My Father, the Captain by Daniel Paisner and Jean-Michel Cousteau by Daniel Paisner and Jean-Michel Cousteau - Read Online

Book Preview

My Father, the Captain - Daniel Paisner

You've reached the end of this preview. Sign up to read more!
Page 1 of 1




June 30, 1997. It is a day of sadness and ceremony, of celebration and deep affection. For me, there is also curiosity and wonder. I am standing in the first pew, in front of a coffin draped by the French flag. Next to me is my father’s widow, dressed in black. She is flanked by her two children—my half siblings. For the longest time, we did not know each other. Indeed, we hardly knew of each other. Together, we look nothing like the family portrait I have carried in my head for the past 59 years. That picture should include my younger brother, Philippe, dead now for 18 years, and my beloved mother, Simone Melchior Cousteau, gone as well for nearly seven years.

This picture? Well, it is an image no one in my immediate family could have envisioned—and yet, because we are assembled here for my father’s funeral, it is the one that we now have to consider. It is here before us, and we are in its middle; and I am afraid that it is an image that will endure. I can close my eyes and imagine another more intimate portrait, but eventually this one will push its way into my thinking. Even a man who built his life around the power and majesty of moving pictures must leave this world with a freeze-frame memory; and so, like it or not, this will be my father’s legacy.

Jacques Chirac, the President of the French Republic, graces the magnificent cathedral and honors my father’s memory with his presence. He sits alone, at the front of the church. Behind President Chirac sit prominent mourners from the disparate worlds of politics, culture, arts, and sciences. Such was the breadth of my father’s life that it reached into so many different corners, touched so many different people—many I only know by reputation or by their pictures in the newspaper. My father’s peers of the French Academy are also present: Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, Alain Decaux, Bertrand Poirot-Delpech, and many others. There are ministers, too: Dominique Voynet of the Environment; Louis Le Pensec of Agriculture and Fishing. Next to them sit the mayor of Paris and his wife, the chief of the Paris police, the chief of police of the Ile-de-France region, and on and on.

It is a grand and fitting assemblage, but beneath the homilies and stirring tributes, I am moved to consider my father’s place in this hallowed hall. He was not the most religious of men. He was born into a traditional Catholic family, but my paternal grandparents were not particularly religious. That said, this is a funeral, a memorial, and so I do not give the question of my father’s faith a second thought.

A large crowd is gathered on the steps outside the cathedral—people of all ages, all classes, all endeavors. Through my father’s work and passion, they discovered an amazing new world, a place of wonder and beauty that had been out of reach until he found a way to film it and bring it into their homes. Through his eyes, through the testimony of his camera, through his clever inventions and innovations, the sea has become magically alive for these people, and they are here to show their gratitude. That is how I have come to see it. They are here, some of them, donning red woolen caps of the sort my father had famously worn on his expeditions. They are here because, at one time or another, my father—known by the familiar nickname of JYC to friends and family, blending the initials for Jacques-Yves Cousteau in such a way that it came out sounding like Jeek—had helped to lift them from their troubles and set them down in a place of mystery, tranquility, hope, and wonder. They are here because he had stirred their adventurous spirit.

I am following the funeral procession, but the sound of the cathedral’s big organ draws me back to thoughts of my father. I hear him in the solemn music. I see him in the eyes of the other mourners, many of whom I have never met. He was a man who kept his distance, who had been authoritarian by choice, who was not always warm to even his closest friends and associates. He was a man who believed in efficiency above all. He was a man who would not be denied. But alongside all of this, he was also a man with an undeniable charisma, a man who always achieved his goals—and, primarily, a man of such single-minded determination that he would not give up on a goal until he had achieved it. He dreamed big, and he lived even bigger, if such a thing is possible. He was transported—transformed—by his life’s work and so, too, were those who were carried along in his marvelous wake. He sought joy, release, freedom, and wonder. He made his living from these emotions and delivered them in return.

Let us make no mistake. This is a funeral for a man of the sea. The marines who carry his coffin outside the cathedral remind us of this, but the picture is a bit murky. The dots and pixels do not quite come together. As the procession passes beneath a dank, gray sky, I cannot help but wonder at my father’s final resting place—in the family vault, in Saint-André-de-Cubzac. Tomorrow, reports of his funeral will appear in newspapers all over the world, but how many of those accounts will consider the absurdity of his exit? A man of the sea, buried on dry land? Such a strange destination for a man who lived his life on the open water. Whose first wife, his companion for nearly a lifetime, had been buried at sea—in the Mediterranean, in front of my parents’ home in Monaco, in the deepest trench. Whose younger son, the exemplar of his boundless spirit, was buried at sea as well—in the Atlantic, off the coast of Portugal. When it comes to that, I also intend the sea to be my final resting place. But my father? Our captain? Why bury on land a man who for so many years had been Calypso’s lover?

Once again, with finality, this was my father. Captain Cousteau. A man of contradictions. A man of many passions I can only try to understand. I think, Okay, Jean-Michel, you could never really figure him out in life, not completely, so what makes you think you can do any better now that he’s gone?

His coffin passes, and I salute him one last time—or, at least, one last time on this Earth, for there is still the matter of paying my respects to him in the water. This happens soon enough, but it surprises me just the same. A few days later, I am given a chance to say a more personal good-bye; it is a chance I do not see coming, but it washes over me like it is inevitable.

I am back home in California, still shaken by my father’s death. The thought will always shake me up, I realize now, but I am still getting used to it, even as the balance of my life and work come calling. It is a fitting call: Some weeks earlier, I had committed to participate in a fish count with a local marine-life organization. Counts like this one are conducted all over the world, in much the same way the Audubon Society might conduct bird counts. The idea is to identify all the different species of fish and offer an educated estimate on numbers and perhaps a forecast for future preservation efforts. It’s a very basic and useful way to track the degeneration and regeneration of certain areas of the world’s oceans, so I am happy to participate—happy, too, that the outing might offer a chance for me to dive and perhaps place my father’s death in some kind of context.

If nothing else, I think, it will be a comfortable distraction.

There are 83 other people on board the boat as we pull away from the marina in Ventura, a small town about 30 miles down the coast from Santa Barbara. We sail to an island called Anacapa, the closest island to the mainland, about 16 miles out in the ocean. I am in a pensive mood. I had been emotionally prepared to shoulder the death of my father, it occurs to me. He was an old man. He had been in failing health for the last five months of his life. His death was not sudden. And yet, there is no way to prepare for such a loss. Even with time to get used to the idea, there is a sudden, overwhelming sadness.

The weather is crappy, which dampens my mood even further. I am not good company, among these people, and that makes me sadder still. When he was out on the water, preparing to dive, my father could be one of the most magnanimous, big-hearted people on the planet. His personality, which was already colored with larger-than-life strokes, became bigger still. He would not have understood how a Cousteau could stand on the deck of a ship, preparing to dive, in a despairing mood. And yet here I am, sullen and despairing. I am facing an important task—one I’d been looking forward to, in fact—but I am wishing it away before I have even begun.

The day is overcast and thick with fog—but then, as we approach the island, the skies seem to magically clear. All of a sudden, as if it had been choreographed, the sun begins to shine. The water, which had been choppy on the ride out from Ventura, is now completely calm. It is the strangest, most wonderful thing, but I do not think anything of it at the time. I notice, but that is all.

Once again, it is here before me, and I am in its middle.

I am dressed in my diving gear, ready to jump into the water, but then I have an idea. It alights in my head with no help from me. I turn to the others on board and say, Ladies and gentleman, I have a small favor to ask. Might I have a few moments by myself, in the water, before the rest of you join me?

Under different circumstances, this might have appeared an odd request, but everyone on board surely knows about my father’s death. Since I was a small boy, people on the water have known me as the oldest son of Jacques-Yves Cousteau. His reputation has always preceded me—in life as it does here now in death. Many of the fish counters on board know that this is to be my first dive after Dad’s funeral. Everybody seems to understand, and without a word, the crowd that had gathered on the deck silently parts, clearing a path for me. I jump into the water—directly into a very large, very beautiful kelp bed. It offers such a striking sight, as I swim by myself among these enormous, 60-foot seaweed stalks, swaying gently in the swells. I’d always enjoyed swimming in this type of setting, because it reminds me of the birds flying among the treetops in Sequoia National Park. You are as free as you can be. It’s lovely, and peaceful, and quite soothing. And so it is on this surprising afternoon. I continue to swim about in this solitary manner, all the time thinking of my father, the great Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the man who opened our eyes to the vast wonders of the sea. He did this not only for the good of all mankind, of course, but also for me. I consider this. It is a deeply personal, profoundly selfish realization, but at just that moment, I hold it close.

Such a gift he has given to me! Such an inheritance!

I am about to swim back toward the boat and motion for the others to join me when I notice an unusual opening in the kelp. All around there is this dense and marvelous kelp forest, which appears to collect around a silky, sandy bottom. The way it appears before me, at just that moment, is almost otherworldly. The sun’s rays are shining brightly through the kelp, lighting up this little, inexplicable patch of sand—like a spotlight on an empty stage. All around me there are small garibaldi, brightly colored damselfish native to the area. In normal light, they’re a fantastic, shimmering orange, but here, in this bright sunlight, they are like festive candles, a string of party decorations announcing some underwater fiesta.

What can I do but follow these playful, carrot-colored fish to the sandy bottom? What can I do but give myself over to their sweet allure? I drop to my knees and fall on the spot, and I am overcome with emotion. It is almost mystical. I have been thinking of my father, of course, and now it feels as if he is here with me, on this sun-splashed ocean floor.

For the first time since his death, he is near.

That ceremony at Notre Dame cathedral? That was for the cameras, and for all of those French luminaries. It was not for him, and it was most certainly not for me. The burial at Saint-André-de-Cubzac? Another formality, a necessity. But he is here, among these dazzling seaweeds, among these sparkling fish—ah, the ultimate luminaries—on the floor of this impossibly beautiful kelp bed.

This is the real Cousteau, I allow myself to think. This is where he lived and where he will remain.

I am in his world—and he, at last, is in mine.



I have always found it curious that my father’s family had almost nothing to do with the sea. It is as though he came to it on his own, like a calling, without the benefit of familiarity, proximity, or custom.

My grandfather Daniel Cousteau was an attorney with a bit of wanderlust in his soul. My grandmother Elizabeth Duranthon Cousteau was a typical Irish housewife. She ruled the household with a firm hand and a warm heart. My grandfather, whom we all called Daddy, worked as a kind of chief of staff—almost like a personal chargé d’affaires—for two prominent businessmen. He worked first in the employ of a British gentleman, and later for an American. Both were millionaires, which was no small distinction in the years leading up to the First World War. Tellingly, both of these tycoons had lavish, expensive yachts, for which my grandfather was often responsible. He would make sure the crew was in place, the wine was appropriately stored, and all the permits were in order.

As my father later told me, those ships were almost always at sea, crisscrossing the Atlantic, but as a young man, my paternal grandfather was often at home in France, on decidedly dry land. Only later, as my father grew up, did Daddy begin to satisfy his passion for exploration and travel. Over the years, he began to visit New York with more and more frequency, eventually importing wine and champagne through a warehouse he operated beneath one of the city bridges. He was away from home for longer and longer periods, but it would be some time before my father joined my grandfather on his travels, before he would taste the spray of salt water in the ripping winds of the open sea. As a child, Jacques-Yves Cousteau lived mostly in the Bordeaux region of France, in Saint-André-de-Cubzac, a small village in the Gironde Province, where he is buried today. As a boy, he lived in a simple home, with no electricity and little to capture his imagination beyond—well, his imagination.

I suppose it was only natural and to a certain degree inevitable that wine played a major role in my father’s growing up. He was French, after all, from the Gironde. Wine was in the soil, in the air, and all around. Some might suggest that it coursed through the region like lifeblood. One of my father’s great-uncles owned one of the major wineries in the area; unfortunately, he was also a gambler, and he ended up squandering all of his assets on an ill-advised trip to Monaco when my father was still a small boy. The great-uncle lost his vineyard, his properties, even his beloved car—a Bentley, which my father often spoke about in wistful terms. Who knows, if his great-uncle had been a bit more careful with his money, my father might have drifted into the family winemaking business.

As it happened, he merely drifted—and, drifting, he developed a spirit of travel and adventure to match his father’s. He was a Cousteau, after all; try as he might, he could not sit still.

My father was a skinny child and not particularly healthy. He suffered from a variety of stomach ailments, including a chronic case of enteritis, which left him feeling weak and out of sorts. He never thought himself a natural or gifted athlete. As a result, perhaps, he developed a fierce determination. What he lacked in strength, he made up for in will. Throughout his life, whenever he set his mind to an idea or a goal, he pushed resolutely toward it. One of his lifelong obsessions was filmmaking, and it offered an early outlet for my father’s creativity. He saw himself as an auteur at a time when the exciting wave of French cinema began to capture the world’s attention. Somehow, at 12 years old, Dad came into possession of a 9-millimeter Pathé camera. Not an 8-millimeter camera. Not a super 8. Not a 16. How he came to own such an expensive piece of equipment was never made clear. Knowing my father and how he almost always got what he wanted, it’s possible that he only had to wish for it to make it so.

Today, most people have never even heard of a 9-millimeter camera, but it was my father’s pride and joy throughout his teenage years and into his young adulthood. He carried it with him everywhere. In later years, he confided that the camera helped him past a youthful shyness that I could never imagine in the gregarious man I came to know and admire. He said that, with his camera in hand, he could talk to pretty girls, move about in unfamiliar surroundings, or act bravely or brazenly in situations that might otherwise find him reticent and withdrawn. The camera offered a license to be bold. To listen to Dad’s stories of his teenage years, you would not think he ever set that camera aside. Soon, he became quite expert at its inner workings. He was constantly disassembling it to understand how it worked, cleaning it, refashioning it in such a way that it might be more suited to his ever-changing needs.

He used that camera to make many, many films—and, happily, much of this early footage survives. There were other cameras, too. When he wore one out, Dad scraped together some money and purchased another. Before long, he had a whole collection, and the outgrowth of that collection was a mountain of footage. Just before his 75th birthday, I was rummaging through his belongings, hoping to put together a retrospective of his life, which I planned to call The First 75 Years. My dad thought this was a foolish enterprise. He wasn’t interested in the past. (For years, he was not even focused on the future, choosing to live very much in the present.) He was still in relative good health, still diving, still exploring, determined to look only ahead. Despite his protestations, I found some of his 9-millimeter footage in his basement and had it transferred to a 16-millimeter format, and what came back was quite a surprise. Apparently, he’d written these wonderful little melodramas and acted them out with his friends. In one, a fellow and his girlfriend are driving a car. When the fellow pulls over and steps away from the vehicle, my father enters the shot and proceeds to steal the car—with the girlfriend still in the passenger seat. He drives away, but the angry boyfriend gives chase. The stolen car stalls, allowing the boyfriend to catch up, and the fellow pulls my father from the car and drags him to the ground.

In another, my father appears on a small boat with a young woman. The two begin to argue. (For some reason, arguing seemed to be one of Dad’s central themes—perhaps he thought it made for a more gripping story line.) There is no sound, but the camera pulls in close on the couple, as their argument intensifies. Finally, my father stands up in the small boat, and the young woman pushes him overboard. It could be said that the surviving shots of my father disappearing into the lake represent the earliest footage of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.

In truth, it would be some time before my father became comfortable in the water. He was never an especially strong swimmer. He was just okay—he himself admitted as much. He was comfortable in the water; in fact, he often said he felt most at home there; but he was not a natural. He had to work at it. Throughout his life, he regretted his shortcomings in this area, and yet his determination set him apart and saw him through. For example, at about age ten, he traveled to the United States with my grandfather one summer and was then promptly dispatched to a children’s camp in Vermont. One of the primary activities at this camp, it turned out, was horseback riding, but young JYC hated horses. He could not understand those animals, he always said; and, more to the point, they could not understand him. Whenever it was his turn to ride, he refused. Eventually, the camp director came up with another activity for my father as a form of punishment. He had to jump into the lake and remove all the dead branches and debris from the swimming area so that the other children would not get hurt. The branches would gather by the diving dock and present a hazard. It was a difficult assignment, and in future years my father would reminisce about his time in Harvey’s Lake, diving beneath the surface, fantasizing about a way to breathe through the hollow reeds that accumulated by the swimming dock so that he could swim underwater while he completed his task. Eventually, he taught himself to do just that—and here again, he seemed to be preparing for a lifetime underwater. Though he could not swim especially well, he could fill his lungs and remain submerged for extended periods.

He was only a mediocre student, a fact that nearly kept him from another of his childhood obsessions—or determinations. For as long as he could remember, JYC had wanted to become a naval officer. He also wanted to be a pilot, and perhaps even a doctor, and underneath all of that, a filmmaker as well, but he believed those dreams would flow from his primary obsession: A naval officer—that would be his first and true calling. He got it in his head early on that he would be a world traveler and that a naval career would be his ticket to exotic ports of call and boundless adventure, only it appeared for a time that his poor record in high