Philippe Taillez, Dive Pioneer Still Diving at Age 94

By Jean-Michel Cousteau

Not long ago, the city of Bandol in southern France dedicated a unique memorial. A bronze plaque near the stony beach depicts three men in diving suits, with torches and a camera. These are the fabled Three Musketeers of the undersea world: Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Frederic Dumas and Philippe Taillez. Together, these three men pioneered diving with the self-contained breathing apparatus during and after the Second World War. On this very beach, they took the new demand-valve regulator devised by Emile Gagnan and Cousteau for its first Mediterranean trial. Needless to say, it worked. While the regulators success was not a huge surprise, nobody could have predicted how that experiment would eventually change the lives of so many people.

For those who now dive recreationally, it is a fun way to spend a vacation. They discover a new world of vibrant colors and intriguing shapes, and photograph dazzling reef fishes or shafts of light filtering through candelabra-like fan corals. But for the dedicated people involved in the early development of dive equipment, it meant much more. Each day brought with it the potential for a complete change in lifestyle. For our family, with a history of naval service on my mothers side and the similar aspirations of my father, the test in Bandol pointed in an entirely new direction. Instead of a career in the navy, there would be the free-spirited wanderings of Calypso, underwater films and television shows, Oscars and Emmys.

Unlike the other two Musketeers and many of their friends, Philippe Taillez did not join the rebels aboard Calypso. He remained a dedicated naval officer. Still, I remember him as a warmly affectionate and intriguing member of the family. From his position, he surveyed the goings-on aboard Calypso with a respectful but humorously unimpressed eye. He often called himself the Anti-Cousteau; it took me many a year to understand what he meant. He offered a constant and necessary reality check to the high-flown dreams that always filled the air around Calypsos galley table. And, in this way, he challenged my father and his associates to go farther, do more and be better at what they did.

Not that his own accomplishments were any less spectacular. From inside the French Navy, Captain Taillez worked tirelessly to advance diving. At the beginning of the scuba era, French Navy divers used hardhats or oxygen rebreathers, which had a range of about 25 feet. Taillez was instrumental in the physiological research that led to the training and outfitting of frogmen and commandos on scuba. More importantly, his office collaborated with others outside the navy, including my father, to refine the original dive tables.

Though they used laboratory rats for many of these early experiments, they were always their own best guinea pigs. Strikingly, there were few if any accidents during this intensive age of discovery, which was as much an exploration of the human body as of the sea.

Eventually, Taillez would work on the bathyscaphe submersible. Today, this legendary craft lies mothballed and Taillez is leading an effort to make it accessible to the public.

Recently, I had a chance to reunite with Captain Taillez, who at age 94 is the last surviving Musketeer. At an event honoring the memory of my father in Tabarka, Tunisia, Captain Taillez invited me to join him snorkeling. I was astounded when he asked for 13 pounds of weight.

Youll sink! I protested, worried about his age. But Taillez only rolled his eyes.

Jean-Michel, he said patiently, as though still talking to the sun-tanned child at his knee, I know what Im doing. Believe me. And he did know exactly what he was doing. We had a spectacular snorkel. Like many divers of advanced age, once he was in the water Taillez seemed liberated from the limitations imposed by age. At 94 he preserves the instincts and abilities of an old breath-hold freediver. I was reminded that in the early days of underwater cinema, the entire team had to synchronize their breathing; some of those takes lasted three minutes or more, during which divers descended to 100 feet. Even now, I was amazed by his endurance. Here, I thought, is an inspiration to everyone who ever feared the water.

Back on the surface, his eyes shone with a faraway brilliance I often noticed in the eyes of my father. I had an idea.

Captain Taillez, I began, I have one dream: I would like to dive with you on your 100th birthday. He gazed out over the pale blue sea and weighed the idea cautiously. Then he turned to me and said, with a straight face, Perhaps. But keep in mind, when Im 100 years old, you might not still be around! And looking into those eyes, it is hard not to think of Taillez and his quiet accomplishments as anything but immortal.