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July 2004 Vol. 19, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Jean-Michel Cousteau Tells All

says critters died to be in dad’s documentaries

from the July, 2004 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The legendary French underwater explorer, Captain Jacques Cousteau, mistreated and even killed sea creatures while staging scenes for his films, according to a shocking new book by his son. Nevertheless, Jean-Michel Cousteau, 65, who participated in many of his father's adventures, said such behavior -- although "intolerable" -- was normal practice among wildlife filmmakers in the 1960s and 1970s.

Captain Cousteau's reputation as one of the "fathers of environmentalism" should not be thrown overboard because of his occasional ill-treatment of dolphins, killer whales, and fish, which was first exposed by a U.S. TV documentary in the 1980s, says Jean Michel. "We wouldn't consider it for a second now. For him the ends sometimes justified the means. Isn't the important point that, at the end of the day, he served the cause of animals?"

Jean-Michel, who appeared in many of his father's films, quarreled with him four years before his death in 1997. Jean- Michel has also split acrimoniously with the Captain's second wife, Francine, who now directs the Cousteau Society.

In his book, Mon Pere, le Commandant (My Father, the Captain), so far published only in French, Cousteau lauds the captain's legacy, condemns his stepmother for failing to keep the flame alive, and suggests that his father lost the plot after his formidable first wife, Simone (Jean- Michel's mother) died in 1990.

"He started making terrible decisions, got entangled in pointless documentaries in which he was a token presence, and started chasing honors, which he used to ridicule," Cousteau said in an interview with the newspaper Le Parisien.

Captain Cousteau is credited with helping spawn the environmental movement by generating awareness of the fragility and diversity of living things. His son says that the captain's devotion to marine life was sincere, but he had the old-fashioned view that it was the survival of species that really counted, not the welfare of individual creatures.

Since Cousteau's death at 87, his reputation has suffered a series of blows including the revelation that he held anti-Semitic views and enjoyed friendly relations during WWII with the Germans and the Vichy regime. Two years ago there were reports in the French press that the Cousteau Society and foundation might be forced to close down, buffeted by financial problems and legal disputes within the Cousteau family over the rights to use the captain's name. In the book, Jean-Michel claims that under his stepmother's direction the society and foundation have drifted aimlessly and the foundation's membership has fallen from 364,000 to less than 30,000 in seven years.

There also have been family battles over the fate of the Calypso, the vessel used in Cousteau's voyages for more than 40 years. The former British minesweeper sank in Singapore in 1996 and was expensively brought back to France in a floating dry-dock. The ship has now been declared beyond repair and is rusting in the harbor at La Rochelle.

In a biography of the captain published just before he died, Bernard Violet expanded on the allegations of cruelty. Violet said that many scenes in early Cousteau films, which were passed off as shot in the wild, used captured sea creatures that were goaded over and over to perform as the script required. It was not unusual for creatures to die during filming. Once a Cousteau film showed lobsters in the Red Sea, which had actually been purchased live in a fish market in Marseilles.

Before his death, Cousteau admitted the allegations and apologized to his fans.

Jean-Michel Cousteau lives in Santa Barbara, where he runs the Ocean Futures Society. Despite his criticism, he says that his father was "one of the first ecologists, in the modern sense. He awoke awareness of the dangers facing our planet. ... He was a precursor, long before others, of the concept of sustainable development."

-- John Lichfield
New Zealand Herald

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