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Cousteau's white hair billows out of diving mask as he approaches black-and-white fish and yellow coral

The younger Cousteau swims with batfish. (Ocean Futures Society photo courtesy of KQED.)

Cousteau’s son returns with high-def adventures below

Originally published in Current, Nov. 3, 2003
By Steve Behrens

The research ship Calypso sank seven years ago and its captain, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, died a year later, but his eldest son is planning to bring Cousteau-style daring scuba-do back to television.

Five films in a new series, Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Adventures, will be ready for broadcast sometime in 2005, says Danny McGuire, the project’s executive producer at KQED, San Francisco. [A six-episode series found funding and a slot on the PBS schedule for spring 2006.] The station is co-producing the series with Ocean Futures Society, a nonprofit founded in 1999 by the son.

“The whole effort is to bring the Cousteau legacy back to public TV,” says McGuire.

The series will hammer home the gospel that overfishing, pollution and other human scourges of the oceans are threatening those vast sources of food, oxygen and biodiversity. “We can’t protect what we don’t understand” is the program’s working motto.

Though Ocean Futures Society is sharing the fundraising tasks and editorial control with KQED, the series will reflect opposing views as well as the society’s stance on issues, McGuire says. A 10-member advisory committee of scientists and educators, which earlier advised on KQED’s Empty Oceans, Empty Nets, will serve as watchdogs for the series by reviewing scripts and rough cuts, he adds.

Ocean Adventures will take a more journalistic approach than the earlier Cousteau series, mining newer research on ecosystems and sustainability, but also delivering a quotient of adventure, says McGuire.

A major theme will be the resilience of nature, says Pam Stacey, a longtime Cousteau writer who is publications director at Ocean Futures Society. “It has always been part of the Cousteau approach,” she says, to look for solutions “before deadening everybody with the problems.”

One of the strengths of the Cousteaus has been their ability to show the connections between various global developments and the impact they can have on the ocean environment, Stacey says. For instance, the “Sharks: At Risk” episode will link the declining shark population to the growing affluence of Asians who can afford the highly prized shark’s fin soup.

The series will benefit from new technology—the high-definition video the divers use to tape underwater, the audio gear that lets them narrate as they swim, and the rebreathing devices that allow for longer and deeper dives.

Though Jean-Michel Cousteau will appear in the films, he probably will not be the host or narrator, McGuire says.
Cousteau brought the project to KQED in February, seeking aid for production of “Voyage to Kure,” an episode on an Ocean Futures Society expedition to the wild and remote northwestern end of the Hawaiian Archipelago, which coincided with the sailing of a reproduction Polynesian voyaging canoe to the island. Despite the area’s remoteness, McGuire says, tons of plastic and other waste end up on its beaches.

Besides “Voyage to Kure” and “Sharks: At Risk,” the other first-season episodes include the two-hour “America’s Undersea Adventures,” shot in the country’s 13 offshore national parks, from Lake Huron to the Gulf; “The Gray Whale Obstacle Course,” which will look at the perilous migratory path of Pacific whales; and “Ghost Ships of the Truk Lagoon,” with film of massive sunken relics of war.

The wiry, wool-capped Jacques Cousteau, who co-invented the aqualung and underwater cameras, introduced the public to the ocean deep starting with the Oscar-winning doc The Silent World in 1955. He came to TV with The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, co-produced with David Wolper, which aired on ABC in the 1960s and ‘70s. In 1977 he worked with KCET in Los Angeles on the public TV series Cousteau Odyssey, and later with Turner Broadcasting on Cousteau’s Rediscovery of the World.

Jean-Michel Cousteau, who trained as an architect, took a greater role at the Cousteau Society after the death of his younger brother Philippe in 1979. He shared producer roles with his father on the Turner series, according to Charles Vinick, executive v.p. of Ocean Futures Society and a former Cousteau Society executive. But the father broke publicly with his son in 1995, filing lawsuits demanding that Jean-Michel clarify that a scuba-diving resort on Fiji was not related to the father’s Cousteau Society. The son designed the vacation spot, now called Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Fiji Island Resort, as a model for ecotourism. (It offers a honeymoon package for $6,760 per couple.)

Other heirs also lay claim to the Cousteau name. Jacques Cousteau’s second wife controls the Cousteau Society, while Philippe’s widow and children started the Philippe Cousteau Foundation.

Jean-Michel Cousteau, meanwhile, is president of the Ocean Futures Society, which grew out of Free Willy-Keiko Foundation. The foundation helped free the real-life orca whale, Keiko, that starred in the 1993 movie Free Willy, according to Stacey. Though Jean-Michel Cousteau and others helped get Keiko got out of the Mexico City aquarium where he was a performer, the whale has not had the happy reunion with nature that the movie implied. After years of efforts to return him to the wild, according to Stacey, Keiko is still partially dependent on humans.

Posted Nov. 12, 2003, updated Aug. 10, 2005
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio in the United States
Current Publishing Committee


Pipeline: Producers list other new series in preparation for future seasons of public TV.


PBS later announced Ocean Adventures will air in spring 2006 with the corporate sponsorship of Dow Chemical.

Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society.