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Jean-Michel Cousteau

Jean-Michel Cousteau was just seven years old when his father strapped him into the newly-invented Aqua-lung and pushed him gently overboard. That was 70 years ago, and he has been diving ever since.

The son of legendary underwater explorer and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau, it was perhaps inevitable that Jean-Michel would follow in his father’s footsteps, spending his life diving the world’s oceans, making movies and campaigning for marine conservation.

As a child, Jean-Michel recalls, his father was an unknown naval officer, with a wife, two children and a burning curiosity about what lay beneath his ship. It was his fascination with the marine world that inspired him to create a system that would allow him to breathe underwater.

Cousteau Senior co-created the first dive regulator in the1940s, was instrumental in developing underwater housings for cameras, and went on to make a host of films that showed the public, for the first time, the incredible diversity and fragility of marine life.

“In the 1950s my father produced The Silent World, and it was that film which really put him on the map,” Cousteau says. “He told me to wear a tuxedo to the premiere – I had no idea until then that he was such a big deal.”

The film was awarded the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956. This year marks 60 years since that prestigious award and to celebrate this Cousteau will present his own latest underwater film, Odyssea, at the same film festival.

“I’m using technology that my father would have loved to have had access to. We’ve been able to film tiny – almost microscopic – creatures, in slow motion,” he says. “After 70 years of diving, I am able to see things on the screen that I cannot see with the naked eye.”

Continuing the Cousteau legacy, he hopes to once again show the world aspects of marine life never seen before. Although to date he has made over 80 films about the oceans, as a young man Cousteau’s ambition was to build houses under the sea. “I thought people would move underwater, so I became an architect,” he freely acknowledges his younger self’s naivety. “But over time I realised that is not where we are meant to live: we are just temporary visitors.”

Nonetheless, his architectural skills were put to good use during his military service in Madagascar, where he designed various schools and buildings. Ultimately, however, he turned his focus to helping organise his father’s ocean-going expeditions on the research vessel Calypso. “This was in the 1950s. Don’t forget, there were no cell phones, no computers then. When you were going somewhere, someone – in this case, me – had to go ahead of the ship, to make sure there was fuel and food, to meet the scientists and report back to my father.”

Since the Calypso years, Cousteau’s work has continued to be inspired by his father’s much-quoted philosophy: we only protect what we love, we only love what we understand, and we only understand what we are taught. The key to preventing further abuse of the oceans, he believes, lies in providing everyone from children to policy-makers with the knowledge and understanding that will enable them to make better decisions in the future.

In 1999, following his father’s death, Cousteau founded the Ocean Futures Society: an organisation that runs various educational programmes, including Ambassadors of the Environment and Sustainable Reefs, which aim to foster an appreciation of the natural environment and highlight the importance of protecting the oceans. He also campaigns at the highest levels to see better marine regulations enforced.

During an expedition to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Cousteau filmed thousands of dead baby albatrosses, their stomachs full of plastic. The adult albatross, he explains, looks for flying fish eggs to feed its young. These eggs are attached to floating objects in the sea, which as a result of massive pollution, tend to be bottle tops, lighters and other trash, so they pick these up and feed them to their young. “It was that film which made President George W. Bush create what was, at the time, the largest protected area of US-controlled ocean. He saw the film and he wanted to do something,” Cousteau says simply.

This gentle, unaggressive approach has similarly prompted Barack Obama and a former President of Mexico to create large marine protected reserves.

“We need to communicate with the decision makers but we don’t have to accuse them, or point fingers. These people have families, they have children – if we can reach their hearts, they will listen,” he says.

Scientific knowledge continues to improve, and we are now recognising the mistakes that were made in the past. This means that in the future better choices will be made. New technologies are also promising: Cousteau is excited about the potential to generate clean energy using ocean and river currents, without harming marine life. The fish farming of the future must also change tack dramatically, he says. Just as we do not farm land creatures that consume meat because it is too costly, so we must stop farming fish that need to be fed fish. If we farm herbivorous fish instead, he argues, fish farms could provide a truly sustainable source of food.

“I am a little more optimistic now than I was ten years ago, but time is of the essence,” he says. Now in his late 70s, Cousteau continues to dive, to travel the world and to work as hard as ever. He has no intention of retiring nor slowing down. If anything, he is picking up the pace. “I have less and less time to do more and more things,” he laughs. “My goal is to celebrate 100 years of diving when I am 107.”


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