My Father, The Captain:  Birth of a Vision

Expeditions:My Father, The Captain: Birth of a Vision


United States
43° 6' 58.6836" N, 5° 47' 24.324" E

During 2010, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of my father's birth and explore the legacy and inspiration he left us all. This is the first of many offerings on his philosophy, inventions and explorations, and it is our hope that it will inspire and motivate the changes he was so enthusiastic and determined to achieve, for the sea, for humanity, for the future. More to come.

Jean-Michel Cousteau FamilyJune 11, 2010 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, my father, and the man whose vision of the world changed how we saw it as well. His invention of the Aqualung or SCUBA with Emile Gagnan in 1943, combined with the Apollo 8 images of the Earth from space 25 years later, forever established our world as the Water Planet.

From space we saw a world swirling and alive with oceans and atmosphere. At 30 feet below the surface of the sea, we also saw a world swirling with life we had never imagined. The personal access we acquired with the Aqualung and the subsequent inventions and films my father created made the ocean not only accessible, but also personal. He always hoped that close contact would also create an ethic in those who entered this kingdom of wonder and that they would protect it.

Jacques Cousteau and Emile GagnanThe more I look back on my father and his legacy, the more I realize how much he is still a part of our times and how, had we listened more carefully, things might be different.

It’s true that he was a pioneer who broke barriers with his inventions, like SCUBA and underwater cameras, but he was also a visionary in the sense that he understood the consequences of the trends he was witnessing. He foresaw the risks of nuclear technology and waste; he projected the devastating results of over fishing, overexploitation of habitat, and global warming; and he spoke consistently and passionately about population growth and the strain on the natural system.

Jacques Cousteau with the diving saucerJacques Cousteau, along with my brother and I and Fred Hyman, founded one of the earliest environmental organizations to communicate the issues we were encountering and to educate an international audience. He wrote the draft of “The Rights of Future Generations” for the United Nations as a vehicle to embody the principle of sustainability in responsible resource management of all the world’s natural resources. He constantly exercised his brilliant intellect in the service of global solutions. He never stopped until, in his words, he was “unplugged.” Although he claimed to have a “stainless faith” in mankind, his view of the future became darker, not because he was aging, but because the world was not changing.

He wielded another power that is rare—he poetically made sense of the incomprehensible and gave us each a way of looking at the world that made action possible. For example, on an isolated riverbank in the Amazon, just as we had released a rescued sea otter named Cacha to the wild, my father turned to me, full of emotion, and said, “Jean-Michel, people protect what they love.” That became for me a motto of my father’s work and an emblem of the commitment we all must make to the world that surrounds us.

Jean-Michel and Jacques Cousteau during the 1985 Amazon expeditionBut his personal evolution is almost a model of where we stand now, in the midst of crisis and changing with the times. From the first global environmental rally in Rio de Janeiro, where my father was honored, to the endless meetings of Johannesburg, Kyoto, and now Copenhagen, the environment has been discussed and then filed away. These meetings suggest that as a species, we are not good at anticipating, but a crisis motivates us and we are now surrounded by crisis. The difference with the meetings in Copenhagen is that the entire world is now engaged, not just bureaucrats and politicians, and there are real, workable solutions on the way. It is the crisis my father saw coming but never lived to experience, including the changes we must now undergo, and quickly.

Jacques Cousteau realized, as we do now, that while we should want to protect the natural system, it comes down to protecting ourselves. He summed up much of his illustrious career by saying “In teaching people to love the sea, I learned to love people.” The global response to the tragedy in Haiti is testimony to our honoring the fundamental connections we all share that my father felt and to our communications revolution.

Jacques CousteauAnd, while fascinated with history, my father was an impatient man and looked ahead, anxious to influence the future. On the deck of our wind ship, Alcyone, he presented me with an honor and with a challenge, which belongs not only to me but to all of us who want to be part of a future that matters. He said, “And it is you, Jean-Michel, who will carry the flame of my faith.” It is the flame of this brilliant, charismatic, impassioned man that continues to bring us illumination and direction at a time when we continue to need it.

Jacques Cousteau understood all too well the challenges we would face and they often disturbed and concerned him. Sometimes, after a serious moment, his entire face would light up and he would laugh and remind me, “Ah, but Jean-Michel, the impossible missions are the only ones which succeed!” The world is better for the fact that he led and succeeded at many such missions.

Warm regards,


Header Photo: Our family: From left to right, my mother—affectionately known by the crew of the Calypso as La Bergère (the sheep keeper)—my brother Philippe, my father, my cousin Jean-Pierre and me. (Photo courtesy of Jean-Pierre Cousteau)
First Photo: Our family: From left to right, my cousin Jean-Pierre, me, my father in his navy captain uniform, my mother and my brother Philippe. (Photo courtesy of Jean-Pierre Cousteau)
Second Photo: Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan (Photo courtesy Berni Campoli)
Third Photo: My father directs the launching of a diving saucer in a series of test descents off Puerto Rico. The two-man saucer could hover anywhere within its 1,000-foot depth range. (Photo courtesy Thomas J. Abercrombie/NGS)
Fourth Photo: Here I am seen conferring with my father, Bertrand Sion, diver, and Paul Martin, Calypso engineer from our river raft, the Pirarucu, during the Calypso’s Amazon expedition in 1982. (Photo courtesy Tim Trabon)
Fifth Photo: Jacques Cousteau (Photo courtesy Dianne Smith-Arvizu)