Indy Film Talk: A double-dip of Jean-Michel Cousteau 

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Innovative explorer Jacques Cousteau brought the ocean into our living rooms. Now, his son, Jean-Michel, is bringing it to the big screen. His new documentary, Secret Ocean 3D, is playing at the Indiana State Museum IMAX.

Cousteau dropped by the NUVO office recently to talk about the film and the underwater upbringing that inspired his efforts to save the sea, which has practically been his home since he was seven years old.

NUVO: First, I actually have a confession to make. I saw your film, and parts of it terrified me. The children in the audience were just mesmerized, giggling and grabbing at the sea creatures on screen. I was looking through my fingers and down at the floor because I have an intense phobia of eels. So, watching this film was quite a test for me. When the narrator said, 'Eels open their mouths wide to breathe, not to threaten,' I thought, 'Well, I feel very threatened!'
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Cousteau: To help you out, eels are fish. And they’re not nasty creatures. They have never attacked people. The only time  there’s been accidents is when people try to put their hands into their world, just like if I have you in a corner, you are going to defend yourself because you have no other place to go. Eels are really not very scary creatures...when you know about them. So, education is very important. We want to fascinate people by the diversity, the beauty and the fragility of creatures, which I've had the privilege of being exposed to for the last 69 years since my father put a tank on my back, pushed me overboard and I became a scuba diver. I've been diving ever since, never will stop.

NUVO: I think part of the film’s power lies in how it presents the ocean as an exotic alien planet with surreal, startling creatures. I imagine it feels more like home to you. So, I’m curious — what surprises or startles you about the ocean?

Cousteau: Well, you know, I’m one of the very, very few extremely privileged human beings when it comes to the ocean. My father was the co-inventor of the regulator, which allowed people to start scuba diving and be free underwater. We were very privileged as children — my late brother and myself — to be able to start exploring the ocean. That opened a world which fascinates me. If you were to ask me, ‘What was your best dive?’ I would tell you, ‘The next one.’ Every time I go diving, I see something I haven’t seen the time before.

What I see on the big screen, I cannot see when I’m diving. Thanks to the new technology that we’re using today, we can film in slow motion and focus on very little things. I knew they were there, but I didn’t know how they behave, how they relate to other species, what they feed upon, and so on. It’s only when I come out of the ocean and project it on a screen that I can see that behavior. As a result, I’m learning a lot about how these creatures depend on each other, how they are connected to other species, why we need to protect them. Diversity is synonymous with stability.

Now I’m like a kid! I’m seeing things I couldn't see before! The technology today was not available during my father's time. He would be blown away. He had never seen one of our shows on the big IMAX screen. He would go, 'You've seen this? Cool!' And he would probably ask me to go diving again. 

NUVO: You essentially grew up in the ocean. How has your approach to exploring it changed since your father first strapped a scuba tank on your back when you were a boy? How would you say your approach differs from his?

Cousteau: When I was a child, long before the scuba equipment was created, I had a mask. And I was snorkeling, literally exploring the surface. I was diving in the harbor where I grew up in the south of France. I used to see all kinds of fish and lobsters and sea urchins, and I used to catch them and eat them. I still do.

One thing led to another when my dad, who was in the French navy at the time, co-invented the regulators, which allowed us to become scuba divers. My brother was four-and-a-half when he started; my son, Fabien, did his first dive when he was four; my grandson was born underwater. As a family, we’re all focusing on the ocean and the quality of water. And we want to share that with as many people as we can. We want more and more people to be concerned.

My dad used to say, ‘People protect what they love,’ and I used to say, ‘How can you protect what you don’t understand?’ We have huge opportunities to discover new species, understand how they work, how they are connected to our lives. There is only one water system and that system is connected to the quality of our lives. No water, no life. Bad water, sick people. Today, on this planet, we have between four and five thousand children under the age of five who are dying everyday because they have no access to clean water. That can change tomorrow morning.

NUVO: That’s the best approach — the power of positive thinking.

Cousteau: That’s right. We are able, without criticizing and pointing fingers, to explain to decision-makers in government and industries why they need to think about bridging what they’re doing with the future. They have families, they have hearts. We can talk to them. Once you establish a connection, people will listen.

NUVO: What I found so effective about the film is that it’s not finger-pointing, like you said. The environmental message comes through just by immersing you in the ocean, making you feel closer to that world, thus making you want to protect it.

Cousteau: Yes, I’ll never stop diving. That’s how I recharge my batteries — to be able to share with the public the fact that we all depend upon the ocean for the quality of our lives. We need to take care of it. We need to stop using the ocean as a garbage can. 

If I get a little pressured or depressed, I look in the eyes of a seven-year-old, and I say, 'I will never, never let you down, because I want you to have the same privilege that I've had.' That recharges me, and I go back to the ocean.  

There are consequences that we have to deal with, like the acceleration of climate change for which we’re responsible, with our emission of CO2, which ends up into the ocean. That effects everything in the sea, including your friends, the eels — your new friends. 

Whether you live here, in this beautiful place, Indiana, or you live along the coastline, every other breath you take is coming from the ocean.

You in the news business, we need your help — for solutions, for making people excited to make a difference. That’s our mission at Ocean Futures Society, which I created after my father passed away to honor his philosophy — if you protect the ocean, you protect yourself. 

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