Q&A with Jean-Michel Cousteau

Jean-Michel Cousteau on the environment, working with family, and how to grab a shark without her noticing.

By Yasmine MohseniJul 18, 2006 5:00 AM


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On Wednesday, July 19, PBS will air "The Gray Whale Obstacle Course," the third segment in Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures. Discover.com recently spoke with the series' star, son of filmmaker Jacques Cousteau.

Discover: Do you find that people are more aware of ocean-related environmental issues now versus 10 or 20 years ago?

Jean-Michel Cousteau: Yes, thanks to my dad and others. The people [who watched The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau series] were kids 30 years ago. Now they are decision makers in industries and governments and they do remember what they saw. Things are changing. In a recent Forbes magazine article, the head of GE essentially said "If you can't fight the environmentalists, join them." No one would have said that twenty years ago! We were considered a bunch of hippies! 

Which countries do you think have the most environmentally damaging policies?

It's not an issue of policy it's about you and me discarding things all the time. Whether you live in Kansas City or on the coastline, whatever you throw away—a cigarette lighter, a toothbrush, or a tube of mascara—it all ends up in the ocean.

What about the Bush administration's decision to veto the Kyoto Protocol?

This administration has refused to address the issues, but there is good news. And that's the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. [In the agreement, 219 American cities committed to meeting the emission standards set by Kyoto.] And this commitment has resulted in money saved; these mayors can show their communities how much money they have saved. 

Let's talk about sharks. Why are people so fascinated by them?

It's the teeth! The biggest fish on the planet is a shark, the whale shark, but it has no teeth. Nobody, especially not Hollywood, has found a way to make any money on its back—how can you spend $45 million on a feature film with a shark that's going to gum you to death?

Weren't you afraid to swim with a great white?

No, but I didn't just do it to show everyone I'm a macho guy. I was in the hands of a very knowledgeable man, Andre Hartman, who works on instinct and he made me feel so comfortable. He showed me that, if you dive down and pinch the upper backside of the dorsal fin, there's no nerve ending so you're not going to disturb the shark. The opportunity presented itself and I just went for it. She—the shark was a female—didn't change her behavior, I probably caused a little drag but that's it. After the fact, I jokingly said that my feelings were hurt because she ignored me. 

What's it like working with family all the time?

It's a wonderful opportunity and a gigantic pain in the ass! And that was also the case with my dad and my late brother. It has a certain magic to it, otherwise it wouldn't be worth it.

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