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The First Underwater Camera: ​Jacques Cousteau

Adam Marelli

Unseen World

The first recording of a sperm whale in the wild were in 1984.  Now a great white shark flipping out of the water or creatures from 1000 feet that look more like aliens than anything from earth is common place.  Less than fifty years ago the undersea world was virtually unknown to anyone who did not experience it first hand.  But that all changed in the 1960s when underwater photography became an everyday possibility. 

In many ways underwater photography is still in its infancy.  It is not even one hundred years old.  At the core of its trajectory was Jacques Cousteau and a funny little camera called the Calypso.  Cousteau lived on the edge.  When he started diving most of undersea world was completely unknown.  Trial and error took on a whole new meaning.  How deep could they dive, how long could they stay down, or what terrible monsters might they find?  No one knew. 

Fortunately for us Cousteau was not just a diver, but a forward thinking image maker.  Many of his exploits were caught on film.  He worked to develop a number of inventions from scuba regulators, to cameras, housings, and watches.  His images opened up a world that many people had never seen before.  It is not so often that a picture is actually new.  Surely the first images taken underwater or from space are in a special category.  They are historic, ground breaking, and in some cases beautiful too.  But most importantly they changed our perspective on the planet. 

Unless you are a die hard Cousteau fan, the antics captured in his book “A Silent World” might be unknown.  But they are legendary stories that anyone from photographers, divers, or just curious travelers would enjoy.

Did you know that:

  • Cousteau helped the French Navy make a film about anti-ship mines by strapping his dive partner to the front of a submarine.
  • He used to test the effects of underwater explosives by seeing how closely he could swim to them and survive. (Do not try this one at home.)
  • He almost died cave diving because the new compressor they used to fill the tanks defectively collected carbon monoxide from the gas generator powering it. 
  • He once suffered from Vertigo while diving in the Canary Islands, where the water was so clear and the ocean floor so bright, that he felt like he was falling. 
  • When he first encountered a great white shark in the wild, it swam a circle around them, defecated and swam away.  Guess the shark was thinking the same thing as Cousteau.

A Historic Camera

The Calypso camera is an interesting little tool to handle.  It is small, unassuming, and almost awkward in hand.  But it worked and impressed the folks at Nikon who eventually bought the patent and turned it into the Nikonos line of underwater cameras.   

Originally the Calypso was designed to sustain pressures at 200 feet which are well past the limit for recreational divers today.  To change the film, the bayonet lens must be removed and the small hooks on the strap are used to pry the body apart.  It is a quirky design, but it did the job.  When you handle the original Calypso and its faux-seal skin covering, it is hard to image that this device would revolutionize the way we saw our oceans.  But it made a silent impact on the world of underwater photography and how we see the deep blue ocean.  Almost every piece of underwater camera gear today owes something to the Calypso.  

To read more about Jacques Cousteau’s adventures, have a look at “A Silent World,” his autobiographical account of their early adventures in oceanographic exploration. 

Adam Marelli is an artist and cultural photographer based in New York City.  He is an active member of The Explorer’s Club and runs projects and workshops internationally.