Changing Planet

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.

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David 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. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs 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. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • nostod

    I grew up reading books, and watching documentaries about Jacques Cousteau. I was a member of the Cousteau society for several years. As a father, and a diver, I worry that the beauty of the ocean is being destroyed. It is a gift, but we don’t seem to truly appreciate it. I can only hope that my son will be able to see the things that I have seen and experience the beauty of the ocean realm.

  • Monique

    I religiously watched ‘Geheimnisse Des Meeres’ as a kid. Couldn’t believe all the weird and wonderful creatures living below the surface. I fondly remember watching the trip along the Amazon with a giant river otter on board. Thank you Jacques Cousteau for all the beautiful footage you shared with the rest of the world.

  • Dr. John Westerdahl

    Back in the 1970s, Jacques Cousteau inspired me as a young man to become a scuba diver and most importantly to have respect for our environment by protecting our oceans. Today my young daughter, is inspired by the works of Cousteau and now his son Jean-Michel.As a result she one day wants to become a Marine Scientist herself. We are both grateful that Jean-Michel Cousteau is carrying on this legacy.

  • Borisatread-y

    It is shame that the world is doing nothing to take care of our underwater habitat. It seems that the BP Deeepwater Horizon Spill were a problem of just BP or Barack Obama. This is affecting everybody and very few do something about it!
    All the best,

  • Patrick

    Captain Cousteau brought the ocean’s myriad of life into our living room as my wife & I started our own voyage through life. He shared the large scale work of his discoveries as we studied our tiny marine aquariums and delighted in the tiniest of colorful worms, fishes, nudibranches & other creatures. His impact on our generation has hopefully not been forgotten & we hope that it is passed on to the next because our very existence depends on the health & well being of the oceans. We are a water world and we ourselves are water creatures. Captain Cousteau made that very clear to all who read his books and watched his amazing programs. He is remembered as both an artist of the visual image and an inventor of machines which have expanded our knowledge & understanding of our fragile world as no one before him. I am saddened because I can see the tear roll down his cheeks if he were here to see what we have allowed to happen to the world’s seas since he left us. We sincerely hope that the legacy continues and that the next generation can both enjoy the beauty of our natural world and sustain the efforts to insure its survival. Jean-Michel once gave me advice that one must concentrate on one endeavor in order to succeed & I have tried to follow that guidance & have met with some success. In Captain Cousteau’s memory we should all concentrate on taking care of the waters which give us all life and happiness.

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