Protector of the Ocean Realm

A conversation with Jean-Michel Cousteau about his father, his legacy and the Channel Islands.

By Chuck Graham

Photo by Caarrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

LIVING LEGACY: Following in the footsteps of his father, Jean-Michel Cousteau (shown here at Santa Cruz Island with Don Santee and daughter Céline Cousteau, during the filming of Ocean Adventures: America’s Underwater Tresures) continues the family tradit


ost people approaching 80 years of age are well into retirement. But when the world’s oceans are in dire need of some assistance and your last name is Cousteau, retirement might not be in the cards. I think it’s safe to say that the name “Cousteau” and the ocean are virtually synonymous. At 79 years young, ocean explorer and crusader Jean-Michel Cousteau shows no sign of slowing down.

He had an excellent role model: There wasn’t a more dedicated ocean explorer than his father, Jacques-Yves Cousteau. As a child in the 1970s, I remember being glued to the television every time The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau came on at my grandparents’ house. Like so many others, I was captivated by life above and beneath the sea, the groundbreaking discoveries and extensive research aboard the Calypso.

Two of those crew members were Cousteau’s sons, the eldest, Jean-Michel, and Philippe, who passed away in 1979. Jean-Michel recalls his father introducing him to the wonders of the sea in 1945 when he was only 7. He has been diving ever since, for 72 years, with no end in sight.

“He put a tank on my back and pushed me overboard and I became a scuba diver,” Cousteau recalls. 

Jacques Cousteau passed away in June 1997, and to carry on with his father’s legacy Jean-Michel created the nonprofit Ocean Futures Society (OFS) in 1999, with headquarters up the road in Santa Barbara. OFS continues to create incredible films, but with a strong focus on ocean conservation.  

“We need to respect nature,” continued Cousteau from his OFS offices. “We need to manage it like you manage a business.”

His schedule is busier than ever, and I was fortunate to spend some time with Cousteau before he traveled back home to France.

How did the Cousteau Society get off the ground?

After my father left the Navy, he decided he wanted to explore. There were shipwrecks everywhere after WWII, especially in the Mediterranean. You have to remember, there were no roads, no airplanes or train. Every connection was made by the ocean. The Calypso was made available to him free of charge as long as he didn’t use it for commercial purposes and only for making films and doing scientific research. By that time, my mother packed my brother’s bag and mine and sent us to school, and my parents moved onto the Calypso. My mother spent more time on Calypso than my brother, my father and myself combined. She was the inspiration. She played a critical role. Whenever there were holidays, summer break, my grandmother would pack our bags and send us to wherever the ship was. We spent three to four months of the year on Calypso as kids. All the people who worked on the ship became our friends, our brothers. We became very attached to them. Most of them have passed away, but there are a few.

What was your first major expedition with your father?

There was a lot of interest in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. I was an architect at the time, building schools in Madagascar, which afforded me time to dive in the Seychelles and other places. My father found himself stuck in the Red Sea because of the [Six-Day War] and thought we were going to have to go all the way around Africa to get back to France. Instead we crossed the Atlantic and headed to the Pacific through the Panama Canal.

Is there anywhere in the world that you would like to dive that you haven’t yet?

People always ask, “What’s your best dive?” I will always say, “The next one.” There are many places. I want to go back to Greece. I want to go back to places I used to dive when I was young. I want to see some of the shipwrecks that are still out there. I want to dive different parts of the Pacific. There are many islands. Fiji has 350 islands. I’ve visited three or four, maybe five of them. Let’s not forget that 71 percent of the planet is covered by ocean and there are probably millions of species we have yet to discover. It’s why I’m certified for the Exo Suit. You can go down 1,000 feet and spend 10 hours and come up in five minutes.

What brought OFS to the Central California Coast?

I had been running my father’s company (the Cousteau Society) down in Los Angeles for 20 years. I learned not to like the traffic. I had the pleasure and advantage of our wind ship, the Alcyone, in the Santa Barbara Harbor before there was a freeway going through town. We did a two-hour special on the Channel Islands called At the Edge of the Human Tide (1987). There’s history there, people there long before you and I were here. When I came here to work on the show, I said, “One day I’m going to move here.” The weather here and the South of France is the same. Twenty-six years ago I moved here. 

We have OFS offices in France and Brazil, so we decided to do that here in order to honor my father’s philosophy more than ever today. The message is always the same. If the people protect the ocean, they protect themselves.

Speaking of the Channel Islands, how important are they to the marine environment and to those who live here?

I remember years ago I supported the concept of making 20 percent of the waters surrounding the islands off limits to fishermen (Marine Protected Areas, MPAs). We adopted and accepted that and fishermen protested in front of our offices. It was tough. I grew up with fishermen. I have a lot of respect for them. Many of them lost their jobs. We probably didn’t do a very good job explaining to them that 20 percent of these places act like a nursery where species reproduce, and when there’s too few fish, they move out.

We are looking at the capital and we can have the interest from the capital, but the minute we take more than each species can produce, then we are gobbling up the capital and we’re going into bankruptcy. Nobody wants to go there. I mean, it’s so basic and logical. I couldn’t have said that 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

I read somewhere that your father rated the Channel Islands National Park as one of his top 10 coldwater dive spots in the world. Is that accurate?

It is. Still today I love to dive there. 

DEEP DIVE: Cousteau has plumbed the depths of the world’s oceans, filming the beauty of the deep and the majesty of its creatures (such as this endangered sea turtle in French Polynesia) to help viewers understand the importance and fragility of these marine ecosystems.

Cousteau in his offices, right, at Ocean Futures Society in Santa Barbara.

LIKE FATHER LIKE SON The ties that bind the Cousteaus together are inextricably linked to the sea. This early snapshot (from the family’s private collection) shows Jacques preparing a young Jean-Michel for a dive — one of many aquatic adventures the two would share through the decades.


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