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Jean-Michel Cousteau Dives Into Tales of Famous Father’s Legacy

August 2, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the famous oceanographer, has written a new book, "My Father, the Captain: My Life With Jacques Cousteau," about his father's legacy and his relationship with him as a friend, confidante and employee. Jeffrey Brown has more.
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JEFFREY BROWN: For decades, Jacques Cousteau explored life between the world’s seas and took television viewer along. He also took along members of his family, including his eldest son, Jean-Michel, who dove with his father from an early age and later became part of the crew on the Calypso, Cousteau’s famous research vehicle.

Jacques Cousteau died in 1997. His son, himself an environmentalist and ocean explorer, is founder of the Ocean Futures Society and has also produced numerous films about sea life. Jean-Michel has just published a new book, “My Father, the Captain,” about both the public life and private side of his famous father.

We talked recently in the studios of Serious XM Radio during a visit to Washington, D.C.

“My Father, the Captain: My Life with Jacques Cousteau.” Why did you want to write this book?

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU, chairman, Ocean Futures Society: 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 publicly, but the behind the scenes, 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 that 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, yes.

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 have learned a lot from him.

JEFFREY BROWN: What was driving him? Was it about going places, discovering things, exploring things?

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: Curiosity.

JEFFREY BROWN: Curiosity?

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: 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 have 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: Well, 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 just, you know, boom. And I remember wanting to talk to him underwater, so I would remove my mouthpiece and start. And he would take it, put it back in my mouth. And we learned a lot that way. And 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, 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 — for the television audience, his legacy is sort of bringing us to these places and — 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 it 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 affecting the 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.