Jacques Cousteau and Ocean Exploration

Shannon Switzer is an award-winning photographer, published
writer, and National Geographic Young Explorer whose work focuses on
ocean conservation.

  • How far down does the ocean go? 
  • Can living things thrive in the deepest parts of the ocean? 
  • If so, what do they look like and how do they survive?

A Brief History of Modern Ocean Exploration

questions above have captured people’s imagination for centuries. Some
of them were at least partially answered during legendary ocean
expeditions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One such voyage,
completed by the HMS Challenger during the 1870s, is considered by many
to be the first systematic deep-sea recognizance mission. This
circumnavigation of more than 68,000 nautical miles included the
collection of samples of organisms from oceans around the world, which
proved that the deep sea indeed had its own set of unique flora and
fauna. Prior to this expedition, many people thought that life could not
exist in the deepest parts of the ocean.

19561.jpgAt left: The bathyscaphe Trieste is hoisted out of the water. In 1960, Trieste descended to the Challenger Deep, more than 10,915m (35,810 ft) below the ocean’s surface. As of 2010, it remained the only manned vehicle to ever dive that deep. Photo courtesy U.S. Navy Electronics Laboratory, San Diego.

Another milestone in deep-sea exploration was the successful deployment of Trieste, the American bathyscaphe (derived from the Greek words bathys, “deep,” and skaphos, “ship”). In 1960, Trieste became the first manned vessel to reach the sea floor of Challenger Deep, the terminus of the Mariana Trench, and the deepest known point on Earth, at nearly 11,000 meters (36,000 feet) below sea level. To this day, Trieste remains the only manned vessel to have reached the bottom of Challenger Deep. These scientific breakthroughs have helped to unravel some of the ocean’s greatest mysteries.

Jacques Cousteau Brings Ocean Stories to the Masses

Despite the impressive accomplishments of these expeditions, none of them captured the fascination of the world like the exploits of self-taught oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, the golden child of ocean exploration. He pushed the limits of what man could do in the water, improving rudimentary models of underwater breathing machines while in the Navy, and helping develop the “aqua lung,” the first version of modern scuba diving gear.


Jacques Cousteau gestures at his underwater research vessel.
Photo by Thomas Abercrombie.

Cousteau was not content with seeing the ocean’s wonders for himself as he sailed the world on his converted minesweeper Calypso. He desired to show what he’d seen to others, which drove him to develop increasingly sophisticated underwater video capture technologies. He used the footage to produce documentaries, for which he won three Oscars, as well as TV specials, such as the long-running Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. People who might never have given the ocean a second thought saw it come to life on their television screens– the drama of the ocean unfolding in their living rooms.

Through these informative and adventurous programs conveying his infectious enthusiasm for the watery world, Cousteau became one of the first environmental activists for the deep blue. Today, his name is synonymous with ocean exploration and his legacy lives on. Cousteau’s love of the sea left a lasting impression on his family, including son Jean-Michel Cousteau and three of his granddaughters, who carry on his work. Check out Jean-Michel’s organization, Ocean Future’s Society, and the efforts of Celine Cousteau to further her grandfather’s mission.

–By Shannon Switzer

More on ocean exploration and the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE expedition

1. deepseachallenge.com (Main National Geographic site for the expedition)
2. NatGeoEd.org/deepsea-challenge (National Geographic Education site for the expedition)
3. Expedition Journal (The official blog from the deck of Mermaid Sapphire,
James Cameron’s mother ship. Our Education bloggers are using this
blog, as well as the main deepseachallenge.com website, to inform their
writing about the expedition)

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