Conversation: Jean-Michel Cousteau
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to talk to environmentalist and ocean explorer, Jean-Michel Cousteau. He recently went to the Gulf of Mexico with a team of divers to examine the damage being caused by the BP oil spill disaster. He’s the son of the late Jacques Cousteau, who was born 100 years ago today, and is the author of a new book about him titled “My Father, the Captain.”
Jean-Michel Cousteau has produced more than 80 films, winning the Emmy Award and Peabody Award. In 1999, he founded the Ocean Futures Society, a non-profit marine conservation and education organization, to help continue his father’s work.
In the first part of our conversation we discussed what he discovered in the Gulf. The second part, below, focused on his book:
(A transcript is after the jump.)
JEFFREY BROWN: “My Father, the Captain: My Life with Jacques Cousteau,” why did you want to write this book?
JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: I felt that I wanted to give the public, who has been so supportive of everything we’ve done for decades now, the real Captain Cousteau, the real person, not just what we perceive publically, but the behind the scene: the father, the husband, the team leader, and the fact in my case where I found myself as I grew up and became part of the team, the fact that I had to juggle all the time, because he was my father first and then he was my friend, and we had a really, really fun relationship. We used to play tennis together, we used to go and have a drink somewhere together. I mean, it was just friendship. And then he was my boss. And sometimes, well…
JEFFREY BROWN: That complicates life a little, doesn’t it?
JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: Well, it was a juggling act, literally, and particularly when some of the members of the team who didn’t have the guts to speak to him directly would talk to me about issues they were really bothered by, so I had to make assessment, you know, how do I report that to dad, how do I modify it if I have to, so that person doesn’t get in trouble, and it was tough.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you said he was a fun guy, but he was also a tough guy.
JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: Oh, he was tough, yeah.
JEFFREY BROWN: What did the public not know about him?
JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: I think the public doesn’t know that he was determined and nothing was going to stop him. And if he wanted to go there and didn’t have the equipment, he will invent it. If he wanted to go where it’s difficult to go, he would find a way to get there. He was an amazing leader for me and I’ve learned a lot from him.
JEFFREY BROWN: What was driving him? Was it about going places? Discovering things? Exploring things?
JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: Curiosity. I think it’s curiosity. Because when people ask him, well, Captain what do you expect to find? He would always say, ‘If I knew I wouldn’t go.’ So it was this sense of discovery, which is obviously related to adventure, because if you don’t know what you are going to find out there, it’s adventure. So in many ways I’ve inherited that, because I’m always intrigued. I want to see what’s on the other side of the hill.
JEFFREY BROWN: And for you, of course, this meant a life — this is started when you were a young boy and it shaped your life since.
JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: It did, because my dad was completely unknown when I was a little kid. And he put a tank on my back, which he had co-invented at that time, and put it on my brother, on my mother and pushed us overboard and we became scuba divers. It was, you know, just boom. And I remember wanting to talk to him underwater, so I would remove my mouthpiece and start, and he would take it and put it back in my mouth. And we learned a lot that way. I think this sense of adventure was infused, not forcefully, through invitations. Through, Ok, let’s go diving. Or, let’s go to Corsica and go on a boat to Corsica and spend a week out there and explore. And, oh, let’s go in a cave. Oh, ok, let’s go in a cave. And in a cave, whoa, there is a little beach in that cave as we surfaced, and there is a whole bunch of sea lions that are there that are getting scared. So they come out and they have to go right by you and, whoa, it was just unbelievable. Then I realized they are not there to hurt us; they are scared, they want to get out. They don’t want to bite us. And it was, you know, it was, and the same thing happened with sharks. I mean, this misconception of sharks — there are over 300 species, the majority of them are completely harmless. The biggest fish in the ocean ever is a shark — has no teeth. Hollywood hasn’t found a way to spend $50 million —
JEFFREY BROWN: It’s not as interesting of a movie —
JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: On a shark that is going to gum you to death, right. So, I mean, we need to get back to reality and appreciate all the work that has been done to make the public aware of what’s out there and want to discover more, because we know nothing about the ocean.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me ask you finally about that, because for the television audience his legacy is sort of bringing us to these places and showing us worlds that we otherwise wouldn’t see. As his son, friend, employee, how do you see his legacy?
JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: I think his legacy was to open our minds as to the importance of the ocean as a life support system, the fact that every human being on the planet depends on the quality of that ocean for the quality of our lives. Whether you live along the coastline or way inland, we’re all connected to the ocean. The next time you drink a glass of water, you are drinking the ocean. And it’s pure. It’s clean. And then we dispose of it and it goes into the little streams into the rivers and goes right back into the ocean with everything we put into it. Not just what we see — the garbage that we see — but toxic materials like chemicals and heavy metals. And that can be absorbed to some extent by nature, but there is a point where too much is too much, and we’ve reached that point in certain parts of the planet, and it has affected or effecting marine life, some of it we harvest and put back in our plates. So it’s now coming back into ourselves.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is “My Father, the Captain.” Jean-Michel Cousteau, nice to talk to you.
JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: Thank you very much.