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The Next Time It Rains, It’s the Ocean Raining On You: Cousteau at the Winspear

Jean-Michel Cousteau
Jean-Michel Cousteau and friend.

So said Jean-Michel Cousteau (eldest son of famed underwater explorer Jacques-Yves) last night, just a few minutes into his National Geographic Live! talk at the Winspear Opera House. He was explaining his father’s considerable influence – the knowledge of how impacted we are by the health of our seas. And since the evening was billed first and foremost as a “heartfelt tribute” to Cousteau’s father (who would have celebrated his 100th birthday in June of this year), I was expecting to be at least a little bit moved by this portion of the program.

I wasn’t. In fact, I was bored – the tribute video was roughly edited and impersonal. The tidbits Jean-Michel fed us about his father were vague and forgettable. The only thing that lived up to the heartfelt press were his anecdotes about his mother and her life on the boat Calypso –  calling her the “shipkeeper” and describing how she’d painstakingly glue 35 mm still-camera film into rolls so her husband could go off and shoot his underwater footage during World War II.

And yet, talking about the ocean, Jean-Michel Cousteau, who boasts a flowing mane of long white hair and speaks with a lilting French accent, was transformed. He was animated and passionate. He delivered bad news – we’ve pretty much screwed our planet’s water supply, especially with the massive oil spill in the Gulf – but lightened the mood with jokes about voyeuristic divers loitering around to watch fish “do it.” He showed video of an African penguin smacking a great white shark on the muzzle and zipping away, unharmed, to prove that these scary creatures are just misunderstood.

We all owe his father a great debt, to be sure. For one thing, without Jacques Cousteau, there’d be no scuba diving. His life should be celebrated and his contributions to our environmental understanding acknowledged. But just as the captain was his best, most fascinating self exploring and explaining the underwater world, so too is his son. At age seventy, Jean-Michel Cousteau should be allowed out from under the legacy every once in awhile.