One of the advantages of living your vacation in the slow lane is that you discover things you would not normally learn about at a faster pace. Saint-André-de-Cubzac is the closest town to our little village (about 15 minutes away) where we go for groceries, a boulangerie, gas, or a bank. In researching available services in the area, I stumbled across an interesting fact. It turns out that the legendary Jacques Cousteau was born there and is buried in the Cousteau family plot in Saint André’s cemetery. So, today, on our way to do some shopping, we made a small detour to visit his gravesite.
As I’m sure most of you know, Cousteau was a French naval officer, explorer, conservationist, filmmaker, innovator, scientist, photographer, author, and researcher who studied the sea and all forms of life in water. He co-developed the Aqua-Lung and pioneered marine conservation. He was born in Saint-André-de-Cubzac on June 11, 1910. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Paris where his father worked as a lawyer. Jacques was a sickly child and was instructed not to participate in strenuous activities, but, nevertheless, he learned how to swim and eventually developed a love for the sea. Though he did not do particularly well in school, he succeeded in being admitted to and graduating from the French naval academy and entering the navy where he was given a pair of goggles used by divers. This piqued his curiosity. His fascination with the ability to see underwater led to his interest in developing a device that would allow humans to breathe underwater.
With the advent of WW II in 1939, Cousteau’s research was put on hold while he carried out his naval assignment as a gunnery officer and participated in the French Resistance. Ironically, his brother, Pierre-Antoine, was a pro-Nazi war criminal at one time sentenced to death until he was released under an amnesty agreement in 1954. Due to their extreme political differences, the two brothers became estranged.
In 1937, Cousteau married and had two sons, Jean-Michael and Philippe who was his favorite and chosen to carry on the family business and oceanographic legacy. Unfortunately, Philippe died in a helicopter accident at the age of 38 prompting Cousteau to form an alliance with his oldest son with whom he collaborated for 14 years. During this same period, he had an affair and two more children with another woman who eventually became his wife after the death of his first wife from cancer. Today she continues her husband’s work as head of the Cousteau Foundation and Cousteau Society, two non-profit organizations that promote underwater exploration and ecology.
Professionally, Cousteau carried out countless hours of underwater field research and archaeological explorations on the infamous ship Calypso which would have been impossible without scuba gear including the Aqua-Lung that he developed and pioneered. This apparatus gave him the ability to explore and film parts of the ocean that had never been seen before which he shared with the world through his many films and television specials. In addition, he was personally responsible for bringing an awareness to many of the practices which endangered ocean life such as whaling and the disposal of nuclear waste. Along the way he garnered many awards and titles such as the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom and the French Legion of Honor, but he will most notably be recognized by all for taking us into the depths of the ocean for the very first time.
Cousteau died of a heart attack in 1997 at the age of 87. He was buried in the family plot in Saint-André-de-Cubzac. The city paid homage to him with the inauguration of the Rue du Commandant Cousteau, a street which runs out to his native house, where a commemorative plaque is affixed. The plot is a simple raised stone structure typical of those in any French cemetery bearing a small and aged commemorative plaque which reads, “J. Y. Cousteau / Papa du Globe”. Situated on top and distinguishing it from the myriad of other plots is a large heart-shaped arrangement of red begonias, the only fresh flowers in the whole cemetery — an obvious sign that Saint-André has not forgotten Jacques-Yves Cousteau. As you leave the cemetery, you circle one of the usual French roundabouts where you immediately notice that a dolphin is mounted in the center with a familiar red diver’s cap in his beak — one more quiet and eloquent reminder of the city’s native son.