Harvey's Lake: Home of Jacques Cousteau's First Dive – Barnet, Vermont - Atlas Obscura
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Barnet, Vermont

Harvey's Lake: Home of Jacques Cousteau's First Dive

The place where the great marine explorer first learned to work underwater is not where you'd expect. 

When Jacques Cousteau was a boy he dreamed always of the water. Often described as a “sickly” child, young Jacques longed for its buoyancy and freedom, even though he wasn’t the strongest of swimmers. At least not yet.

That all started to change in the tiny village of West Barnet, Vermont. Here, there is a clear and cool lake known as Harvey’s, snuck in between two small mountains, and proud of their status as the “home of Jacques Cousteau’s first dive.”

Even though the young Cousteau wasn’t a natural in the water, he was determined to overcome this drawback, and a summer trip as a kid in 1920, along with his brother Pierre-Antoine, gave him the opportunity. The boys were sent packing to the country, to the place the future marine explorer would learn to hold his breath while working under the surface. It was an unlikely spot for two kids from rural France, in the quiet and wild corner of Vermont known as the Northeast Kingdom.

The trip for Jacques and his brother included a stay at a boys camp on Harvey’s Lake, where, according to Cousteau’s son Jean-Michel, he was put to task for refusing to participate in mandatory horseback riding (he didn’t like horses much). The camp director sent Jacques instead to clear the bottom of the lake’s swimming area of sticks and reeds, to make for safer diving. Jacques loved the job, holding his breath for longer and longer, and thinking up ways to use those very reeds as makeshift breathing tubes.

It’s probably a stretch to say that the hollow reeds at the bottom of a lake in the Northeast Kingdom led directly to the development of Cousteau’s early form of SCUBA known as the Aqua-Lung, but the great conservationist never forgot his days on Harvey’s Lake. In 1981, still holding onto more than 60 years of those memories, he pledged a large sum to purchase acres of land to protect the watershed of the lake. To keep it clean and clear for future little divers.

Know Before You Go

West Barnet is in Caledonia County, near the New Hampshire border and about an hour south of Canada. Harvey's Lake is open most times of the year, and there is a small fee for daily users in the summer months.Published coordinates take you right down to the northern most accessible part of the lake.