Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Deep-sea dynasty

In 1944, when he was seven years old, his dad strapped a scuba tank to his back and pushed him overboard, into the Mediterranean Sea. "I became an explorer at an early age," says Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of famed underwater filmmaker and ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau. In the years since, Jean-Michel, who grew up spending school holidays aboard the Calypso, his father's renowned expedition ship, has made thousands of dives around the globe, carrying on the family legacy as both a documentary-film producer and an ocean environmentalist.

But the family affair doesn't end there. After founding the non-profit Ocean Futures Society (OFS; ocean, in Santa Barbara, California, in 1999, Jean-Michel brought on board his son, Fabien, now thirty-nine, and daughter, Celine, thirty-four. The two participate in many aspects of the organization, including underwater expeditions (aired on the PBS series Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures) and an educational program in environmental awareness for children in five countries. "We recently took kids from Arizona on a skin-diving excursion," says Ce1ine, whose home base is Sante Fe, New Mexico. "It was the first time they'd ever seen the sea, and they couldn't get over how beautiful it was."

"How can you protect something you don't understand?" Jean-Michel asks. The answer, of course, is you can't, and that is why he believes in entertainment with a message, whether it's a 3-D IMAX film on sharks or a popular cartoon like SpongeBob SquarePants, one of whose DVDs included footage of Jean-Michel speaking to children about fragile coral ecosystems.

A Paris-born New Yorker, Fabien holds a degree in environmental economics, but he couldn't ignore the pull of the ocean. He quit a job in a design firm to devote himself to deconstructing the myth that sharks are mindless killers. "There are nearly 400 species, most of them harmless," he says. "They're the flag bearers of the health of our oceans, as well as the garbage collectors."

Last year Fabien received a $100,000 grant to create Troy, a fourteen-foot, 1,000-pound one-man minisub disguised as a great white that is used to swim with and observe these and other sharks. As described in his documentary Shark: Mind of a Demon With Fabien Cousteau, which aired on CBS in 2006, Fabien wanted to go beyond the barrier of the cage, in the spirit of Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. "There was a lot of pectoral flexing, eye rolling and teeth rocking," he says, laughing, "which, in shark body language, might indicate they accepted me as one of their own."

Aside from making films and arranging lectures and media interviews, OFS informs lawmakers and government officials on Capitol Hill of environmental perils. As Jean-Michel is fond of saying, "Everything is connected: global warming, ocean pollution, the rising sea level, coastline protection, the devastation of marine populations and illegal fishing." The frustrations and victories of these advocacy efforts go hand in hand. While he deplores the U.S. Navy's persistent use of low-frequency sonar, which kills whales and dolphins, he was jubilant when he learned that it was in part due to President Bush's viewing of the first segment of Ocean Adventures that he signed an executive order that turned the remote north-western Hawaiian islands into a marine national monument.

With four offices--in Santa Barbara, Paris, Sao Paulo and Lucca, Italy--OFS has a staff of up to fifty, including marine biologists, diving specialists and camera crew. Funded not only by broadcast fees from television programs but also by donations and sponsorships, the organization is nonetheless selective about its backers, seeking corporations that share its values, such as Gant, the giant fashion company, which has made a strong commitment to supporting environmental awareness and is celebrating the Cousteaus and promoting their work in its current ad campaign.

"No one can do it alone," Fabien says. "But by showing our experiences and, we hope, influencing the general public, we can change the tide. Otherwise, if it were too late to do anything, we'd be off playing with dolphins--while we still can."

Source Citation:Goodman, Lanie. "Deep-sea dynasty: the Cousteau family is legendary, its work extraordinary. And those efforts continue, on behalf of the oceans and of life itself." Town & Country 161.5325 (June 2007): 172(2). Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 8 July 2009


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