Jean-Michel Cousteau carries on his dad’s profound legacy
When you’re the son of perhaps the most famous waterman in modern history, you know you’re going to be thrown into the world of ocean adventuring. For Jean-Michel Cousteau, such was the case—literally. At the age of 7, when his legendary father, the revolutionary explorer Jacques Cousteau, strapped an oxygen tank to his back and tossed him overboard into the Mediterranean Sea, the Frenchman inherited an insatiable curiosity and a subsequent need to protect the aqua underworld.
Dedicating his life to ocean conservation and education, the 72-year-old continues the kind of work Jacques Cousteau pioneered, having made more than 70 environmental films, founding his Ocean Futures Society, and serving at the forefront of the modern ocean conservation movement. So while it’s the sprawling landscape underwater that occupies his mind, Jean-Michel spends much of his time above sea level—traveling, talking and tying people emotionally to that mysterious world beneath us. At the time of our chat, he was in Erie, Penn., after having been in Tasmania, the Galápagos Islands, and in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon in the weeks prior. A constant international lecturer who never does the same presentation twice, he jokingly says, “I barely speak English, I barely speak French, and I speak a tiny bit of Spanish,” before tacking on for validation, “but I can do diver’s signs underwater!” No surprise. He’ll be bringing that English with a thick French accent—along with an affable, lighthearted nature and child-like passion for the ocean—to the Rio Theatre this Saturday, May 1. First, he tells GT about his greatest lessons learned from his luminary father, and how he now endeavors to teach them.
GT: What is the main difference between your efforts in the conservation movement today and how your father was pioneering it?
JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: I think my dad was into discovering—and I remember, I’ll never forget, he said, “How can you protect what you don’t understand?” So we focused on understanding, and once you can understand, then you can protect. I think I have found myself more and more into education and communication, in dialogue with decision makers looking at specific issues and making a connection to the bigger picture of ‘How does that relate to other parts of the world? How can we share that information with other people?’ … There are people who attack the decision makers; they point fingers, they argue, they disagree. Automatically, those decision makers—whether in government or industry—then put themselves on the defense. We don’t operate that way at Ocean Futures Society. We sit down and we have a dialogue. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but at least we are civilized. We’re speaking to people who have families and children, like we do, and ultimately if you provide them with the right information they will do everything they can to make a difference.
What do you feel is the top issue we should address at this time?
I would join forces in this particular case with the protection of the coastline on the West Coast. When I say the West Coast, as Governor Schwarzenegger started doing, I mean to join forces with Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and saying that we need to have a joint policy for that entire coastline to manage it better than we have in the past. That’s one of the things that would help immensely if it can be put in place. Then we need to continue having no-fishing zones. I underline this: I am on the side of the fishermen, I am on the side of the fishermen. But if we don’t have any protected zones, the fishermen will go out of business. Today, after four years of having [no-fishing zones] in the Channel Islands of Santa Barbara, we now have the commercial fisherman and sports fishermen coming back and saying, “Oh, wow, it’s working.” I’m so glad that we can now point to that and say, “See, it works. And it’s for everybody’s benefit.” Look, I eat fish, I’m not a hypocrite. But I am very picky, and that’s why I carry in my wallet or on my cell phone the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch card.
Did you ever think about rebelling against your father’s lifestyle to do something different?
No, no, no. I am so grateful. My dad had been so helpful—he was my dad, he was my friend, he was my boss, so I had to juggle all of that. You’ll see: the National Geographic Society is releasing my book “My Father the Captain” next month [in conjunction with Jacques Cousteau’s 100th birthday] and I think I’m being extremely objective in wanting to set the record straight for everybody because there’s been many unauthorized biographies about our family. So since I’m the last one of that generation of Cousteaus, I’m going to set it straight.
You were a diver as a kid but ironically you got your diving certification late in life. How did it come about?
I was uncertified at the age of 7 and there was no certification in those days. I got caught one day in Australia on a dive boat as an adult when they said they needed my diving certification, and I didn’t have one. I was in my 30s or 40s. Fortunately, one guy on the boat said, “Do you know who this is?” and I felt horrible because I don’t like to use that as an excuse. So then I went and got my certification. (Laughs) But I’ve been diving 65 years.
What still brings you the greatest sense of joy underwater?
The third dimension; being an astronaut underwater. Every astronaut is a scuba diver first, there’s not one single astronaut who didn’t learn to scuba dive first. … If we want to go up [to space] we need to take care of planet Earth first, otherwise we’ll never go up there. I think that’s what impacted me the most as a kid and still today. When my father first passed away [in 1997], the first thing I did was go to Catalina Island and go diving in the kelp forest. There were sun rays going through, and it was like being a bird flying in Sequoia National Park. I went to pay tribute to my dad and there he was; we had a communication in the middle of beautiful kelp, with the fish saluting him, and it was magic. It was one of my best dives ever. To dive in a kelp forest, to me it’s more spectacular than even the big coral reefs.
What was most influential about growing up with your famous father?
He was tough, but he was extremely generous, extremely dedicated, and he really, really wanted to share all the information that he had. … He had dreams and he followed his dreams, and that’s something that I personally really appreciate. I say that to kids all the time, which I learned from him, “Don’t listen, just follow your dreams. Don’t get impacted by other people who want you to do this or that, do what you dream about doing. Go for it, no matter what.” I got that from my dad. People would say to him, “Captain, what are you going to find out from your expedition?” And his answer was, “Well, if I knew I wouldn’t go.” When people ask me, “What has been your best dive ever?” my answer is always, “The next one.”
Jean-Michel Cousteau speaks at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 1, at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $10.50-21.50. Tickets available at Streetlight Records. For more information, call 421-9200 or go to riotheatre.com. Photo Credit: Carrie Vonderhaar