Scott D. Pierce: Diving into the family business

Cousteau descendants produce documentaries, proving that blood is thicker than water

Published: Monday, April 3 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

Jean-Michel Cousteau — explorer, environmentalist, educator, film producer — explores a coral reef.

Tom Ordway, Ocean Futures Society And KQED

PASADENA, Calif. Just because your last name is Cousteau doesn't mean you have to be an oceanographer who produces documentary films. But it's certainly a career option you're going to consider.

"It was never expected of us," said Celine Cousteau, granddaughter of the late Jacques-Yves Cousteau, daughter of Jean-Michel Cousteau and sister of Fabien Cousteau. "It was part of our lives. Fabien and I went our own ways for a while. And the environment, the ocean was always a part of our life, not necessarily professionally.

"Being a banker has never been an option. Sitting behind a desk has never been an option. And this fits perfectly into . . . our beliefs and what's important to us. And it's an amazing possibility that we have that the door is open to us to be able to educate people about the environment through documentaries, through photography, through books, through writing. Yeah, it's an amazing life."

The Cousteau family returns to television in a new series of documentaries for PBS.

And, just as Jean-Michel worked with his father, Celine and Fabien are working with theirs.

"I've delved into the other world, so to speak, for a little bit," Fabien Cousteau said. "And although it was a great educational process — and if I were a banker, I'm sure I'd love the salary — once you are infused with the experiences and opportunities that we were able and privileged to grow up with and see, there is no going back.

"It's a sense of passion that just affects every part of your life and drives you."

Jean-Michel Cousteau said he never pushed his children to join the family business. And he knows there was more pressure on them, because when he was a young man, Jacques Cousteau was "completely unknown."

"So I never had to grow up with that fame that bombards you," Jean-Michel Cousteau said. "They did because of their grandfather and, to some extent, what I'm still doing. So they had to put up with all of this at a very early age.

"And I never, never wanted to put pressure on them."

"There were never any expectations — you're absolutely right," Fabien Cousteau said. "But it's something that has this magical pull that you just can't deny."

The new series of occasional documentaries — three more (a total of four more hours) are on tap for the coming months — is a bit of a throwback to the Cousteau specials so many Americans grew up watching. They're a mix of amazing nature film and ecological warnings.

"They grew up with the shows on TV and still have those fond memories," Fabien Cousteau said. "They're now parents to their kids. And, typically, what I get is — 'When can we see more? When can you bring out some more shows? We want to see more Cousteau. We want to see the new generation of Cousteau shows.'

"And here we are."

Not that this is their grandfather's TV documentary.

"I remember the shows we were doing, which were very bourgeois compared to what is acceptable today," Jean-Michel Cousteau said. "Having the crew of (the ship) Calypso gorging on lobsters in the dining room of Calypso for 15 minutes, you can't do that anymore."

The new shows are shot in HD, with the latest technology in underwater cameras. And, while the old Cousteau documentaries can be seen as some of the original reality shows, the new ones take a page from current programming.