate for the sea, and that’s what we remember him for.
Cousteau believed that people protect what they love; for him, it was the sea. He said, “From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free.”
Cousteau’s love for the ocean, nature, and traveling inspired him to join the French Navy in 1930. In 1935, he was in a car accident, and unable to use his arms. He eventually regained mobility, but his career in naval aviation came to an end, and he turned his attention underwater.
During the 1940s, Cousteau improved the aqualung design, which led to the invention of scuba. His first wife, Simone, became the first female scuba diver. Cousteau also made the first French underwater film. He showed his second film, Épaves (Shipwrecks), to Admiral Lemonnier, and he was appointed as the head of an Underwater Research Group.
Later, he founded French Oceanographic Campaigns (FOC) and, for a symbolic single franc, he leased a ship called Calypso from Thomas Guinness. Calyspo, a former minesweeper, became his research vessel. Her maiden voyage was in 1950, when Cousteau went to the Red Sea to study coral reefs.
Thanks to the improvements he made on underwater cameras, Cousteau launched a television series in the 1960s. The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau introduced millions of people to previously unseen waters. He took his viewers to the Antarctic, and to see sleeping sharks near the Yucatan coast of Mexico, and to Portugal’s Azore islands. Cousteau later launched an around-the-world tour, and produced a number of films.
As a public figure, Cousteau continued to actively protect the ocean. He organized a publicity campaign, and stopped a train (carrying waste to the sea) on its tracks, with the help of women and children. To help protect the ocean, he founded The Cousteau Society in 1973, which is still a large and thriving organization.
Whatever faults he may have had in his personal life, Cousteau was generous about his love for the ocean. He said, “If a man for whatever reason has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.”