The controversy over Fabien Cousteau: Is Jacques' grandson the real deal?

No one who grew up during the 1960s or 1970s will ever forget Jacques Cousteau. The French filmmaker’s underwater explorations and the television programmes they inspired offered a perfect form of family entertainment, a consistently compelling mix of adventure and education set in a series of exotic undersea worlds. 

Though it seems unlikely that anyone will ever fill his fins, a US-based grandson, Fabien Cousteau, is doing his best. His attempt is controversial, however, with some saying that, in fact, Fabien is using the family name to capitalise on his grandfather’s fame. It is yet another complication in the already tumultuous Cousteau legacy, rife with family conflict and disharmony.

The latest outburst is due to Fabien Cousteau’s attempts last summer to spend 31 days living underwater, a deliberate number of days, as it turns out. In 1963, Jacques spent 30 days living in an underwater environment in the Red Sea, which led to his Academy Award-winning film World Without Sun, as well as The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, his long-running television programme.

The controversy between Fabien Cousteau and the Cousteau Society

In June last year, Fabien Cousteau took up residence in an undersea capsule, beneath the turquoise waters of the Florida Keys, which is what he wants to talk about in his first full-length interview on the topic. He and his film crew planned to spend 31 days there (“Mission 31”), breaking his grandfather’s underwater residency record, even though he says he also thought of the project as a tribute to Jacques, who died in 1997.

But the Cousteau Society, a non-profit organisation Jacques created to carry on his work, questions that. “How appalled Jacques would have been for anyone, let alone his grandson, to claim he has ‘beaten’ the record of Jacques Cousteau,” spokesperson Noémie Stroh told Boat International.

She goes on to call Mission 31 a “stunt”, and adds: “The story of Fabien has zero scientific significance and zero historical meaning,” before asserting that “Fabien uses the name Cousteau to personally capitalise on Jacques’ fame,” using it merely to “attract money and media”.

Fabien flatly denies that. He says he has never been motivated by money, but he declines to respond specifically to the Cousteau Society’s comments other than to call them “unprofessional”.

Fabien and Jacques Cousteau’s bond

Like his grandfather, Fabien Cousteau, 47, is a natural showman. He has the added benefit of camera-ready good looks; in 2002, People magazine called him the world’s “sexiest explorer”.

He was born in France, but his childhood was punctuated by repeated relocations because his father Jean-Michel Cousteau travelled constantly while working for Jacques Cousteau, before he started making his own documentaries. Between the start of kindergarten and his high-school graduation, Fabien went to eight schools, most of them in the US. In truth, school was never his strong suit. “It was way too structured and too theoretical for me,” he says. “And it was too slow. I lived for the field trips.”

His grandfather, an outsized presence throughout his childhood, may have been partially to blame. Jacques created a pint-sized set of scuba gear for Fabien when he was just four. At seven, he went to sea for the first time aboard Calypso, Jacques Cousteau’s research vessel, which has sadly fallen into disrepair amid a legal battle. From then on, Jacques regularly took Fabien on his oceanic adventures – a fantasy field-trip if there’s ever been one – and those voyages became an important constant in Fabien Cousteau’s young life. “I loved travelling and I loved diving and adventure,” he says. “I’ve craved it ever since.”

However, by the time Fabien graduated from Boston University, where he majored in environmental science, his grandfather and father were at odds, particularly after Jean-Michel opened a resort in Fiji that capitalised on the family name in a way Jacques found so distasteful he ended up suing his son. Steering clear, Fabien spent three years pursuing land-based commercial endeavours, working for a graphic design firm and later a consumer products company. But he didn’t like either job. “It just wasn’t fulfilling,” he says, “so I ended up going back to what you could call the family business.”

Fabien Cousteau follows in his grandfather’s footsteps as a filmmaker

Fabien went to work for his father, but in 2002 struck out on his own to produce the first of three films about sharks, a source of fascination ever since he had watched Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Fabien Cousteau’s first two documentaries received mixed reviews, but the third was memorable.

Inspired by a Tintin story, “Red Rackham’s Treasure”, in which the hero travelled the seas aboard a shark-shaped submarine, he set out to do something similar in order to better document shark behaviour. Until then, sharks had been filmed by cage-protected crews that attracted their subjects with buckets of chum (a mixture of fish parts and blood), which encouraged the kind of overly aggressive behaviour by gape-mouthed beasts that Fabien had seen in Jaws.

“I didn’t think sharks were really like that,” he says, “but the truth is that we really didn’t know what they did when not being stimulated by divers and chum.”

Fabien hired a Hollywood engineer to build a “Trojan shark”, which became known as Troy. Four metres long, it functioned as a “wet submarine” – a porous vessel in which Fabien wore scuba equipment and lay in a prone position, propped up on his elbows as he controlled its movements, while also operating a camera. Troy was ungainly and difficult to manoeuvre and Fabien did not know whether it was actually passing as a shark, but it apparently was convincing enough. Off the coast of Mexico, he was at one point surrounded by half a dozen great white sharks, giving him an opportunity to film what he believed to be shark-to-shark social interaction: playful course changes, eye rolling and gill puffing.

After that film, Fabien Cousteau turned away from sharks and spent the next several years creating films on diverse topics: the Amazon, the Arctic, giant squid, marine parks, shipwrecks, and underwater geology. But now, it seems, Fabien has unwittingly opened a new rift within the Cousteau family that echoes the one between his father and grandfather – something that he has thus far spent his career trying to avoid.

Fabien Cousteau’s Mission 31

His undersea project, he says, started with an aim to assess how rising ocean temperatures and increased acidity have affected coral reefs. He was also eager to see how he and his crew would react to an extended period of sun-free undersea living. But scientific exploration was not his top priority. What he really wanted to do was attract attention to the destruction of oceanic populations and environments while encouraging support for conservation efforts. “The potential for public outreach is what really got me excited,” he says. “I wanted to see if we could get the public’s attention, and keep it, for 31 days.”

Fabien and his five-man crew entered the underwater laboratory, which was anchored 18 metres below the surface, on 1 June. With 56 square metres of space, six bunks, a bathroom, a refrigerator, a microwave and air conditioning, it was cramped but reasonably comfortable: “Like living in a studio apartment with five of your friends”, Fabien says. The biggest hardship came after the air conditioning failed, the temperature soared to 35 degrees and the humidity level reached 95. But as a platform for underwater exploration, the laboratory, which is owned by the US government, offered a crucial advantage: since there was no need to go through the slow process of decompression after each dive, he could spend up to nine hours scuba diving every day.

Fabien Cousteau plans to make a documentary about the experience, and maintained a close-to 24-hour-a-day live feed while also producing mini-videos that were available via his website and YouTube. Reports were also transmitted via Facebook, Twitter and Skype. “Sometimes we had six kids watching, sometimes it was 2,000,” he says. By the time he returned to the surface on 2 July, Fabien Cousteau says millions had watched or read his various methods of outreach.

Fabien Cousteau the environmental activist

Motivated by environmental degradation, Fabien has become more of an activist than an observer. In 2010, he founded a non-profit organisation called Plant a Fish, which attempts to raise awareness while working with schools to increase marine populations around the world.

Calling himself a “realistic optimist”, Fabien knows the larger story is actually quite dismal: populations of many of the world’s most desirable fish are less than 10 per cent of what they were 50 years ago, and the numbers are steadily worsening. “The future we have set up for ourselves is very ugly,” he acknowledges. “And change will only happen if you appeal to people’s emotions. The question is, how do you do that?”

Fabien believes the best approach remains the one his grandfather pioneered, and if this opens himself up to more accusations of living off his family name, it is worth the sacrifice, he thinks. “It has to be through the lens of expedition. People protect the things they know and love.” Whatever those trying to preserve the Cousteau legacy think of him, Fabien is trying to do just that.

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