Jacques-Yves Cousteau Essay - Critical Essays

Cousteau, Jacques-Yves


Jacques-Yves Cousteau 1910–

French nonfiction writer, filmmaker, and oceanographer.

Cousteau is widely known to the general public for his films and books about his marine explorations. He has shared the beauty and wonder of the ocean world with millions of readers and viewers in many languages. He teaches that humans must be careful to respect and conserve that world. Cousteau is also known, especially to oceanographers, for his contributions to marine research. He has helped advance the development of diving and exploration techniques, underwater photography, and nautical archaeology. Scientists sometimes point out that in his films and books Cousteau presents generalizations rather than well-documented scientific evidence. Cousteau, however, claims that he calls himself an explorer, not a scientist. Cousteau's films have won four Academy Awards, eight Emmy Awards, and two Cannes Film Festival Awards.

Cousteau served as a captain in the French navy and worked with the French Resistance during World War II. He collaborated on the invention of the aqualung, a lightweight, self-contained breathing apparatus that allows divers to swim freely underwater for extended periods. The Silent World (1953), written with Frédéric Dumas, recounts the testing of the aqualung as well as the initial voyages of Calypso, Cousteau's well-equipped research vessel from which he and his crew of divers and photographers conduct their work. This book won immediate critical and popular acclaim. The Living Sea (1963), which Cousteau wrote with James Dugan, relates the subsequent expeditions of the Calypso crew, including a successful experiment in underwater human habitation. The photographs accompanying these texts, and the motion picture documentaries of the expeditions of Calypso, have provided the public with an unusual and imaginative vantage point from which to view the sea. With his popular television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau (1968–1976) and his series of books grouped under the title The Undersea Discoveries of Jacques Cousteau, many of which were written with Philippe Diolé, Cousteau and his crew have introduced the world of whales, sharks, dolphins, and other sea animals to mass audiences. His organization, The Cousteau Society, has published a twenty-volume reference series which offers a wide range of information pertaining to the sea. For his pioneering efforts at increasing knowledge of the marine environment and for making the sea accessible through mass media, Cousteau has won honors and awards from many nations and organizations.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)

Rachel L. Carson

"We have tried to find the entrance to the great hydrosphere because we feel that the sea age is soon to come."

So Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau, a French navy gunnery officer, sums up his motives for devoting fifteen years to pioneering undersea explorations, in the course of which he has made more than 5,000 dives. Cousteau's work is an important milestone on the road of man's return to the sea. The era of the "menfish" began when he, along with Philippe Taillez, another naval officer, and Frédéric Dumas, an experienced civilian diver, made successful descents with the first aqualung a decade ago.

Aqualung equipment consists of one to three tanks of compressed air strapped on the diver's back, a face mask, and a mouth piece through which the diver inhales air from his tanks and exhales. He is completely self-contained….

"The Silent World" is a fascinating book, the distillation of Cousteau's experience undersea. After the war he and his associates salvaged torpedoed vessels and the scuttled French fleet, swimming freely through the rigging encrusted with barnacles, weed-hung and ghostly; they swam down shadowy gangways, passing from deck to deck and exploring drowned cabins and engine rooms. Turned archaeologists, the aqualungers found the remains of an argosy presumably sunk about 80 B.C. while en route from Athens to Rome with loot that included Ionic columns, marble statuary, and bronze figures. The divers filmed fishermen's trawl nets as they lumbered along the ocean floor, sending up fishes like frightened rabbits. They followed a submarine laying mines and photographed men...

(The entire section is 686 words.)

Gilbert Klingel

If you are one of those imaginative people who in fancy or reality would like to enter another world where none of the ordinary rules apply, and where on every hand scenes new to the eye of man unfold in endless succession, then "The Silent World" is the book for you. It is the story of Capt. Jacques-Yves Cousteau of the French Navy and of his development of the "aqualung."… The book is profusely illustrated and the underwater shots, particularly those in full color, are extraordinary.

Captain Cousteau tells of exploring sunken ships, including a Roman galley filled with a cargo of wine jars, some of them still sealed and bearing the initials of ancient Greek wine merchants, and of retrieving antique marble and statuary looted from the Greeks by the conquering Romans and lost at sea centuries ago. With Captain Cousteau one enters drowned caverns into which the light of day has never penetrated; one of these, the cave of the Fountain of Vaucluse, very nearly cost the author his life.

The book unfolds one fascinating undersea panorama after another….

Captain Cousteau, unlike so many writers about the deep, has not marred his stories with supercharged prose. There are no hair-raising tales of encounter with sea denizens; instead he devotes an entire chapter to portraying many of these "monsters" as they really are. We learn that octopi cannot be induced to bite, and wish nothing more than to be let...

(The entire section is 419 words.)

Robert C. Cowen

Reading Jacques-Yves Cousteau's captivating new book ["The Living Sea"], I had a strong impulse to hand in this review and immediately take off to find Calypso. From this, his oceangoing research ship, the famed French undersea explorer has helped to open a fascinating and challenging underwater world.

Some academic oceanographers have found it fashionable to discount his exploits. But the years of effort that have been compressed into the pages of this book speak for themselves of the great contribution Captain Cousteau has made to oceanographic science.

He would himself lay no claim to being a scientific expert. Yet from the aqualung to his most recent innovation of the diving saucer, a jet propelled submarine, which will carry two men comfortably to depths of 1,000 feet, he has done as much if not more than any other contemporary marine explorer to open the way to a new opportunity for undersea research.

In "The Living Sea," as in his earlier best seller "The Silent World," Captain Cousteau conveys the sense of adventure and the vision that continue to inspire his work. Perhaps the most striking comparison between the two books is that the enthusiasm has not flagged at all while the vision has greatly matured.

Captain Cousteau has always seen his work as an advancement of men's capabilities as well as a personal adventure. He has never been content to rest at one level of...

(The entire section is 465 words.)

Desmond Young

Recently, as the exploration of the oceans and the sea-bed has become less commercial and more scientific in purpose, books about diving have won a wide readership. All of us are entranced by the new knowledge brought up from this secret world.

No man has done so much to open the door to this world and to reveal its mysteries as Capt. Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Certainly no other man is so uniquely fitted for the self-imposed task. A seaman, qualified to command any vessel in the French fleet, superb navigator, highly skilled diver, gunner, aerial observer, inventor of the Aqua-Lung, he is also a scientist, with a gift for explaining scientific problems.

Captain Cousteau's previous book, "The Silent World," was translated into 22 languages and sold more than three million copies in English alone. It will be surprising if "The Living Sea"—which he has written with freelance writer James Dugan—does not surpass that record. Whether Captain Cousteau is describing the recovery of artifacts from a Greek galley sunk more than two centuries before Christ, or his battle to prevent the dumping of radioactive waste into the Mediterranean, he is unfailingly interesting.

His descriptions gracefully combine literary style and scientific nomenclature….

The mobile base for the explorations reported in this book was the oceanographic ship Calypso, well-equipped with depth-probing devices and a professional diving team. The log unfolded in these pages records episodes ranging over the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Included are trips to discover ocean-bed oil deposits and to help lay electrical cables in the Gulf of Lion off the south coast of France. There is a strange journey to "hunt water underwater"—that is, a fresh water supply for the sea town of Cassis east of Marseille.

There is something along the way for all tastes. Oddities abound for curiosity-seekers. Cousteau reports seeing a number of creatures never reported before, including "a fish twenty inches long and shaped exactly like a draftsman's triangle. It was the shade and thinness of aluminum foil with a ridiculous little tail." He records also, on his underwater writing pad, a squid that squirts white ink; a shark observed at 13,000 feet, where no shark has any right to...

(The entire section is 956 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

Although the trumpetings of jacket blurbs should not be taken too seriously there is one phrase that never fails to arouse the reviewer's suspicions: scientific accuracy. Rarely is this claim made for a scientifically accurate book and it is disappointing to find that The Shark is no exception. First in a series of studies on underwater life by Jacques Cousteau and his son [Philippe Cousteau], it is said by the publishers to set "an incredibly high standard for those that will follow", not least in its "scientific accuracy" and "whole mood of scientific enquiry".

What the reader actually receives is a series of anecdotes of a type now standard in shark books, and a series of quite preposterous...

(The entire section is 363 words.)

The New Yorker

[Jacques and Philippe Cousteau] recently (1967–68) spent about a year studying sharks at point-blank range in the Red Sea and in the western Indian Ocean, and it is probable that they (and their colleagues) now know more about that almost ubiquitous marine predator than anybody else in the world. This magnificently illustrated book ["The Shark: Splendid Savage of the Sea"] (a hundred and twenty-four eerie, deep-sea color photographs and many drawings, diagrams, and maps) is a stirring narrative account of their highly specialized education. The authors, who speak to us in turn, acknowledge that the shark is still very largely a mystery, and their observations, though interesting, are few…. For the most part, the...

(The entire section is 152 words.)

Joseph T. Evans

[The Shark] consists of a series of fascinating narrations by the world famous underwater explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau and his son Philippe. It concerns their preparation and voyage on the Calypso to seek, study, research, and photograph the activities and habitual movements of sharks. There are vivid, exciting narratives of encounters with sharks—sharks of different species and size, from the large whale shark to the hammerhead and dogfish. Experiences with the beautiful, agile, graceful vultures of the sea are told in a very special way proper only to one who has encountered them face to face or has watched them from within the protective cages that were used to study these "killers of the...

(The entire section is 209 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

Although good intentions are no substitute for quality, one cannot resist some sympathy for the author [of Life and Death in a Coral Sea] whose Silent World opened a new realm for millions, whose aqualung pioneered rewarding fields for both research and enjoyment, and whose books, films and other activities are seriously dedicated to underwater exploration. There are few men like Jacques-Yves Cousteau, but they have an important role to play in the development of science, chiefly because they provide that imaginative energy so necessary if research projects are to reach beyond the resources of any one institute….

In 1967 [he] began his voyage in the Calypso, once a minesweeper but now...

(The entire section is 340 words.)

E. F. Bartley

There is no question about the fact that Jacques Cousteau is an interesting showman as well as a competent researcher of the ocean depths. That he writes well is attested to by [Life and Death in a Coral Sea]…. Credit also must be given to the technical writing assistance of Philippe Diolé and the capable translation by J. F. Bernard….

In addition to giving the reader many new insights into the world of the sea, Cousteau provides an account of the exploration processes themselves. Historical aspects of sea exploration are woven into the text in order that one can get some feeling for the advances that have been made. The description of Cousteau's new diving saucers, called fleas, gives a...

(The entire section is 260 words.)

Nelson Bryant

["Life and Death in a Coral Sea" is] the absorbing story of the Cousteau teams' investigation of coral reefs in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. Cousteau is undoubtedly the best-known marine explorer in the world today, having been introduced to millions through his magnificently photographed television shows, and this book maintains his tradition of excellence. The style of the book is easy and lively and much of it reads like a diary. (p. 62)

Nelson Bryant, "A Natural Beauty," in The New York Times Book Review, December 5, 1971, pp. 58, 60, 62.∗

(The entire section is 89 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

Diving for Sunken Treasure is a popular account of M Cousteau's expedition to the site of what he believes to be the Silver Bank, near Puerto Rico, in search of the remains of the wreck of the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, the treasure galleon salvaged by William Phipps in 1687. Working from the research vessel Calypso, he found a wreck which he believed might be the treasure galleon. The book tells the story of the "excavation" of the wreck, and the subsequent discovery that the wreck concerned actually dates from 1756. This slim narrative is skilfully bulked out by masses of information obtained from the usual sources on Spanish treasure fleets of the seventeenth century, and photographs of existing...

(The entire section is 268 words.)

H. J. Cargas

The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau promises to be an epic. Having seen [Oasis in Space, The Act of Life, and Quest for Food], the first three volumes of the 20 book set, I am impressed by what quality work can be published at such a reasonable price….

The texts, expectedly, are excellent. Whether they were ghost written or translated from French we are not told, but they have the same clarity and adventuresomeness that Cousteau's television specials have. The introduction to the first volume, Oasis in Space, may surprise with its pessimistic message. The oceans are in danger of dying and thus the threat to mankind is enormous. But the situation is remedial and Captain...

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Science Books

[Three Adventures: Galápagos, Titicaca, The Blue Holes] is the account of three unrelated trips by Cousteau and his film crew to the Galápagos, the Andes and British Honduras…. The account is interesting, but the quality of the writing varies greatly; many sections are sadly prosaic. Sometimes the translation limps; for example, in a description of the habits of a crab (which, like most crabs, is a scavenger) found in the Galápagos…. Overall, the information presented in the book is scanty and superficial, and the general quality of writing is unimaginative. Each time the author seems just on the verge of describing or explaining some natural event in detail, he veers off to another scene…. The...

(The entire section is 176 words.)

Betty Minemier

The 20-volume set, The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau, is Grolier's answer to increasing demands for authoritative, attractive, accessible materials on the newest "big science"—oceanography.

Oceanography, or Cousteau's preference, marine science, is not new, but recent interests and efforts by governments and industries equate it with the space and atomic sciences.

Ocean World popularizes marine information, stresses causes and concerns about pollution, could affect every curricular area, and should stimulate students' interests in marine-related careers….

A remarkable reference achievement, The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau should prove...

(The entire section is 118 words.)


The bulk of the beautifully illustrated volume [Dolphins] recounts the dolphin experiences of Cousteau and the others over nearly 30 years: following, admiring, luring, capturing, feeding, training and swimming with dolphins of varied species in the several seas. The posthuman intelligence attributed by some to the dolphins gets little support here. Most original are accounts of human whistle speech, unfortunately only a few pages and photographs, and a long and detailed record of a visit with fisherfolk on the desert coast of Mauritania who have for a very long time regarded the local dolphins as their special allies. The dolphins in their season press great schools of mullet close to the shore, where the men...

(The entire section is 217 words.)

Dorothy Needham

Countless secrets of the sea are revealed in ["The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau," a] thrilling multidimensional study of the ocean's wonders, dangers, demands, riches, challenges, beauty, problems, creatures and visitors.

Although a reference work, comprehensively indexed in volume 20, each book reads like a suspenseful adventure story with thousands of characters relating to each other in a single setting. All the major branches of oceanography are included—marine physics, chemistry, biology, geology and engineering—but unfamiliar scientific terms are scrupulously avoided. Breathtaking color photographs used lavishly throughout the set tell marvelous tales of their own to nonreaders and...

(The entire section is 112 words.)


The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau (hereafter Ocean World) is a 20-volume set concerned with the oceans generally and, more specifically, with marine life and exploration. This is a revised edition of The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau produced in 1974. According to the publisher, the 1975 edition resulted from revisions made by Captain Cousteau after thorough reassessment of the original edition. (p. 742)

Ocean World is, according to its publisher, intended for student use through senior high school and for home use by both children and adults. This review will assess the set's appropriateness for this broad spectrum of readers….

The broad thematic...

(The entire section is 1065 words.)

Michael Allaby

Jacques-Yves Cousteau is that cliché, the "living legend". Strangers walk up to shake him by the hand and accept his autograph signed on any scrap of paper they can find. His superstar status might well be the envy of many an aspiring entertainer.

Each of his television films is seen by something like 120 million people; in Britain alone his audience can exceed 10 million. He has made 65 films for the cinema and television, he has written more than 30 books, and his articles appear in mass circulation magazines. His success gives him authority: the man who has mastered the media is obeyed. His films are edited only under his personal supervision, although he does permit the original commentary,...

(The entire section is 1193 words.)

Book Bait: Detailed Notes On Adult Books Popular With Young People

Although Cousteau's newer books are fascinating to read, they do not strike immediate fire as [The Silent World] does. The beginning paragraph, when the author and his friends unpack the first aqualung, captures the reader's attention at once, and the interest never wanes. Here is all the excitement of science fiction along with the reality of the here and now. Here is a high-spirited, adventure-packed, personal narrative of undersea salvage, scientific research, and exploration in the Mediterranean. With the aqualungs (of which Cousteau was co-inventor) he and his men dived nearly naked into pressures that have crushed submarines. Cousteau describes what it is like to be a "manfish" swimming with sharks,...

(The entire section is 316 words.)

James P. Sterba

It is difficult to criticize anything with Jacques Cousteau's name on it, especially a book as beautiful to look at as ["The Ocean World"]. Captain Cousteau has done more than anyone else to educate people about their "water planet." He has been a buoyant, indefatigable scout of the saltwater world, and through his films of his underwater adventures he has invited us to come along with him. (p. 12)

For the past several years, Captain Cousteau has been dashing about the globe, ringing the tocsin. In "The Ocean World" he sounds the alarm yet again: "Now the crisis is at hand. This is not the raving of a placard-carrying doomsayer, but the observation of thousands of learned and concerned individuals. I...

(The entire section is 451 words.)