Jean-Michel Cousteau, the first son of the red-capped captain who brought deep ocean exploration into living rooms worldwide, spoke earlier this month at National Geographic’s Grosvenor Auditorium about growing up with the renowned Jacques-Yves Cousteau.
By Valentine Quadrat
Celebrating the 100th anniversary of his father’s birth, this producer of more than 80 films and founder of the Ocean Futures Society recently finished a biography on Cousteau senior entitled My Father, the Captain. During his presentation, Jean-Michel delighted the audience with anecdotes from his past.
In remembering his youth, Jean-Michel fondly described how his father’s sense of adventure imbued his relationship with his children. He would teach them about fish at the aquarium and pull them out of bed at night to look at the stars. The inventor of the aqua-lung–the first Scuba gear–also put tanks on “our back, pushed us overboard, and we became certified divers.”
Small wonder Jean-Michel inherited such a limitless sense of adventure. His response to inquiries about his favorite fish and favorite diving spot were “the next fish I don’t know” and “the next place I don’t know.”
Jean-Michel’s relationship with Cousteau senior was also multidimensional: “He was my father, my very good friend, and my boss.” Because Jacques Cousteau would not fire his son no matter what he said, members of their 27-person crew often relayed information through Jean-Michel, adding diplomat to his list of onboard specialties.
For his deep ocean adventures, Jacques Cousteau used the Calypso, a boat purchased by Thomas Loel Guinness–an Irish millionnaire and politician descended from the brother of Arthur Guinness, who founded the Guinness brewery–and leased to Cousteau for one French franc a year. (“So don’t drink beer–I mean, drink a lot of beer!” Jean-Michel joked.)
When producer David Wolper noticed the work of Jacques Cousteau, “who knew what he was doing,” and wanted to launch him in television, he advised the captain to jazz up his bland ship. The Frenchman understood and replied, “Okay, we’ll make it look like James Bond.” The Calypso would become nearly synonymous with the Cousteau name and legendary as a platform for marine adventure and exploration.
Following the presentation, audience members waited patiently to meet Jean-Michel at a book signing. While monitoring the progress of the line, I overheard the various conversations Jean-Michel exchanged with the public. Not only is he a captivating public speaker, but his one-on-one interactions radiate his genuine ability as an educator to connect with others. When a mother herded her distracted youngsters together for a picture at his table, explaining that her 4th grade son did a science project on him, Jean-Michel’s face acquired an aura of bewilderment, as he remarked, “How come I didn’t hear about that?”
Jean-Michel Cousteau shares his stories again tomorrow evening in a National Geographic Live event at the Mesa Arts Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Get tickets.
Find other upcoming National Geographic Live events at our Washington, D.C. headquarters and in cities across the U.S.
Valentine Quadrat is Standards & Practices Coordinator for the National Geographic Channels. She received her B.A. in Government, secondary field (minor) in Italian and citations in French and Czech at Harvard. Prior to joining the National Geographic team, Valentine traveled to Sweden and Finland as researcher-writer for Let’s Go Publications and interned through the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Rome. She also danced with a professional ballet company, climbed Mt. Fuji, and jumped from the world’s tallest bungee platform in Macau, China.
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