CloseUp: Sea Stories

There are two things explorer/producer Jean-Michel Cousteau wants to set straight about his underwater-obsessed family. One: they are not wealthy. 'We've never, never been rich,' says Jacques Cousteau's 67-year-old son. 'All the money my father and I have been able to raise has been put into our work - and that will not change.'
June 1, 2005

There are two things explorer/producer Jean-Michel Cousteau wants to set straight about his underwater-obsessed family. One: they are not wealthy. ‘We’ve never, never been rich,’ says Jacques Cousteau’s 67-year-old son. ‘All the money my father and I have been able to raise has been put into our work – and that will not change.’

Two: even with this iconic moniker attached to a project, it’s still hard to get funding. ‘Too often people believe that

if they associate themselves with Cousteau, then it’s a

done deal when it comes to financing.’ And don’t bother knocking at Jean-Michel’s

door with a subpar project and assume his name will carry it – Cousteau says the public sets even higher standards for his films precisely because of the legacy. ‘[Audiences] don’t accept mediocrity, and they are right to do so.’

What audiences have come to expect from Cousteau is family-oriented programming, something he hopes to provide

with Ocean Adventures, his new six-part HD series. A copro between Ocean Futures Society – the Santa Barbara-based marine conservation and education group he founded in 1999 – and San Francisco’s KQED, the project is aimed at the 18 to 54 demographic, Cousteau’s traditional target.

But tides change, and so do viewers, reflects Cousteau. ‘Unfortunately, the public is bombarded now, unlike 20 years ago, with so many choices on television that it’s very hard for people to tell the difference between reality and fiction.’ Cousteau admits that in this era of ‘jaws and claws’ wildlife programming, he has tweaked his style. ‘The rhythm has changed, the music is different and the team members are younger and include women, so it’s not the same thing we used to produce 30 years ago.’

What remains static is the message and approach. ‘We’re not typical documentary producers,’ explains Cousteau, whose films traditionally feature adventure-seeking teams with which viewers can relate.

Another consistent element to his work, and a familiar dilemma to wildlife producers, is the mixture of hard facts and entertainment. Says Cousteau of striking the delicate balance: ‘It’s a sneaky thing – the entertainment is hiding the science.’ He admits he has

been criticized by scientists concerned he plays somewhat lightly on their findings, but adds, ‘If it wasn’t for shows like ours, then nobody would know what [the scientists] are doing. It has to be under the cover of an adventure, otherwise people switch you off.’

There’s little fear the millions of children worldwide who watch Cousteau in the special features on the Finding Nemo and The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie DVDs will tune him out. ‘Disney, in their distribution [of Finding Nemo], sold 40 million DVDs. SpongeBob in its first week printed eight million,’ he boasts. ‘Those numbers are phenomenal – you do not have those kinds of numbers on television. Ever.’

Cousteau, who was eager to reach that younger audience, appeared in The Case of the SpongeBob, the 15-minute short that shows real-life examples of characters from the animated feature. It uses a voice-over with Cousteau and SpongeBob creator Stephen Hillenburg to demonstrate how human activities can damage coral reefs. Since the

TV series hasn’t focused on these concerns, Hillenburg says he wanted the opportunity to educate instead of simply doing a director’s commentary.

Once a marine educator himself, Hillenburg was thrilled to work with Cousteau on the project, which mostly uses stock footage from Ocean Futures’ library. ‘Jean-Michel and his father are

a huge influence on everyone that knows anything about the ocean,’ he says. ‘For me, [their work] was probably

my first view into the aquatic world, and it certainly stimulated my interest in the ocean environment and the animals and organisms.’

Hillenburg hopes the eco-friendly message in The Case of the SpongeBob will also reach children. ‘If you can make science fun and not drudgery, then they really might respond,’ he says.

Exploring the Reef, the short film on the Finding

Nemo DVD, also aims to make learning enjoyable. The collaboration was born when Pixar approached Ocean Futures to consult on Nemo to ensure the movements of the fish and algae were realistic. Marlin, Dory and Nemo, characters from the CG film, appear throughout the seven-minute short, in which Cousteau explains that conserving energy and reducing pollution will help coral stay healthy.

In lieu of compensation for the 18-plus months of consultation, Disney gave Ocean Futures the chance to spread their message to a wide audience, footing the bill for production of the short. ‘They must have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars,’ estimates Cousteau, adding that it took about six months to produce.

Another feature with which Cousteau is involved – this

one rooted in the real ocean – is Sharks 3D, a US$5 million

IMAX film debunking negative stereotypes about sharks. In addition to consulting on it, Cousteau is touring the world

to promote the film and its message. He and Ocean Futures also helped develop educational materials for teachers and students. ‘People are afraid

as soon as they hear the word ‘shark,’ and it’s unfair because there are 400 species of sharks and most of them are completely harmless,’ says Cousteau.

This same concept is explained in an episode of Cousteau’s kqed series that focuses on great white sharks in South Africa and grey reef sharks in French Polynesia. Another episode follows grey whales off California, whose migration follows a 10,000-mile round trip from Mexico to Alaska. Two hours will be devoted to the garbage-plagued North Western Hawaiian islands, which may be designated the fourteenth marine sanctuary for

the United States, and another two hours will be spent on existing natural treasures in the 13 American marine sanctuaries. The shows are slated for delivery at the end of this year, and will air on KQED and PBS next spring.

With 60 years of underwater experience and over 70 films to his credit, Cousteau is still enthralled by the ocean. As the narrator in Amazon: Journey to A Thousand Rivers – a film Cousteau produced with his father – says, ‘The mysteries of aquatic life have no end.’ Seems like Cousteau is out to prove it.

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