Son Defends The Cruel
World Of Jacques Cousteau

By John Lichfield
The Independent - UK
PARIS -- His name was indelibly linked to a wonderful world of marine life. But the legendary French explorer, Captain Jacques Cousteau, mistreated and even killed sea creatures while staging scenes for his films, his son claims in a book.
But Jean-Michel Cousteau, 65, who participated in many of his father's adventures, said such behaviour was normal practice among wildlife film-makers 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, exposed by a US TV documentary in the 1980s, his son says.
"We wouldn't consider it for a second now. For him, the ends sometimes justified the means. Isn't the important point that he served the cause of animals?"
Jean-Michel Cousteau, who appears in many of his father's films and TV programme, quarrelled with the underwater pioneer four years before his death in 1997. He has also fell out acrimoniously with Captain Cousteau's second wife, Francine, who directs the Cousteau Society.
In his book, Mon pere, le Commandant (My father, the Captain), M. Cousteau lauds the captain's legacy, condemns his stepmother for failing to keep the flame alive and suggests his father lost the plot after his 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 honours, which he used to ridicule," M. Cousteau said in an interview with the newspaper, Le Parisien. "You should have seen the extraordinary amount of time he devoted to designing his [ceremonial] sword when he was elected to the Academie Francaise."
Jacque-Yves Cousteau invented the aqualung in 1943 and was the first person to shoot a full-length movie under the ocean in colour. His 1970s TV series, The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau, is credited with helping to spawn the environmental movement by generating awareness of the fragility and diversity of living things. His son says 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 Captain Cousteau's death at 87, his reputation has suffered several blows, including the revelation that he held anti-semitic views and, during the 1939-45 war, enjoyed friendly relations, 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, buffeted by financial problems and legal disputes within the Cousteau family over the rights to use the captain's name.
In next week's book, the younger Cousteau claims that, under his stepmother's direction, the society and foundation has drifted aimlessly, and the foundation's membership has fallen from 364,000 to less than 30,000 in seven years.
"This woman [his stepmother] walked off with his legacy, without having any commitment to his ecological missions and without having been on his expeditions. For seven years, she has been talking of relaunching his work, without anything to show for it," he says. "All the same, there are still lots of old ladies who send them money without realising what has happened."
There have also been family battles over the fate of the Calypso, the vessel used in Captain Cousteau's voyages for more than 40 years. The former British minesweeper sank in Singapore in 1996 and was brought back to France in a floating dry-dock at great expense. The ship has been declared beyond repair and is rusting at La Rochelle.
In a biography of the captain just before he died, Bernard Violet, the respected French biographer, expanded on the claims of cruelty revealed in a US TV documentary in the 1980s. M. Violet said many scenes in early Cousteau films, which were passed off as shot in the wild, depended on using captured sea-creatures which were goaded again and again to perform as the script required. It was not unusual for creatures to die during filming. More absurdly, on one occasion a Cousteau film showed lobsters in the Red Sea, which had actually been purchased live in a market in Marseilles.
Before Captain Cousteau died, he admitted the allegations and apologised to his millions of animal-loving fans. The captain's son does not dwell on this aspect of his father's work in his book, but admits the claims were true.
"It's intolerable, but you have to remember that it was normal 30 or 40 years ago. He wouldn't do it again today." Jean-Michel Cousteau lives in Santa Barbara in California, running the Ocean Futures Society, an organisation which promotes sea exploration and underwater adventure holidays. Despite his criticism, he says his father was "among 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".
© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd



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