'Flying' Underwater: An Interview with Jean-Michel Cousteau

Fascination with space travel goes back to antiquity.  Interest in going to the bottom of the ocean does not.  We did have Gilgamesh, the king who went to the ocean floor to find the weed of eternity, but he was looked upon as very strange.

There’s also an old conception of being able to relate more to outer space because you can see it.  You can see stars.  The ocean, on the other hand, is dark.  You have to bring along all kinds of gear to see where you are.

People just don’t understand the oceans.  The U.S. Navy was giving a lot of money to ocean exploration in the 1950s and 1960s, until the SeaLab accident.  Then: Boom!  That was the end of it.

Naval History : The Apollo program did not suffer the same loss of funding after its severe accident, nor did the shuttle.

Cousteau : That is a good example of what I am talking about.  I was going through Cape Horn when the Challenger exploded in January 1986, and within minutes I knew about it.  I remember who was on that shuttle.  Do you remember?

Naval History : I remember the teacher.

Cousteau : There you go!  You don’t remember anyone else.  Suddenly, it got to everyone’s heart.  Worldwide, a billion people felt for that teacher.  Nobody is going to kill that program now.  And it’s still a memory today in the minds of people.  We haven’t had that with the ocean.  We’ve lost people, but nobody related to them, because the ocean is such a hard sell.

Naval History : The space program is credited with bringing us products that we use every day.  Has sea technology produced enough to help sway public opinion?

Cousteau : No.  To be frank, I don’t know of any ocean technology used by every human being today.  We have a better understanding of the sonar used by whales and dolphins, and we can apply that understanding to ships and submarines.  But people relate to mammals.  They don’t relate to subs.  The question is, how do we get the public to relate to the people in the subs?  No one in subs has had the exposure and charisma that Neil Armstrong had, or someone like Scott Carpenter, who explored both sea and space.

Naval History : People don’t have as much of an appreciation for deep-sea pioneers like Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh.

Cousteau : Nobody does. Don Walsh is the Buzz Aldrin of the ocean.  Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon just minutes behind Neil Armstrong, but nobody remembers him.  And nobody remembers Don Walsh.  Nobody knows who Jacques Piccard is, either.  And when people do recognize the name, they think about his father, not him.

Naval History : Should artifacts from sunken ships be brought to the surface or left on the bottom and videotaped for educational purposes?

Cousteau : I wish there was a simple answer.  It depends on where it is and what it is.  I have mixed emotions about the Titanic , now that people have taken pieces from it.  I think that some of the activity is borderline criminal.  In this case, I don’t think it’s being done for anything other than commercial purposes.  I don’t think bringing artifacts to the surface has really brought much to our understanding.

Naval History : We conducted an interview with Robert Ballard in 1996, and of course, he had strong opinions on this topic.

Cousteau : Well, I know Bob, too, and he’s done some great things; I totally hand it to him.  He’s right.  Taking up a section of the ship for the sake of displaying it is not going to teach anything to anybody.

We’re talking about a ship that still contains a whole lot of people.  It’s like going into a graveyard and stealing jewelry.  A bunch of vultures are there under the cover of history and archaeology.

Visiting a cemetery is okay.  And what the Discovery Channel did last year, when its crew illuminated sections of the ship that otherwise would never be seen because of the depth and the lack of light—that’s okay in my view.  It’s interesting to see how the ship has aged and evolved, what grows or doesn’t grow, and how the ship went down and broke apart.  I think this can help us understand a lot more of what happened than bringing back a piece and making a museum out of it.

Perhaps the lesson will be learned when somebody is hurt.  I think we should stop taking things out.  It’s that simple.

This is not to say that we never did it.  In 1953 we were south of France and we picked up approximately 5,000 amphoras from a Greek vessel that had sunk in 240 B.C.  I was a kid then, and I remember drinking wine that was 2,000 years old.

Naval History : How was it?

Cousteau: Horrible.  It was totally disgusting—not only for me, but for everybody.

That really was a detective story.  We wanted to know where the ship came from, who owned it, and where it was going.  Every piece was properly identified, preserved, carried to the mainland, and put in a museum, ultimately for display.

We had brought back the amphoras and about 10,000 pieces of pottery.  This was all with very good intentions, and I think we learned a lot.  The irony is that, by pure “coincidence,” the hangar in which all these potteries were kept, the ones that were not on display, burned down.  And everything mysteriously disappeared.  We know very well that any one of these amphoras can sell for $2,000 in France.

Maybe we should have taken just enough to make a display and left everything else there.  Now, with modern diving, people steal everything.  Anyone can go down to 150 feet today.  So you have people diving in the Mediterranean Sea, the crib of civilization, which probably by square mile has more ships than anywhere else in the world, because they’ve been sinking there for 3,000 years.

Naval History : What general impact have navies had on the ocean?

Cousteau : Obviously, when it comes to defense, they play a vital role.  And that, too, is underestimated.  What do people remember of the Gulf War?  Airplanes.  But where did those planes come from?  Many came from ships.  Navy programs are consistently poorly exposed, underestimated, and misunderstood.

Who could be a charismatic spokesperson for the Navy?  That’s what it needs—a person who’s going to be heard.  My father was in the French Navy, and he made the ocean popular in a way that the public could understand.  One has to speak the language of the man on the street; if you don’t, you’re left behind.

We need to know what the Navy is doing.  After all, it’s our tax dollars.  I always love to see what NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is doing, for instance.  And when I see a sign saying “Tax dollars at work” at a highway construction site, I feel good.  It’s tangible.  My money is right there.  Not that they couldn’t do more with it; that’s another issue.  But I have no idea what the Navy does.  And I’m not speaking as Jean-Michel Cousteau, I’m speaking as the man on the street.  I probably know 27 times more about what the Navy is doing than the man on the street.

When I’m in Panama City, I’ll often see the U.S. Navy testing diving equipment.  I know they are doing a service.  But the man on the street doesn’t know it.  And we cannot reach the man on the street through our diving industry.  It’s too small.  People in the Navy need to tell the story themselves.  I wouldn’t mind seeing a little bit of our tax dollars being put into letting the world know what’s going on.

The Coast Guard has a lot more exposure, it seems, because it keeps doing things the public can relate to.  They’re helping.  They seem more human.  You see a Coast Guard vessel arrive and feel a sense of relief.  The Coast Guard has a better image than the Navy, I think.

Naval History : The Coast Guard will tell you they don’t get enough positive publicity.

Cousteau : If they don’t, it’s their own fault.  People like Bob Ballard don’t wait for somebody else to make them popular.

Naval History : What do you say to those who claim that the Bob Ballards and the Jacques Cousteaus of the world are more showmen than scientists?

Cousteau : They are cutting their own throats.  The popularization of ocean activities is supporting their work.  And when it’s time to locate funds, the decision making and the public will lend support more easily.  It’s all a matter of perception.  We live in a world where sometimes perception has nothing to do with reality.  The realities are that some people can speak more eloquently on behalf of those who are doing the research and do them a service at the same time.

Naval History : What do you see as being your father’s greatest legacy?

Cousteau : Me.  Unfortunately, my brother and mother are no longer around, and I’m the leftover of the past.  Every one of those people has brought a lot to this world.  Least known is my mother.  She was the real strength behind the entire Cousteau operation.  She was the daughter of an admiral, and many generations of her family were naval officers.  Throughout her youth, she was frustrated in knowing she couldn’t be in the French Navy, because there were no women in it until recently.

I guess she thought the next-best thing was to marry a naval person.  So, when she was 16, she met a young naval officer, my dad.  I don’t know under what circumstances, and I may never know.  At 17, she was engaged; at 18, she was married; at 19, I was born.  So, she never really knew anything else.

She was frustrated until 1950, when my father asked her to move on board Calypso .  When people asked her where she lived, she would say Calypso .  She spent more time on the ship than my late brother, my late father, and myself together—including the time she spent 10 months on Calypso in the Amazon without going ashore.  She was the morale of the crew, a diplomat, and literally the decision-maker.  She was also in charge of cuts and bruises.

Naval History : What is your relationship with the Cousteau Society now?

Cousteau : Absolutely none.  In 1992, when I saw what my father was allowing his new wife to do, a wife who appeared out of a hat suddenly, with two little rabbits, my half-brother and half-sister, I realized that he had found someone who could agree with him about everything.  And thus, because he hated to be challenged, which I did always, she was going to be the one to take over.  So, I left.

I had been living in California since 1968 when I was invited to design a museum of the sea on board the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California.  When my brother died in 1979, my dad said, “You have to come and help me.  If you don’t, I quit.”  It was a direct threat.  So, like a good sailor, I said, “Aye, aye, sir!”

By my father’s side, I took over the Cousteau Society in the United States, with 128,000 members.  We brought it to 264,000, and I engineered a way to get out of $5 million in debt by selling a lot of assets that we had.  I redesigned the Calypso Log —which at the time was a folded poster—into a real magazine.  And a colleague of mine and I created the children’s magazine, Dolphin Life , which instantly had 104,000 subscribers.  So, I think we did a lot of good things.  We put the Cousteau Society on the map.  Shortly thereafter, in 1981, we created the Cousteau Society in France.  Overall, we had more than 360,000 members worldwide.  And our team takes a lot of credit for that.

Today, it is a catastrophe.  When I left in 1992, membership in the United States was around 65,000; in France it was around 35,000; and it is going down and will continue to go down, because you cannot have a Cousteau Society without a Cousteau.  My out-of-stepmother is a Cousteau, but she is borrowing the name.  The only thing I hope is that they preserve my father’s legacy, my father’s work, and present it in such a way that the public will have proper access to it.  But I don’t think it’s happening.  She has launched a fundraising program, which I think is disgraceful.  Four months after his death, she released a catalog that sells soaps and detergents and playing cards, tea and coffee, all which my father would never have accepted.  And now, she’s made a deal here in the States for getting royalties on perfumes.  It’s so unlike my dad.  So, I don’t believe she can do a good job, and I’m very worried.  But he elected her to be the guardian of his work, and I have to respect that.

When I saw everything was going to hell, I made good with my dad in May 1997.  He had been sick from 25 January, and he died exactly five months later.  She kept me away from him.  She really resents me; she fears me.  For four or five years, she had kept all family, friends, and colleagues at arm’s length, so much so that the poor man died alone, with few people knowing that he had been sick.  The wrong message had been distributed, saying that he was getting better—even that he was back home sipping coffee—when he really never left the hospital.  So, I forced my way into the hospital, and I saw him in May.  It was a very important moment for me and I hope for him, too, because she was not there, and thus we could be ourselves.  I think we made up completely.

Naval History : Let’s talk about the Jean-Michel Cousteau Institute.

Cousteau : I created a not-for-profit institute in the 1970s, when I was working with Pepperdine University.  And I closed it down when I joined the Cousteau Society.  So I decided to revive it in 1993, after I left the Cousteau Society, because I wanted to do some charity work.  I expanded that in July 1997 to a full-fledged organization, where I am now putting in a lot of my time.  I want nothing out of it personally.  I will give and not take.

The institute is focusing on three different fields.  One is coastal management—estuaries, mangroves, and marshlands.  Another is anything we dump into the ocean—metals, chemicals.  And the other is fisheries management and agriculture.  We’re trying to help people better manage their resources at the world scale and help the transition from being hunters to becoming farmers, like we’ve done on land.

Because we are not experts in most of these issues, we are not a membership organization.  I don’t want to compete with other membership organizations for the same dollars.  So, I seek support from corporate sponsors, private donations, and of course contracts.

After the institute identifies a priority, we team up with the best institution in that particular field.  So, we’re not going to be married to one organization.  We’re going to have one-night-stands with many organizations.  Whether they lead a particular effort or we lead, it doesn’t matter.  I want to see the problems resolved.

For 50 years I’ve witnessed the kind of damage we have done to the ocean.  I’ve seen my own backyard in the south of France being used as a universal sewer, and there is still more sewage going into the Mediterranean, by the millions of gallons every day.  We don’t have to identify the problems, we know them.  As I said years ago, we now have entered the era of solutions.  And that’s what we’re doing at the institute.  We’re going to find solutions.  And we’re going to make proposals to governments and industries.  They’re not the enemies.  They are us, and we’re going to propose how to solve problems.

The army of people out there prepared to do that may be called the disciples of Jacques Cousteau.  In many ways my dad was a pessimist.  I don’t think deep inside he believed that we as a species will be able to survive.  I do—and that was part of our healthy argument.  So that’s who we are and what we’re doing.

Naval History : What areas of the oceans are currently at greatest risk?

Cousteau : If one would agree that everything is connected, it’s really hard to identify one thing.  I would say that coastal management is probably a priority, because that is where the majority of marine life forms are found, and that is where the nurseries are.  It is precisely where we put the most pressure.  That’s also where we dump.  And that’s where we shape and reshape the coastline, where we dredge.  From a purely economical point of view—no emotions here—we can’t afford it.  An acre of marshland is worth 100 times more than we can afford.  We can’t afford to turn it into a parking lot, because the revenue from the parking lot will not provide the income that nature provides.  Nature works for free.  Anytime you fight nature, it costs you money.  Nature doesn’t care. It’s doing it for free.

My home of Santa Barbara, California, has a dredge that pumps sand from the harbor entrance to another point close by—for $400,000.  What does nature do?  For zero, it puts it right back.  Who’s the winner?  We’re stupid.  We might as well study a little more at the beginning to figure out what nature does and work with it.  Often, nature will do the work for you.

Naval History : What do you think of the Navy’s training dolphins to seek out mines?

Cousteau : I’ve always been opposed to that.  I think that man will never stop doing whatever it takes to be the best.  And that comes at the sacrifice of a lot of creatures, including humans.  I just saw a film on [the atomic bomb tests] at Bikini.  When I see what we’ve done to those Micronesians and the way we treated them, I think we’re capable of anything.

The difference between animals and us is that we know, and they don’t.  Animals don’t do things on purpose.  We do.



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