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Scott D. Pierce: Diving into the family business

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

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 4 2015 3:41 a.m. MDT

Jean-Michel Cousteau \— explorer, environmentalist, educator, film producer \— explores a coral reef. (Tom Ordway, Ocean Futures Society And KQED) 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."
Jean-Michel Cousteau walks along the beach at Laysan Island, which is littered with marine debris. (Tom Ordway, Ocean Futures Society  And KQED) Jean-Michel Cousteau walks along the beach at Laysan Island, which is littered with marine debris. (Tom Ordway, Ocean Futures Society And KQED)
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."
Jean-Michel Cousteau, his son, Fabien, and his daughter, Celine. (Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society And KQED) Jean-Michel Cousteau, his son, Fabien, and his daughter, Celine. (Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society And KQED)
"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.'
One of the goals of One of the goals of "Ocean" is to show the value of healthy reefs. (Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society And KQED)
"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.
"In this age of reality TV, we've decided to turn the cameras around," said John Boland, chief content officer of KQED, which co-produces the Cousteau documentaries. "So in addition to seeing the wonderful creatures both above and below the water, we see some of that stuff that happens on the boat, and all of it is not intended," Boland said. "The one thing that hasn't changed, though, is the importance of exploring and understanding and protecting the world's oceans and the living things that we find there."
Jacques-Yves Cousteau () Jacques-Yves Cousteau ()
"We're into the future. We're into solving problems," Jean-Michel Cousteau said. "We're into highlighting to the public the issues that need to be addressed today. The ocean is in trouble, which means we are in trouble. We're still using it as a garbage can."
As to the future of the Cousteau clan, neither Celine nor Fabien have children yet, but neither would be surprised if, when they do, those kids take an interest in the family business.
"Why not?" Celine Cousteau said. "I mean, it's a great opportunity."
"The job won't be over with us," Fabien Cousteau said. "The job is just beginning. So, hopefully, our kids, when we have them, will be interested in it.
"Just like we were raised, we wouldn't dream of forcing the next generation after us to do this. But I have a feeling that if they're even remotely as touched as we have been growing up, I don't think there's any worry."


E-mail: pierce@desnews.com

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