In most cases, a 68-year-old man who tries to hitch a ride on the back of a great white shark is crazy, or dinner, or both. But at least one such man has succeeded and survived, and soon his tale will play out on the small screen.
In the five-part PBS series, Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures, the protagonist—son of famed underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau—carries on the family legacy of ocean adventure-cum-environmental education. The first segment played in April and documented an exploration of the remote northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Now the series picks up with two segments on the fearsome shark ("Sharks: at Risk," Wednesday, July 12) and the endangered gray whale ("The Gray Whale Obstacle Course," Wednesday, July 19). The final two-part installment, "America's Underwater Treasures," about 13 U.S. national marine sanctuaries, will air on September 20 and 27.
The second part of Ocean Adventures follows the endangered gray whale's life from the nursery lagoons of Baja California north through the highly polluted stretch that ends in the frigid feeding grounds of the Bering Sea. Then in "Sharks: at Risk," Cousteau and his crew take a stab at deconstructing this cold-blooded animal's feared reputation. As Cousteau points out, "there are 400 species [of sharks], the great majority of which are completely harmless—and four or five cause problems, mostly by accident." (Sharks are clearly a passion in the Cousteau household: Jean-Michel's son Fabien worked on his own documentary, Mind of a Demon, in which he created a shark-shaped submersible, and, thus disguised, safely swam among the none-too-bright animals.)
With Jean-Michel at the helm, the new Cousteau series is tailored to a 21st-century audience. A young, attractive crew—including Jean-Michel's children, Fabien, 39, and Céline, 33—crisscross the world's oceans aboard the Searcher. (Jacques' famed Calypso, which enthralled viewers from the 50s to the 80s, was struck and sunk by a barge in Singapore in 1996.) The series' thundering music, quick edits, and cliff-hanging moments—with big-name narration provided by Pierce Brosnan, the onetime James Bond, and Robert Redford, that eternal Sundance Kid—draw the audience into the world of sea creatures and the perils they face.
And while watching the crew gallivant in the oceans is entertaining enough, those environmental perils are a central thrust of the shows. "I hope [the viewer] is going to have a wonderful time with our team," says Cousteau. "Occasionally, we do encounter environmental problems which we must highlight especially since people don't necessarily know about them. How can you protect what you do not understand?" Such problems include illegal fishing, the slaughter of sharks, and the thousands of tons of abandoned fishing nets that kill sea life ranging from coral to sea turtles.
The unhurried charm of Jacques Cousteau's adventures has unfortunately been watered down a bit in Jean-Michel Cousteau's slicker series. The series would also benefit from more time underwater and less time on the ship; the Searcher may have the latest in high-tech gadgets, but most people tune in to Cousteau documentaries for the colorful, close-up shots of sea creatures. People with this predilection will be happiest watching "Sharks: at Risk," in which our fearless senior-citizen hero grabs the dorsal fin of a great white and gets tugged around. But in all the episodes, any armchair adventurer will most likely be entertained—and perhaps educated—while watching Cousteau dive with the sharks and swim with the fishes.