Jacques Cousteau “would be heartbroken” at our seas today

Jacques-Yves Cousteau was born a hundred years ago today. “Captain Cousteau,” became synonymous with the ocean. “The sea is everything,” he said. (Jacques-Yves Cousteau centennial: “The sea is everything”). French inventor, engineer, explorer, naturalist, poet, and ultimately prophet, Jacques Cousteau died in 1997, but, as his son Jean-Michel Cousteau writes in the tribute below, he remains a champion of the oceans.

Cousteau-book-cover.jpgBy Jean-Michel Cousteau

My father, Captain Jacques Cousteau, would have been 100 years old today. He was a man of undeniable charisma, a man who always achieved his objectives, a man of such single-minded determination that he would not give up on a goal until he had achieved it. His lifelong vision was to help millions of people understand the fragility of life on what he called our “‘water planet.”

 From his famous research ship Calypso, my father was one of the first to draw attention to the devastating results of overfishing, climate change and the effect of pollution on our underwater habitats. He became a global ambassador for the sea, a kind of spiritual guide for the environment.


Jean-Michel Cousteau is the author of My Father, the Captain: My Life with Jacques Cousteau, published by National Geographic Books on May 25, 2010.



 (L-R) Céline, Fabien and Jean-Michel Cousteau

© Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society.

My father would be heartbroken at what is taking place in our seas today, especially the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

One of the memories I carry with me to this day is of my father standing on the deck of our wind ship, Alcyone, looking ahead to the legacy he might leave behind. He issued me a challenge that belonged not only to me, but to all who are determined to protect our seas. “It is you, Jean-Michel, who will carry the flame of my faith.” Yes, it is on me, and on all of us, to carry on the work of this brilliant, passionate man in protecting our natural resources and to acknowledge the incredible privilege we all share on Planet Ocean.

The more I look back on my father’s life and work, the more I realize what a visionary he was, even though he would not have used that term to describe himself. He was a pioneer who broke barriers with his inventions such as the aqua-lung, scuba diving apparatuses and submersibles; his name became synonymous with underwater exploration, ocean photography and conservation; and I believe he did more than anyone to enlighten the world about the complexity of the ocean’s ecology and the importance of preserving it.


Jacques Cousteau

National Geographic stock

My father introduced my brother, Philippe, and me to the wonders of the ocean at an early age, and we shared his passion for the sea and his work. One of my father’s greatest wishes was to educate all children to be future stewards of the sea. To help fulfill this wish and to continue his legacy, I founded the Ocean Futures Society, a marine conservation and education organization, to open up the seas for young people and instill in them a love of the ocean in the same way my father did for me.


President Kennedy awards the National Geographic Society’s Special Gold Medal to Jacques Cousteau in 1961. “We have learned in the last sixty years how to fly better than the birds–or at least higher and longer. And the Captain has given us a possibility that some day we may swim as well as the fish–or at least deeper. And he is, therefore, one of the great explorers of an entirely new dimension, and I can imagine his satisfaction in having opened up the ocean floor to man and to science,” Kennedy said at the ceremony (recorded by the National Geographic archives.)

Photo source unknown

As the centenary of his birth approached, I have thought often about my father and the many moments we shared. Paradoxically, one of the times I felt closest to him was a few weeks after his death in 1997. I was with a group preparing for a dive, and I asked if I could have a few minutes in the water by myself. As I swam in a large kelp forest, I noticed an unusual opening in the kelp, which exposed the sandy ocean floor. The sun’s rays shone through the opening, lighting up the patch of sand, like a spotlight on an empty stage. All around me were brightly colored fish that shimmered in the sunlight like festive candles announcing an underwater fiesta. Overcome with emotion, I dropped to my knees. It felt as if my father was with me on the sun-splashed open floor. He was here, among the dazzling seaweeds, among the sparkling fish. This is the real Cousteau, I remember thinking. This is where he lived; this is where he will remain.

“People protect what they love,” my father once said. My wish today, as we mark his 100th birthday, is that we redouble our efforts to love and cherish our planet and the underwater world that he championed.

Jean-Michel Cousteau is the author of My Father, the Captain: My Life with Jacques Cousteau, published by National Geographic Books on May 25, 2010.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn