Jacques Cousteau

Bookshelf: Jacques Cousteau

Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King – Brad Matsen

Jacques Cousteau
Jacques Cousteau

Jacques Cousteau’s name is synonymous with the ocean (a fact his descendants continue to exploit), but it was news to me that he essentially invented and pioneered the field of underwater photography as well as the aqualung, allowing divers to swim freely underwater.

This book covers his career from initial free diving exploits in the Mediterranean, to world-famous filmmaker. I found the initial sections of the book, where Cousteau and his friends experimented with different types of diving apparatus and jury-rigged numerous solutions to problems they encountered, to be the most interesting.

His later years aboard Calypso, travelling the world documenting the oceans and the changes wrought upon them by man, were characterised by a spirit of cameraderie and boyish exploration. As the Cousteau juggernaut gathered momentum, however, his attention turned to fundraising and he spent less time on the sea and more time schmoozing potential donors.

Fortunately (for both me and Cousteau) not much is made of his personal life. He was a notorious womaniser who kept two homes for fifteen years before his wife’s death, and immediately married his satellite wife and recognised her two children thereafter.

As a side note, reading this book revealed to me the extent to which Wes Anderson’s quirky masterpiece – my favourite movieThe Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – was informed and inspired by Cousteau’s life and work. The design of the Belafonte parallels that of the Calypso (both converted minesweepers with viewing ports underwater). The scene at the film festival where the Belafonte is illuminated at her berth in the harbour is straight out of Cousteau’s life. The red knitted hats, matriarchal figure of Zissou’s wife, and the style of film making combining shots of handsome, rugged explorers with the wonders of the deep are also heavily inspired by Cousteau.

This is a fascinating, quick read. As someone who was born in 1978, after the peak of Cousteau’s career, discovering how much of a global name he was, how recognisable his face was thanks to his television work, and understanding the story of the life that has – even still – made him into a household name filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge of the development of ocean exploration and documentary production.

The book is available for purchase here if you’re in South Africa, and on Amazon.com. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here.

Published by


Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

2 thoughts on “Bookshelf: Jacques Cousteau”

Leave a Reply