LAST DECEMBER, during the Cozumel scuba festival in Mexico, I watched Jean-Michel Cousteau lay a wreath under water to honour his mother. The dive-site was renamed La Francesa Simone Cousteau.
It was a special moment. Jean-Michel, as well as talking about his Ocean Futures Society and giving a stamp of approval to an underwater bronze bust of his father, was there to draw attention to the role his mother played in relation to the Cousteau family’s pioneering marine research.
Listening to him talk about his mother intrigued me, and I decided to find out more about her.
Little is written about Simone Melchior Cousteau, first wife of underwater pioneer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Not one to crave the limelight, Simone tended to keep away from the cameras, perhaps content to be seen as Jacques’ supportive wife.
Even so, she was an adventurer in her own right, and played a crucial role in the operations of the underwater research ship Calypso.

BORN A TWIN IN TOULON on 19 January, 1919, Simone had the family background for a life involving the sea. Her father, Henri Melchior, and both grandfathers were admirals, and her husband was initially an officer in the French navy.
She married Jacques Cousteau after meeting him at a party in 1937 when she was just 17, and the couple lost no time in realising their goals.
Fascinated by the underwater environment, Jacques needed to find a way to explore it safely. Simone introduced him to Emile Gagnan, an engineer with the company Air Liquide.
Working together, Emile and Jacques set about creating the demand-valve by adapting a similar valve used in gas-generator engines. This was to become a central feature of their aqualung system.
By helping also to obtain funding for the aqualung, Simone’s contribution to the development of recreational diving, as well as undersea research, was significant.
In May 1938 Simone gave birth to her first son, Jean-Michel, and in December 1940 Philippe was born.
The Germans had taken over Paris in 1940, and the family sought refuge in Megéve, near the Swiss border. With Jacques serving as a gunnery officer and later with the French Resistance, as for many other women the war would have been a tense and difficult period in which to bring up children.

IN JUNE 1943 JACQUES undertook his first dive testing the aqualung prototype in the river Marne, and Simone entered the water shortly after him to become the first female to use an aqualung – the first woman scuba-diver!
The success of these trials meant that when World War Two ended the equipment could be used to locate and remove underwater mines.
Through the second half of the 1940s Simone and her family undertook countless dives on France’s Mediterranean coast, between Toulon and Marseille.
And by selling her family jewels and fur coats, she helped to purchase the former Royal Navy minesweeper Calypso in 1950.
The ship was converted into an oceanographic vessel, complete with underwater observation chamber, and a trial trip was undertaken in June 1951 off Corsica, with Jacques, Simone, Jean-Michel, Philippe and family friends.
The Calypso performed well, and in November 1951 it sailed to the Red Sea to study corals. Simone was on board, for the first of many voyages.
According to Jean-Michel, his mother spent more time on the Calypso than any of the others in the family. She was given the nickname La Bergere, the shepherdess. Keeping the 30-plus all-male crew together as a unit, cooking for them, attending to their medical needs and participating in expedition-planning for around 40 years, she was a vital force, spurring on the Calypso.
She once said that the ship gave her everything, but this was a two-way relationship. She continued to dive from Calypso too, but on an occasional basis.
La Bergere has also been credited with saving the Calypso. It was filming in the Red Sea when a storm struck while the crew were under water. Simone, the only person left on board, had to steer the vessel when the anchor broke.
The story goes that the storm lasted eight hours, and with no anchor she had to keep the Calypso away from the coast and ride out the bad weather.
The divers, meanwhile, had swum to shore. When the storm subsided, Simone brought the vessel closer in and the crew were able to rejoin her, finding that she had already prepared coffee for them. It’s a story that fits well with the strong Simone – the woman who loved the Calypso.

IN 1963 SHE VISITED STARFISH HOUSE, an underwater habitat for the Conshelf 2 project in the Red Sea. Five aquanauts lived and worked on the seabed at 10m for 30 days (there was also a 25m station).
As reported by Jean-Michel, this was a special and unique experience for Simone, given that she was able to take in “the dazzling array of colourful fish in very clear water” without getting wet and within the “comforts of Conshelf 2”.
The project was regarded as making a significant contribution towards the study of diver physiology and technology.
Did Simone have a favourite marine creature Jean-Michel believes that it was the dolphin. Often riding the Calypso’s bow on expeditions, the creatures were seen by Simone as the leaders of the ship.
Unlike her husband, she would not talk about the condition of the oceans. Whether this was because it touched her too deeply, we can only speculate.
Simone died before her husband on 1 December, 1990, in France, of cancer. After a full military funeral, her ashes were scattered over the sea off Monaco.
It was a fitting end for someone who made such a positive contribution to undersea exploration.
At the end of Cozumelfest, Rubén Arvizu’s film El Alma del Calypso (The Soul of Calypso) was shown. Simone and this famous ship are synonymous. You can see it at blog/simone-cousteau-soul-of-calypso

All images courtesy private collection