It’s probably the most famous name that comes to mind when we talk about scuba diving, but Jacques Cousteau’s legacy is greater than you may think. His ocean exploration documentaries have inspired generations of underwater adventurers, but did you know that Cousteau was also an inventor who changed the world of scuba diving forever?
That’s right. Jacques Cousteau co-created the world’s first scuba system, and in 2023 we celebrate the 80th anniversary of this ground-breaking invention. Along with his partner Emile Gagnan, Cousteau invented a demand valve system designed to supply divers with compressed air when they breathe underwater. It changed everything – opening new worlds to divers by allowing them to dive for much longer periods and go even deeper into the blue.
Born in 1910, Cousteau was a French marine explorer, writer, diver, filmmaker, educator and fierce protector of our blue planet. He brought underwater worlds into people’s lives with dazzling documentaries that captured the imagination of viewers. Cousteau adored ocean exploration and delighted in sharing the joys of diving with the world through his books and documentaries. Conservation was also core to his teaching – Cousteau recognised how important it was to protect the ocean and was a huge advocate for the preservation of marine life.
It’s no surprise that “the father of scuba diving” was his nickname – Cousteau was a pioneer. He upheld the values of ocean conservation, encouraged people to explore what it was like to go into the deep blue, and played a big part in developing scuba diving as we know it today.
He passed away in 1997, but his influence lives on in every diver who loves our blue planet as much as he did. We continue to use his revolutionary regulator to this day and he happily shared his adventures with us, along with his favourite dive spots. You can explore some of his top sites yourself and see why he once said, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”
If you’d like to dive in and discover some of Cousteau’s favourite sites but you’re not already PADI certified, the first step is to book your PADI Open Water Diver Course with a verified PADI Dive Centre. In doing so, you can be assured you’re receiving top training from qualified dive professionals. They will guide you as you begin this exciting journey underwater.
Here’s the scoop and some tips from PADI on a few of Cousteau’s favourites.
- Sipadan, Malaysian Borneo
Cousteau’s 1989 Ghost of the Sea Turtles documentary made this tiny island famous. Sipadan is home to over 3,000 marine species and spectacular coral so there is plenty to explore. The turtle population is quite large, but it’s not uncommon to see barracuda, tuna, manta and eagle rays, plus hammerhead and whale sharks too!
Reef fish are present in incredible numbers and perhaps most impressive, are the quantities of medium-sized fish—between 25 and 40 cm (10 and 15 inches)—in relatively shallow waters. This is especially the case for groups of up to a dozen harlequin sweetlips, but also snappers, emperors, triggerfish, longfin batfish and a couple of species of unicorn fish.
In addition to a rainbow of fish life, this part of Borneo is also home to impressive macro species. Underwater photographers and those with acute powers of observation could spot an unusual crinoid shrimp and fish duo, all matching the host’s coloration, or a golden-spotted shrimp on a very flattened carpet anemone. Some divers have found a patch of relatively tame spotted garden eels, which elsewhere require extreme patience to photograph outside of their burrow. Sharp eyes can also reveal a pink sailfin leaf-fish, bearded scorpionfish, and numerous species of nudibranchs.
When diving in Sipadan, the dive spots usually live up to their names: White Tip Avenue, Turtle Patch, Staghorn Crest, Lobster Lair and Hanging Gardens (for soft corals), all deliver! This is largely due to Sabah National Parks making huge efforts to protect the area since 2005. Fish numbers have remained relatively stable and large numbers of fish are seen on most dives around Sipadan.
You need a government-issued permit to dive as Sipadan is a protected area. This makes for a really special experience but it’s important to be prepared. There are no longer any resorts on the island, so you need to visit by day boat from a neighbouring island if you’re planning a dive. You can get your permit on Mabul or Kapala – both islands are about a 15-minute boat ride away from Sipadan.
A limited number of permits are issued every day and there are specific hours for diving. Your best bet is to book far in advance to be sure that you can secure a permit. While April through December is ideal for diving, an off-season visit is also a great option since the weather and diving are excellent year-round. There are strong currents in a few spots around the island, so advanced open water certification or a minimum of 20 logged dives is required to dive.
- Blue Hole, Belize
This unique spot was featured in The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau after his first dive there in 1971. Many thousands of years ago, the Blue Hole was a limestone cave. Then ocean levels rose, causing the cave to flood and collapse. The result – spectacular rock formations and a surrounding reef that’s been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fun fact: The Blue Hole is so deep –400 feet– you can’t even dive to the bottom!
This dive is not for beginners. It’s a dark and deep excursion – your dive guide may even take you all the way down to 130 feet. Training and experience are an absolute must. Be sure you have your advanced diving certification and remember that the water will be a few degrees cooler the deeper you dive. It’s all about having the right gear! You may want to wear a 3mm wetsuit for the chillier part of your dive and we recommend bringing along a dive light.
If you stay on Ambergris Caye Island, your boat ride to the Blue Hole will be 3 hours, while a ride from Placencia will take 4 hours. You can plan your dive by booking a day boat or dive off a liveaboard. Belize has fantastic year-round diving conditions but keep in mind that the rainy season lasts from April through to October.
- Sea of Cortez, Mexico
Now known as the Gulf of California, Cousteau once called the Sea of Cortez “the world’s aquarium”. He was onto something – the diversity and variety of marine species in this sea is nothing short of incredible. There are over 900 species of fish alone, not to mention some extra curious sea lions who will happily join you on your dive.
There’s a lot of (underwater) ground to cover here! Want to swim with sea lions? Check out Los Islotes. Or maybe hammerheads are more your speed? If so, make your way to Isla San Pedro. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned diver, there’s something for you here. Cabo Pulmo, La Paz, and Los Cabos are all fantastic options to consider if you’re new to diving, while more experienced divers may want to explore the Midriff Islands, El Bajo, or Gordo Banks.
Warm waters make for great whale and hammerhead shark sightings, so plan your dive from August to November. If you don’t mind a chillier dip from December to March, you’re likely to swim amongst octopuses and friendly sea lions. Low season is June and July but if you’re further south, you can still get some good dives in.
- Red Sea, Egypt
Cousteau highlighted a piece of history in the Red Sea when he showcased a dive to the SS Thistlegorm in his 1950s series ‘The Living Sea, The Silent World’. The sunken cargo steamship went to her watery grave in 1942 after being hit by German air bombers. The dive site feels like an underwater museum with WWII artefacts including trucks, motorcycles, guns and airplane parts. The rest of the Red Sea is just as intriguing with colourful reefs, other historical shipwrecks, and an impressive variety of marine species including dolphins and manatees.
If the SS Thistlegorm is on your dive itinerary when visiting the Red Sea, you should plan a liveaboard as it takes at least three hours to get there from the shore. It’s a popular and high-traffic spot for divers, so an early dive is a good way to avoid the crowds. Currents can be strong with the ship found 100 feet down, so you should have advanced diving certification and at least 20 dives under your belt for this one – Nitrox certification would be a bonus but isn’t necessary!
The Red Sea is known for its good visibility and conditions which are calm and clear at any time of the year. March through May and September to November are considered the peak seasons, so if you’d prefer a quieter dive, then plan to go off season.
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