How ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau’s son Jean-Michel is saving the oceans
Jean-Michel Cousteau is following in his father's wake as a new film about their lives hits the big screen
The son of world-famous French oceanographer and aqua-lung inventor Jacques Cousteau, Jean-Michel Cousteau was born in Toulon in 1938 and followed in the family footsteps by becoming a marine conservationist, oceanographic explorer and film producer. He’s worked on over 70 films and is the founder of the Ocean Futures Society, a conservation and education organisation working globally to protect our seas.
Now new project The Odyssey, released in the UK in August, tells the story of Jean-Michel’s family and their remarkable legacy. We talk to Jean-Michel about his unusual childhood, his passion for the ocean and his relentless campaigning to preserve it for generations to come.
As a member of the Cousteau family, did you learn to love the ocean at an early age?
Jean-Michel Cousteau: I grew up in the water – our house was 100ft away from the ocean between Toulon and Marseille in the south of France. We spent a lot of time in Bandol and then moved to Sanary-sur-Mer, where my parents built a simple house on a cliff overlooking the water. I would snorkel in the harbour looking at sh. It was here, when I was seven, that my father first put a tank on my back and pushed me overboard. I was with my younger brother [Philipe] and we kept trying to talk to each other underwater! I never realised then that my father was the co-inventor of this scuba diving equipment – I was just amazed at what I could see. It felt a very natural thing to do. I never got scared thanks to my dad, he inspired my love of the ocean and I haven’t stopped diving since. I’ve been diving 73 years, in fact I’m the oldest person on the planet today still diving!
Was your mother passionate about the sea too?
My father was originally a naval officer and my mother [Simone Melchior] wanted to join the French navy, but women weren’t allowed back then – so she did the next best thing and married an officer instead! She was the first woman ever to scuba dive – she tested equipment in the Marne river near Paris. At the weekends, the four of us would go diving. I’d get into trouble for being late for school because I just wanted to spend time in the water. I was catching urchins, octopus, things you cannot do now, but we didn’t know back then. We would dive the south coast of France, Corsica, Italy, northern Africa, Greece. Holidays were my life.
Did you travel on research trips with your parents?
We spent a lot of time on Calypso [Jacques Cousteau’s research vessel from where the TV series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau was filmed]. My brother and I would fly over from boarding school in France to wherever it was during the Christmas, New Year and summer holidays. It was an unusual childhood, but it just seems normal if that’s all you know! I learnt so much about the ocean and the crew became like brothers. Later the Alcyone (the family’s expedition ship) was my home and I worked on many films about the ocean from there.
What did you love about scuba diving?
Scuba diving is amazing – that feeling of being weightless, like an astronaut. But to dive in the presence of scientists who made us understand the behaviour of creatures and plants was simply fascinating. We discovered new species all the time, but soon we realised we were abusing the ocean too, taking more than nature can bear, using it as garbage can, a universal sewer.
What are your thoughts on the new film about your family?
I think my mother is well presented in The Odyssey and my father is okay, but crew member Albert Falco, who had a critical role in my father’s life, was not properly represented. It’s not bad overall. I wasn’t involved in the production, though I made suggestions on the original script.
Which sea creatures fascinate you the most?
I’ve fallen in love with the octopus – which my father called the most intelligent cold-blooded creature. And I love orcas, the largest of the dolphin family – they have a bad reputation because they’re called killer whales but they are the most sophisticated creature in the ocean. You’ll find them from the Arctic to Antarctic in resident and transient populations. They have different languages; their primary sense is acoustic and they can identify one group of orcas from another and decide to join together or avoid each other. It’s the females who decide what to do and where to go. When they give birth to a male he will stay with her until she dies – he’ll go off briefly to reproduce but then come back to mum.
I’ve dived in the Arctic and love to dive under icebergs, it’s like being in a beautiful cathedral (although today icebergs are melting and contributing to the oceans rising). In temperate waters, I love to swim and dive in the middle of kelp forests in southern California. They’re the second fastest growing plant on the planet and can be 80ft tall, it’s spectacular. But Fiji is for me the most exciting part of world in terms of the diversity of corals, I call it the capital of soft coral, it’s astounding.
What is the main message of your conservation society?
If you protect the ocean you protect yourself. Whether we live near ocean or on land we all depend on the quality of the ocean for the quality of our lives. I created the Ocean Futures Society to honour my father’s philosophy and we continue to produce films, to educate – and try to reach businessmen and politicians. I sit down with decision-makers and try to reach their hearts. I’ve done it with President Bush and heads of big companies – though not with the president we have right now, I don’t think he’s interested in the environment. If he wanted to talk I’d love to change his mind.
How are the rest of your family continuing your father’s great legacy?
My dad used to say people protect what they love. I have a wonderful team working to educate people and we’re carrying on that message – my son, daughter, nephew and niece are all trying to do something to protect the environment. But time is of the essence. We must do everything we can to protect more species. We must manage the oceans like a business, this is the capital and we are heading towards bankruptcy. We’re the only species that has the privilege to decide whether or not to disappear – and we need to make sure we take advantage of that.