The MS Pacific Monarch, Sea of Cortez, Mexico, July 2015.

A Cousteau Family Odyssey

Sixty years after Jacques Cousteau swept the Cannes Film Festival with his underwater epic, Le monde du silence (The Silent World), his descendants have created another riveting film about the mysteries beneath the waves. Headed to IMAX theaters next year, Odyssea 3D reveals the breadth and brilliance of the planet’s oceans like never before. It is the end result of a unique partnership between two of the adventure-cinema world’s most illustrious outfits: Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society and the Mantello Brothers’ 3D Entertainment. Needless to say, when the Cousteaus invite Man of the World to join them on a dive in the Sea of Cortez, photojournalist Sebastián Liste and I are on a plane to La Paz, Mexico, posthaste.

We meet up with their research vessel near Los Islotes, a rocky island off the coast of Baja California. After welcoming us with a hearty breakfast, the family and their film crew shimmy into their monogrammed wet suits and prepare for the day’s dive. Fabien and Céline, Jacques’s grandson and granddaughter, review the day’s shooting schedule with their father, Jean-Michel, Jacque’s eldest son and the keeper of the family flame.

“I’m like a little kid again,” says Jean-Michel, above the din of barking sea lions. Of the eighty underwater documentaries he’s made so far, he says he’s proudest of Odyssea 3D, which has brought him closer to his adult children than ever before. The Cousteaus shot more than two hundred hours of underwater footage to make the film, which would not have been possible without the Mantello Brothers’ “truly revolutionary equipment,” says Jean- Michel. Recent advances in 3-D camera technology allowed his team to capture spectacular colors and never-before-seen behaviors, some of which “the naked eye cannot even see,” he says. “We really wanted to share with the public the fascinating behavior of these amazing creatures.”

If all goes well in the editing room, the Cousteaus will screen the film at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival on the sixtieth anniversary of The Silent World taking home the coveted Palme d’Or, the first and only documentary to ever do so.

Fabien Cousteau rinses off a fellow crew member aboard the Pacific Monarch, Sea of Cortez, Mexico, July 2015.
The Cousteaus film a scene from Odyssey 3D, Sea of Cortez, Mexico, July 2015.

“If we take care of the ocean, the planet’s lifeblood, we take care of ourselves.”

Before Jacques Cousteau brought oceanography to the masses, most people knew little about the nature of life in the world’s oceans beyond the tall tales of Jules Verne. It was Jacques who taught the public about basic concepts like plankton, documenting its vital role in the marine ecosystem by following it up the food chain. That he remains the most — make that, only — famous oceanographer that ever lived almost seems fair considering that he basically invented the field, along with most of the tools that enable its practice. Pre-Jacques, knowledge of the marine world was mostly speculation. Like outer space today, few could really say for sure what was really going on down there. As an explorer, filmmaker, scientist, photographer, author, and researcher, Cousteau was committed to changing that for good, and spent his life shining a light into some of the earth’s darkest crevices. His life’s great goal was to make the world love the ocean as much as he did.

His primary propaganda vehicle in this endeavor was the hugely popular TV series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Aired as semi-regular hour-long specials between 1968 and 1976, the American version was dubbed by Rod Serling, the Twilight Zone creator and narrator, which only amped up the drama. Millions of viewers around the world tuned in to see where the rugged, red-hatted Jacques and his boat, Calypso, would end up next. To this day, it is the nature program against which all others are measured.

Céline Cousteau says that Jacques wasn’t quite the solo act he appeared to be on television. “My grandmother Simone was the true captain of the Calypso,” she says. Simone Cousteau, affectionately known as La Bergere (“the Shepherdess”), was the world’s first female scuba diver, though you wouldn’t know that from watching Jacques’s show. She stayed mostly off camera, tending to her two children and, as the years progressed, chasing her four grandchildren around the decks.

In 1937, when she was just eighteen, Simone met twenty-seven-year-old Jacques at a cocktail party. An officer in the French Navy and a budding undersea explorer, he had a head full of ideas and a lust for high adventure. They married within months and had Jean-Michel the following year. In 1940, fearing the coming Nazi occupation, the couple took refuge in Megève in the French Alps near the Swiss border. In 1942, Cousteau shot his first documentary, a rudimentary short about spearfishing in the Embiez islands off the coast of France, called par dix-huit mètres de fond (For 18 Meters Deep). That same year, with money from Simone’s father, he built the prototype of his soon-to-be famous Aqua-Lung, one of several early inventions that secured his future success.

Jacques adjusts a 10-year-old Jean-Michel’s Aqua-Lung before a family dive in the Mediterranean, Sanary, France, 1953.
The Cousteaus and their film crew on location, Sea of Cortez, Mexico, July 2015.

“My father and his team developed a depth-pressure-proof camera case before they had even made the breathing apparatus,” notes Jean-Michel. “It’s funny to consider now, but on his first film everyone was still holding their breath.”

Equipped with several Aqua-Lungs, Cousteau and his ever-expanding cast of collaborators began work on a second film, Épaves (Shipwrecks). At the same time, they were also aiding the war effort after Cousteau was put in charge of the Navy’s newly formed Underwater Research Group, a covert unit that supported the French resistance. After the war, Cousteau’s various projects came to the attention of banking heir Loel Guinness (a second cousin of Man of the World contributor Hugo Guinness, who remembers him fondly as “Lolly”), who was the first in a long line of wealthy patrons to see value in Jacques’s work. Guinness bought a boat for the Cousteaus in 1950, the illustrious Calypso, and leased it to Jacques for one franc.

He only had two conditions: that Cousteau promise never to ask him for more money, and that he keep his identity a secret, which he did. In fact, Guinness’s life-changing gift only became public after Cousteau’s death, from a heart attack in 1997, nearly fifty years later. Cousteau promptly refitted and transformed the ship into a modern expedition vessel and support base for diving, filming, and oceanographic research. Simone pitched in, too, selling some of her family jewels to pay for fuel and her furs to buy a compass and gyroscope. Six years later, Guinness would end up financing Cousteau’s Le monde du silence, which was shot in part by then-burgeoning French New Wave filmmaker Louis Malle.

Cousteau first garnered serious international acclaim when he built a futuristic underwater research station in 1962 on the ocean floor off the coast of Marseille, France. Known as Conshelf I, the drum-shaped structure allowed Cousteau and two “aquanauts” to live and work comfortably on the seabed for a week. A year later, after word of his “underwater colony” swept the globe, another station, a starfish-shaped bunker he dubbed the Conshelf II, was erected in the Red Sea, off the coast of Sudan. This time, there was room for five aquanauts and enough supplies to keep them down there for a month.

Jean-Michel Cousteau makes his ascent, Sea of Cortez, Mexico, July 2015.
Guano-covered outcropping, Sea of Cortez, Mexico, July 2015.

“When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.” —Jacques Cousteau

In 2014, Fabien Cousteau, Jacques’s grandson, erected his own research station off the Florida Keys. It’s called the Aquarius and it’s the only underwater marine laboratory in the world today. Last year, Fabien and his crew of modern aquanauts collected the equivalent of two years’ worth of surface-diving data in a thirty-one-day expedition.

“The earliest memory I have of my grandfather is sitting on the floor at my grandparents’ home in Saint-Lary, in the South of France, building models and listening to him tell stories of how different animals came to be,” he says. “He was such a wonderful teacher. Because of him, I truly feel more at home underwater than I do on land. ”

In 1999, Fabien’s father, Jean-Michel, founded the Ocean Futures Society to carry on the pioneering work Jacques Cousteau started. The foundation is headquartered in Santa Barbara, California, and run by Fabien and Céline. “It has three key functions,” he explains. “The first is education, the second is documentaries, and the third is diplomacy.” When he isn’t diving, Jean-Michel spends a lot of his time lobbying politicians to clean up their acts when it comes to the world’s oceans.

In Odyssea 3D, the Cousteaus, like Jacques before them, have managed to convey how deeply connected we all are to the sea, no matter where we live. “If we take care of the ocean, the planet’s lifeblood, we take care of ourselves,” says Fabien. “If we continue treating it like a garbage dump, we will pay the ultimate price.”

Aqua-Lungs for everyone! from left: Jean-Michel Cousteau, Simone Cousteau, Jacques Cousteau, and middle son, Philippe, explore the Mediterranean, circa 1950. Philippe, who grew up to be a diver and documentarian like his dad and brother, was killed in a flying boat crash in 1979.
The view from the top deck at dusk, Sea of Cortez, Mexico, July 2015.