Cousteau vs Cousteau: Going for the Green
By Kimberly Cutter
When diver Jacques Cousteau died, he left behind a legacy of ocean exploration. But as his grandsons Fabien and Philippe look to seize his nautical throne, another tragic, troubled legacy has resurfaced. Is there enough ocean for all the Cousteaus to share, asks Kimberly Cutter
Not long ago, it must have seemed to Fabien Cousteau that the end of his troubles was in sight. After decades of struggling in the shadow of his ocean-exploring father, Jean-Michel Cousteau, and his iconic grandfather, Jacques Cousteau, Fabien was coming into his own.
He had completed his first self-produced film, a controversial shark documentary, Mind of a Demon; he had a starring role in his father’s hit series, Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Adventures; he had a deal with a cable network to create his own series. Most important, the legal battles that had plagued the Cousteaus for the past decade seemed to be coming to an end.
True, his grandfather’s fabled ship, Calypso, continued to rot in France as a result of legal wrangling, but Fabien was done lamenting the past. He was ready to bring his grandfather’s spirit of wonder and ethos of conservation to a new generation. He was ready to be the next great Cousteau. Unfortunately for Fabien, he wasn’t the only one. In autumn 2006, his charismatic younger cousin Philippe emerged to challenge his claim to the Cousteau nautical throne. Like Fabien, Philippe is Jacques Cousteau’s grandson, but while Fabien was raised in the heart of the Cousteau kingdom, Philippe grew up exiled from it, and his life has been shaped by tragedy.
First, his father Philippe Cousteau Sr (who was groomed to take over the Cousteau franchise in the Seventies) died in a plane crash in 1979. Then, in September 2006, 26-year-old Philippe Jr was working with Steve Irwin on Ocean’s Deadliest, when Irwin was stabbed by a stingray in Australia. The beloved crocodile hunter died in Philippe’s arms. The show’s producers asked him to step in to finish Ocean’s Deadliest; when taping was over one thing was clear to everyone at Animal Planet, Philippe Cousteau was a star.
Philippe is now co-hosting the BBC’s upcoming Oceans series, and, with his 32-year-old sister Alexandra, is fast creating a multimedia undersea empire with an action-oriented environmental agenda that prompts people to do something to protect marine life. His style challenges Fabien’s education-focused efforts; as Philippe says, “Awareness is no longer enough. We must provide ways for people to change their behaviour.”
Both Fabien and Philippe are adept at pulling on and peeling off wetsuits on camera, chasing octopuses, and making impassioned pleas about the preservation of the Everglades. Both want to carry the Cousteau torch into the 21st century. Indeed, while television producers and environmentalists like to speculate about who will emerge as the leading Cousteau, what Fabien and Philippe’s rivalry reveals is a family saga that reads like a cautionary tale, a dark side of the Cousteau legacy where everyone blames everyone but Jacques himself for the mess he left in his wake.
It’s a bright day in mid-November, and we’re out in a fishing boat, anchored half a mile off Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Fabien, 40, is here training for the week with Israeli free-diving legend Aharon Solomons. Fabien has been free-diving for only a week, but he can already descend to 90 feet and hold his breath underwater for four-and-a-half minutes.
In nearly every respect Fabien and his sister Celine (another budding Cousteau explorer, she stars on Ocean Adventures and is co-hosting the upcoming Discovery Channel’s Expedition Shark) had the dream Cousteau childhood. They grew up vacationing on Calypso expeditions, swimming with dolphins in the Amazon with their grandfather.
Captain Cousteau rose to prominence in 1943 for co-inventing the Aqua-Lung, the equipment that allowed a diver to swim underwater while breathing compressed air. The invention gave birth to scuba diving. Cousteau’s ground-breaking movie The Silent World won him and director Louis Malle an Academy Award in 1956. But it was his television specials of the Seventies, such as The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau that made him a global celebrity. Parents and kids crowded around their TVs to watch as Cousteau and his team of French divers plunged into the glorious, terrifying, never-before-seen blue depths, calmly swimming amid hammerheads, diving off the coast of Greece in search of Atlantis.
Narrating in his gravelly Gallic accent, Cousteau took us up “ze Nile” and beneath “ze icebergs” into the Arctic Ocean. Orcas were stroked like cats, Eskimo walrus hunts were followed. Part scientist, part conservationist, part awe-filled observer, Cousteau showed us the mysteries of the “water planet”.
A consummate showman, Cousteau grew into a kind of Barnum of the sea, in whose chest beat the heart of a passionate environmentalist. While he seduced us with stories about giant squids, Cousteau also warned us with shamanic fervour about the pollution he saw destroying his beloved oceans (“The sea,” he warned, “is the universal sewer.”). He sounded the alarm about the earth’s impending environmental crisis 30 years before anyone wanted to hear it. “If we go on the way we have,” he said, “the fault is our greed, and if we are not willing to change, we will disappear from the face of the globe, to be replaced by the insect.”
But Cousteau also worked hard to provide solutions, such as “ecotech”, a marriage of ecology and economics (that sought to unite diverging interests such as those of the oil industry and wildlife groups.
“It is when the balance between people and industries is not achieved,” he said, “that the destruction of the environment occurs.”
Cousteau was a prescient demigod, eco-warrior and a philanderer. Now imagine being this guy’s grandson. As a child, Fabien had a front-row seat to Cousteau’s genius. He recalls the day the Calypso team discovered a giant river otter in a swimming pool on an abandoned estate in the Amazon jungle and brought it aboard the Calypso. “While other kids were at Disneyland, I was learning how to steer the Calypso.”
Fabien has pale, good looks and a conversational style that is part grinning car salesman, part wistful, dreamy tyke. Explaining why he decided to build the shark submarine for Mind of a Demon, he says, “Ever since I was a kid reading Tintin, I’d had this fantasy to actually be a shark.”
This shark sub, put him in hock, and he would later sell his New York apartment to recoup the losses. Asked about his cousin Philippe, Fabien denies any competition. “It’s not like that,” he says. “It’s fantastic that my cousin and I are in the same field. Don’t you think that we need as many people as possible trying to help the planet?” I do. But I also know that Fabien and his cousin do not speak to each other, and haven’t willingly since they’ve been adults. I know their fathers had a sibling rivalry that make Cain and Abel look civil.
“I can only imagine what my cousins have been able to do with their small company,” Fabien says of EarthEcho International, Philippe and [his sister] Alexandra’s non-profit organisation, which is Smurf-size in comparison to Fabien’s father’s enormous non-profit Ocean Futures Society. “And I feel bad for them because they never got the kind of knowledge that I did growing up on expeditions. They had a much more normal life,” he says.
To properly understand the rivalry between Fabien and Philippe, it’s necessary to go back a generation to their fathers, Philippe Sr and Jean-Michel. The only two legitimate sons of Jacques (who was referred to as JYC, pronounced Jeek), Philippe and Jean-Michel were raised together in France but, according to Philippe’s widow, Jan, were “never close”. The less confident of the two boys, Jean-Michel hovered in the background as his charming younger brother Philippe rose to share in their father’s fame.
As Jan says, “Philippe and JYC had commonality in their thinking. They could talk about poetry, dreams, literature. Philippe was always the preferred of the two boys.” Tall and handsome, Philippe worked as his famous father’s co-star throughout the Sixties and Seventies, making films such as the Undersea World series.
Meanwhile, Jean-Michel trained as a marine architect and settled with his family in Norfolk, Virginia, where he remained on the sidelines of the Cousteau Society, ordering supplies, while his brother shared the filmmaking spotlight with JYC. That is, until tragedy struck. In 1979, while landing the Cousteau amphibian Flying Calypso, Philippe crashed in the Tagus River, Portugal, and was killed.
Upon receiving news of the crash, the Cousteau clan — including Philippe’s American wife Jan, their four-year-old daughter, Alexandra, and an unborn son, Philippe Jr — flew to Portugal, where they held an at-sea burial for Philippe. Jacques, too devastated to even speak of Philippe’s death, plunged into his work, asking Jean-Michel to step in and take his brother’s place.
“When my brother passed away, my father said, ‘If you don’t come to help me, I quit’,” says Jean-Michel. “I said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll be right there’.” For 12 years, Jean-Michel served as executive vice-president of the Cousteau Society. He and his father made the expedition down the Amazon together, and filmed the series Cousteau’s Rediscovery of the World. The outcast Cousteau became heir to the throne while the family of the prince was banished. “Suddenly there was no place for me. It was awful,” says Jan, Philippe’s widow.
She has never remarried and still weeps when she speaks about her husband’s death. “I wanted to make sure Philippe never became a stranger, a sad ghost who slowly disappeared,” she says.
Although “Little Philippe” was never invited on a Cousteau expedition, he grew up watching the films that his father made with JYC. “My dad was the main influence in our lives, even though he wasn’t there,” says Philippe. “It’s my mission to make sure my father isn’t forgotten.” At times, even Jan believes that her split from the Cousteaus was for the best. “In a way, it was good,” she says. “That way I could keep Papa Philippe as our shining star and keep the children away from the mess that was going on with the rest of the family.” By “mess” Jan means Francine Triplet, Jacques Cousteau’s mistress (and eventual second wife) who entered the saga in 1990, and who has added to the heartache.
Francine claims that no one should aspire to be the nouveau Cousteau. “It’s a big mistake to think that anybody in the family has the right to Jacques’ vision,” said Francine, who at 61 is still president of the Cousteau Society, whose membership has reportedly fallen from 300,000 before Cousteau’s death to roughly 50,000.
It was a few days before last Thanksgiving and Francine was flush with triumph after raising the decaying Calypso from its watery retirement, moving it to a shipyard in Brittany for repairs. (She and Jean-Michel spent a decade in court fighting over control of the boat). “It’s an intellectual world, and when you have an intellectual property you transmit it to a non-profit,” she says. “It’s not a family business at all.” Francine insists there is no replacing the master. “Cousteau made a lot of little Cousteaus all around the world,” she says, “but there is only one Cousteau. There is no replacement.” Such statements make family members irate.
“She’s destroying everything my father built!” fumes Jean-Michel when asked about Francine’s plans to turn the Calypso into a floating environmental monument.
Until 1990, few in the Cousteau family knew who she was. Shortly after the death of Jacques’ first wife (and Jean-Michel’s mother) Simone, JYC invited Jean-Michel to lunch and confessed that for more than a decade he had been having an affair with Triplet, a flight attendant nearly 40 years his junior. Cousteau also confessed that they’d had two children, Diane and Pierre-Yves. They planned to marry and Francine would come to work at the Cousteau Society. Jean-Michel was flabbergasted and left the Cousteau Society to start his own ocean-exploring and eco-resort-development business in 1992. But the battles were just starting. In 1995, JYC filed a lawsuit against Jean-Michel in which he insisted Jean-Michel make clear that his resort, initially named Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort, was in no way affiliated with the non-profit Cousteau Society. Jean-Michel settled, agreeing to put his first name in front of the Cousteau in the title, but the suit — which Jean-Michel insists was supported by Francine — created a rift between father and son.
In 1997, Jacques Cousteau died at 87, leaving his fortune and control of the Cousteau Society to his widow. Jean-Michel then began another set of legal battles with Francine, this time over the Calypso. Fabien, meanwhile, wanted none of it. He wanted to be his own man. During his 20s and 30s, Fabien steered clear of the family business — and of oceans. Seeing Fabien and his father together, however, makes it clear that it wasn’t just adolescent curiosity that kept Fabien away from the family business. The first time I met Fabien and Jean-Michel in New York, Jean-Michel dominated the conversation. But when the subject turned to sharks — Fabien’s speciality — he became sullen.
“Have you heard enough?” Jean-Michel said after listening to his son discuss the public’s misconceptions about sharks. “Because this is getting old.” If working for his dad was difficult at times, turning down a Cousteau expedition is hard. In 2000, Fabien went on a documentary shoot in South Africa with his dad. Two years later, he hosted a National Geographic special on the shark attacks in New Jersey that inspired Jaws. Ocean lovers started to get excited about the idea of a fresh Cousteau. People named Fabien the “Sexiest Explorer”.
He spent much of 2005 with his father filming Ocean Adventures. And though Fabien was willing to work with his father, he also yearned for a project that would give him credibility as an explorer in his own right. In 2005, it seemed that Fabien’s dreams of independence had come true.
CBS funded his first self-produced project, with himself as the star. An expert crew would construct a submarine that looked like a great white, with room for Fabien inside. Once submerged, Fabien could move among the sharks off Isla Guadalupe — making good on his grandad’s maxim that “the best way to observe a fish is to become a fish”.
But almost from the start the project was plagued by problems. Fabien hired inventor Eddie Paul to build the 14.5-foot great white sub and had shark expert Mark Marks as a consultant, but the shark contraption didn’t work. The greatest drama in the film came when the shark sub sinks to the ocean floor with Fabien trapped inside. “The machine was the biggest demon,” says Fabien, who put a chunk of his own money into the doomed shark sub.
The failed shark sub, however, was the least of Fabien’s problems. His cousin Philippe was about to explode on to the scene, threatening to upstage Fabien’s television career. Shortly after Fabien’s Mind of a Demon aired on CBS, in September 2006, 26-year-old Philippe was fighting in vain to save Steve Irwin’s life, in Queensland, Australia.”We got a Mayday on the boat saying, ‘Steve’s been hit! Steve’s been hit,'” recalls Philippe, who had been hired as an apprentice co-host on Ocean’s Deadliest. Philippe sat with Irwin in his arms, giving him CPR but to no avail; Irwin had died almost immediately. “In a way, Steve’s death was like deja vu,” says Philippe, referring to the loss of his own father 29 years ago. “It still hits me at weird times.”
Months after Irwin perished, Animal Planet enhanced Philippe’s role as its chief ocean correspondent, and the BBC snapped him up to host its Oceans series. “I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do in a short time,” he says. Philippe heads three companies with which he hopes to change the focus of the environmental movement from “awareness to action.” “We’re about providing people with tools that will enable them to make better choices,” says Philippe, whose projects range from the small (a Seafood Watch program that people can download to find out what fish they should and shouldn’t eat) to the large (creating a business plan for “this whole eco-experience” that offers resorts ways to expand without destroying the local community and create eco-friendly hotels that promote the “green lifestyle ethic”).
When I ask him how his vision differs from cousin Fabien’s, he says, “My uncle’s company, Ocean Futures, is about education; we are interested in education, too, but our message is action. We want people to do something.” Fabien takes exception to this. “Of course we want people to do something,” he says, explaining that his and his father’s television documentary Voyage to Kure impressed President George W Bush so profoundly that he designated the northwestern Hawaiian Islands a national monument. “If that’s not awareness inspiring action, I don’t know what is.” It is when I ask Philippe what his dream show would be that he becomes alive. He says, “I’d go up to Siberia and spend a month following the reindeer migration.”
The local populations have patterned their way of life around the reindeer movements. The past few years, however, those patterns have been radically altered by climate change. “Little is known about this, so we would explore how it affects them and use that as a metaphor for how climate change is affecting the world. It’s living with people and feeling what’s going on with them — that’s what you need to capture.” A Cousteau show, for sure, but more of an expose. “I’ll never be able to fill my father’s or grandfather’s shoes, but hopefully I can stand on their shoulders and reach farther.”