The Current

New film charts Jacques Cousteau's life from arrogant adventurer to conservationist

While Jacques Cousteau is remembered for his deep sea adventures and conservation work, a new film explores Cousteau’s conversion from exploiting the ocean, to trying to save it. 

It took 20 years for the diver to see the damage happening in the ocean, according to director Liz Garbus

Jacques Cousteau wears his iconic red diving cap aboard his ship Calypso, circa 1970s. (The Cousteau Society)

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Original story published on Sept. 17, 2021.

While the late Jacques Cousteau is remembered for his deep sea adventures and conservation work, a new film explores the start of Cousteau's adventures, and his conversion from exploiting the ocean to trying to save it. 

"He went on a wonderful journey that I thought was extremely relevant today," Liz Garbus told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

Garbus directed the film Becoming Cousteau, which is screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. To him, Couteau's career path is a metaphor for where society needs to head.

"It was a journey from a kind of hubris and arrogance and a sense of conquest moulded into the explorer mould of 20th-century and 19th-century explorers, to a journey towards consciousness and conservation and global citizenship." 

Liz Garbus is the director of Becoming Cousteau. (Henny Garfunkel)
 

Early life

Cousteau is best known for his television program The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, but that wasn't his only underwater venture. In the 1950s, Cousteau and his crew spent time helping companies find places to drill for oil on the ocean floor to help fund early films.

According to Garbus, even in his television program, he was an adventurer first. And he wanted to make exciting films, sometimes at the cost of the sealife. 

"It is very much about adventure and there is this kind of arrogance to the journey, and it is about the conquest, going as far as possible, seeing absolutely everything," said Garbus. 

Cousteau films an underwater shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea in 1943. (The Cousteau Society)

For his 1956 documentary The Silent World, Cousteau and his crew slaughtered a shark, used bombs underwater, and rode on the back of sea turtles. Seeing these things surprised Garbus.

"I had remembered so much of his later work as a conservationist, that going back to the early films, which do not have that ideology, was really quite stunning."

Changing course

Cousteau peers out of the porthole of SP-350 Denise diving saucer, 1960. (National Geographic/Luis Marden)

Garbus says it took 20 years before Cousteau really started to become that conservationist that Garbus remembered. Cousteau started to visit some of the same spots in the ocean over time, comparing photos and footage to what he had seen before.

He started to notice a change. He saw melting ice caps, and a drop in sea life. Then he became a voice for change. 

"It had a great impact and it was the birth of the environmental movement," said Garbus.

"He thought his best role was to make people love the sea and therefore feel attached to it and want to protect it. But as he got older, he felt, in fact, he had to go further than that and really sound the alarm."

Cousteau aboard Calypso on a 1963 expedition in the Red Sea. (National Geographic)

As he did that, he lost some of his popularity. His shows and films moved to lesser known channels. But Garbus said he didn't regret that. He regretted butchering the shark, and riding the sea turtles. 

And it's that journey Garbus hopes people will take now. 

"As many of us have known for a long time, there is damage and change that is irreversible, but some of the most deleterious effects, we still have a moment to change course," said Garbus.

"That course change is what Cousteau's journey was."

Cousteau on a 1970 dive while filming an episode of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. (The Cousteau Society)

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Julie Crysler.

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