Cousteau, Jean Michel

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Jean Michel Cousteau

Jean Michel Cousteau (born 1938), the son of famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, has followed in his father's footsteps to become a well-known marine biologist himself. He has taken up the fight to preserve and protect the oceans. He was quoted in Florida's St. Petersburg Times as having said, "For years, we have looked at the ocean as a dumping ground. Because it was out of sight and out of mind, we have treated it like a universal sewer." He has fought to bring to the notice of the public the fact that ocean dumping needs to stop if the marine life, and therefore everything on the planet, is going to survive.

Early Interest in Oceanography

Cousteau was born in 1938 in Toulon, France, to well-known oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau and his wife, Simone. The first son of a scientist, Cousteau was brought to the study of marine life at an early age. Cousteau's father was a onetime French naval officer and the inventor of the famous Aqua Lung, used to help divers stay under water for long periods of time, thereby allowing them to study marine life more extensively. According to Cousteau, his entry into marine biology started when he was only seven years old. Cousteau's father attached a diving tank to his back and thrust him overboard into the Mediterranean Sea somewhere off the coast of the south of France. Instead of being afraid, Cousteau was amazed at the beauty and mystery he saw. He was instantly captivated and from that moment on spent his life exploring the depths of the oceans.

Cousteau's parents had a second son, Philippe. When he was growing up, Cousteau and his younger brother, Philippe, often went with their father on his adventures, traveling across the oceans on the Calypso and Alcyone, their father's research vessels. By the 1960s Cousteau was working with his father on several movies and programs, including the television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. However, despite the fact that it was his eldest son who was helping him with the films, Cousteau's father chose Philippe to be the heir to his oceanography empire. At that time Jean, wanting to continue pursuing his career in a marine field, attended the Paris School of Architecture, graduating with a degree in marine architecture. He went on from there to help with design projects across Europe and beyond.

Started Project Ocean Search

In 1973 Cousteau started the educational field study program Project Ocean Search. He set up the project to organize educational expeditions for groups of interested scientists, divers, and students. That same year he also started an architectural firm called Living Design that dealt with marine architecture. In 1977 he founded the Jean-Michel Cousteau Institute. It was a not-for-profit research foundation focused on oceanographic work. When Philippe died in a seaplane crash in 1979, Cousteau returned to help his father deal with his grief as well as his business issues, taking a more active role in his father's work again. He combined his Institute with his father's Cousteau Society. Cousteau remained as a board member and executive vice president of communications of the Cousteau Society until 1999. He spent all of his time on expeditions, lecturing, or working at the society. He never shared any of the fame of the projects with his father, but it is doubtful that the Cousteau Society could have continued without him.

During his time working with his father, Cousteau was executive producer for the films Jacques Cousteau: The First 75 Years, Cousteau's Amazon, and Cousteau's Mississippi. He was awarded the prestigious Peabody Award, the Ace Award, and the 7 d'Or, the equivalent in France of an American Emmy for Cousteau's Amazon. Besides these, Cousteau produced sixty-one television specials, including the admired Cousteau's Rediscovery of the World.

Split From Father

Cousteau's mother died in 1990, and shortly thereafter his father remarried. It has been thought that these events were partly responsible for disagreements between father and son, because the two began to argue extensively. They could not seem to agree on anything. Cousteau and his father had many differences on how to run the company, and in 1993 Cousteau left the Cousteau Society and basically stopped speaking to his father.

In 1995 Cousteau and his father argued again, this time because the younger Cousteau had started his own business: Cousteau's Fiji Island Resort. Cousteau's father did not like his son using his name on the project and began legal proceedings. He dropped them when Cousteau agreed to add "Jean-Michel" to the beginning of the title. Because of the public nature of the legal battle, the estrangement became widely known and much talked of. But there seemed to be a lessening of tensions in 1997, when Cousteau accepted an invitation to attend a black-tie dinner in Orlando, Florida, to honor his father and all his achievements over his lifetime. All eyes were on the pair, but as soon as Cousteau entered the room he went straight to his father, said a few words, and then moments later the two were hugging and toasting each other.

The reconciliation came none too soon. Later that month Cousteau's father fell ill and was hospitalized. Only five months later on June 25, Cousteau's father died of a heart attack in Paris. At the time, the younger Cousteau was in Portland, Oregon, working as part of his Free Willy Foundation, which was working to bring Keiko, a whale, to freedom. Cousteau vowed that he would carry on his father's work, although not through his father's company. Francine, Cousteau's stepmother, was left in charge of the Cousteau Society, and she and Cousteau disagreed completely over what should be done with the organization. In 1999 the Jean-Michel Cousteau Institute merged with the Free Willy Keiki Foundation to become the nonprofit organization Ocean Futures Society, for which he eventually became president.

Efforts to Bring Attention to Oceans

Besides his diving and movie making, Cousteau started a syndicated column with the Los Angeles Times, and his articles have been published in newspapers around the globe. He has also lectured to groups of students and others, taking people on explorations and showing them what the ocean is like and how it can be saved. He firmly believes that if enough young people can be interested in the study of marine life, its survival can be assured. This is the only way, he has said, that the ocean will remain a focus of conservation efforts in the future. He told the Piedmont Triad, North Carolina, News and Record, "Experiencing the ocean will help children relate to the role it plays in our lives…. They are so open. They are like sponges. Their creativity is unbelievable."

In an interview with website a year after his father's death, Cousteau stated that dumping was one of the real threats to the ocean. According to him, "There are places where it's so bad that aquatic reproduction is affected." He also told the same reporter that it was a shame that humans had mapped the surface of the moon and yet knew very little about the oceans. "We know very little when it comes to depths deeper than conventional divers or submersibles can go. Beyond the continental shelf of 500 feet, we know nothing."

While trying to do his part to map the depths of the ocean, Cousteau has also been involved in the making of several recent films about marine life. These include the IMAX films Dolphins: At Play in the Wild, and Sharks, shot in 3D. PR Newswire called the film "a stunning immersive diving experience." Cousteau also started a two-day camp on the British Virgin Island of Tortola called "Ambassadors of the Environment."

Cousteau tried many different activities to bring the plight of the ocean to the public's attention. In 2004 he wrote a book about his famous father. According to the London Independent, Cousteau "lauds the captain's legacy, condemns his stepmother for failing to keep the flame alive and suggests his father lost the plot after his formidable first wife, Simone (Jean-Michel's mother), died in 1990." In 2006 Cousteau gave a speech at the dedication of a new science building at Fresno State University. While in Fresno he gave a University Lecture Series address about the Great Ocean Adventure at the Satellite Student Union at California State University, Fresno.

Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures

Despite these other activities, however, Cousteau also continued his original love: exploring and filming the oceans. In 2003 Cousteau put together a group of scientists and set off to film the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for a television special, Voyage to Kure, the first film in the series. Cousteau told USA Today, "This is just like being back in the old days. We have an all-new team of young men and women who have been training for this mission for about a year." When the film was released, the Orlando Sentinel wrote, "Take the plunge offered by Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures and you'll luxuriate in rare television. How many programs provide exhilarating adventure, powerful commentary and breathtaking journeys to seldom-seen paradises?… This series brings you the world's natural beauty and pushes you, ever so nicely, to appreciate that precious commodity. It's a noble lesson that unfolds as awesome entertainment."

He aired one of his films about the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for President George W. and Mrs. Bush, which discussed the need to protect the marine preserve there which is the largest in the world—100 times as big as Yosemite National Park. Only two months after meeting with Cousteau, Bush created the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument to protect the area and its inhabitants. Apparently Mrs. Bush, upset by what Cousteau had to tell them, urged her husband to all speed. About the project, Cousteau told the Orlando Sentinel, "We're doing justice to the ocean. A lot has to be done, and it's going to take a lot of work. But perhaps with this expedition we can highlight to the world the fact that it's not too late, the fact that it is time to recognize our life-support system has problems and thus so do we."

After his first release, Cousteau and his team had plans to do films on sharks, whales, and America's underwater treasures. And just as his father did, Cousteau has kept up the family tradition by involving his own children, Celine and Fabien, in the making of the films. Cousteau, who lives in Santa Barbara, has also begun work on treating the Mississippi, which because of pollution dumped into the river has caused a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Massachusetts, where no marine life thrives at all. Cousteau is optimistic that changes can be made if the United States government takes the threat seriously. If Cousteau has his way, the governments of the world will work to protect the largest natural resource the planet has.


Newsmakers, Issue Cumulation, Gale Research, 1988.


Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 23, 2004.

Fresno Bee, March 11, 2005.

Houston Chronicle, July 8, 2003; September 21, 2006.

Independent (London, England), October 10, 2001; April 17, 2004.

News & Record (Piedmont Triad, NC), March 15, 1998.

Orlando Sentinel, April 3, 2006.

PR Newswire, December 10, 2004; March 10, 2005; March 23, 2005; January 5, 2006.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 28, 1998; November 6, 1998.

St Louis Post-Dispatch, April 23, 2002; June 5, 2003.

St. Petersburg Times, March 12, 2000.

Time, June 26, 2006.

USA Today, July 16, 2003.

Washington Times, July 2, 2000.


"An Interview with Jean-Michel Cousteau," Suite 101, (November 27, 2006).

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