Jean-Michel Cousteau was a big hit at Dive 2001, but not everyone agrees with his trenchant views on such matters as reducing the age limit for diving and contact with marine life. Does he have a taste for controversy? asks Steve Weinman
"Sorry I was out of touch, but I was in this brilliant lecture," the woman was enthusing into her mobile as she left the auditorium, applause still hanging in the air. "Yes, it was Cousteau."
At one time, if you referred to "Cousteau" people the world over would know that you meant Jacques Cousteau. He was one of those people who need only one name, like Churchill, or Beckham.
Today, four years after his father's death, 63-year-old Jean-Michel Cousteau has attained such recognition, certainly among an audience of divers at the National Exhibition Centre.
The previous day had seen standing room only for his presentation at Dive 2001, in what was by any standards a big room. He was upset that some visitors had had to be turned away.
Today, a partition wall has been removed to double the size of the auditorium, with two video screens available to satisfy everyone who wishes to see him. Afterwards he seems genuinely excited by the enthusiasm of the audience.
If I had a pound for every time a diver has cited Jacques Cousteau's films as inspiration for taking up diving, I'd be comfortably off (though probably less so than Jean-Michel). The C-word stood for undersea adventure from the '50s onwards, but can it retain its resonance among today's mainstream audiences?
And what is it like to be "Cousteau"? Everybody (me included) thinks they have a claim on your time. You rove the oceans aboard fabulous research vessels, but still have to pay the huge bills by finding new ways to sell your continuing story.
The US president acclaims you an "environmental hero". You are sued by your own father for attaching the Cousteau name to a resort in Fiji, and the family remains in bitter dispute about rights to that name - in which connection it was encouraging to hear that Jean-Michel and his nephew Philippe had enjoyed an hour-long reunion during Dive 2001.
Further, to help keep your name in the public eye, you court controversy and perform stunts which bear the marks of your father's knack for showmanship.
Two of these formed part of Jean-Michel Cousteau's 90-minute NEC presentation. In 1997 a Russian frigate renamed the Captain Keith Tibbetts was sunk as an artificial reef in the Cayman Islands. Guess who was standing on the bridge as it made its descent? "I always wondered what it must be like to go down with a ship," he says. Then he went and rode a great white shark in South Africa (Diver, March 2001). Was he out to prove himself a daredevil worthy of his name?
"But I'm not, because I'm here!" he protests. "In perfect conditions, anybody can do what I did." Apparently he had been asked if he wished to go down with a coastguard cutter being sunk as an artificial reef in California, but had refused because he was unhappy with the planning.
"I was so right. It sank at night, sight unseen, and landed on its side instead of upright.
"You have to assess each situation and there was zero risk with the Keith Tibbetts. Even if it had inverted, I could have bailed out."
That said, he admits to having felt some apprehension before the descent. "I'm not so excited about doing it again, or about doing the shark again, because I've done it. But for anyone who needs to do it, for whatever reason, there is absolutely no risk if you do it the right way."
But should he appear to be encouraging great white hitch-hiking? Accusations of double standards followed his South African exploit. How could Cousteau lecture us on treating marine life with respect, his detractors argued, while interfering with it himself so publicly?
Jean-Michel Cousteau seems gratified to have stirred up controversy, and is cheerfully unapologetic. "I'm not a promoter of touching anything, or feeding anything either, but to make people appreciate things you sometimes have to make a little compromise.
"What I wanted to do was not to show that I'm a macho diver, because I'm not, I'm just like anybody else, but to show that these animals are not as they have been portrayed. They're very gentle, very sensitive and very timid.
"If you approach them the right way, they're not going to bother you. You're not their primary target. They make mistakes, like we do, but their objective is not to eat you. It's not in their genes!"
Had he planned the ride in advance? He is adamant in his denial: "It was completely spontaneous, though Andre Hartman [his minder in South Africa] really positioned me to do it. If you touch the animal the wrong way it doesn't like it, but it doesn't get mad and turn round and try to bite you. But the position of the shark, its speed, if you're holding your breath at that time - the conditions have to be perfect."
Been there, done that - what's next? "I really want to spend a lot of time on the ocean floor. That's where the future lies. We're going to spend two years going around the world, the Atlantic, Pacific, Caribbean and the Med."
And it isn't just deep-sea creatures that interest him. "Bob Ballard believes there are a million shipwrecks around the world, and I think he's right. We plan to visit a number of wrecks in very deep water that have never been visited before." Among his targets will be deep Japanese wrecks in the Pacific and a Mediterranean location visited by both Cousteaus years before, the Britannic.
Last time he was there, using a "diving saucer" in the '80s, he had taken an elderly survivor of the WWI sinking. She had asked if he could recover the alarm clock she had left behind. "Unfortunately her cabin was on the wrong side of the ship, the side it was lying on!"
This time his interest is not in clocks but in the "rusticules" which are devouring the Britannic's sister-ship the Titanic. "It intrigues us, this bacterium which eats steel. You can probably predict when the Titanic is going to be dust, and in some areas it's estimated that 20-25 per cent of the steel has already been eaten up, but does it also happen at 120m?"
All these projected dives will form part of what was originally billed as Cousteau's "Deep Ocean Odyssey", though he is avoiding that name since the project went pear-shaped earlier this year.
"There's a bitterness there," he explains. "The gentleman who was backing Deep Ocean Odyssey pulled out because the stock market crashed.
"So we had to stop, although we had most of the equipment, had tested it in South Africa, had done an immense amount of research and had a lot of material from Rongaroa in French Polynesia and South Africa on the shelf. It was very difficult for me, because people were owed money."
His response was to propose to the ABC network in the States that it allow him to fill 24 hours of Sunday night primetime TV with a new underwater series from next September.
"It's not signed yet but we're very excited," he says. Unlike The Blue Planet, which Cousteau describes as "wonderful", he will steer clear of strict documentary. "We never did that, it was always people doing something - what they call today reality shows. My dad started that in the '60s, so it's nothing new for us."
Much of the expense will arise from hiring the Deep Rover and Deep Worker submersibles for prolonged spells in the deep oceans. Complicating the issue is Cousteau's vision of the series as a vehicle for youth, with young people piloting the craft. "I want them to learn and to be the daredevils instead of passengers. We can do that with Deep Worker, though with Deep Rover I don't think the organisation would allow it. We'll be there like voyeurs with our cameras, seeing how they stumble and support each other."
From Rongaroa, Cousteau has already obtained remarkable footage of reef sharks mating for the series, though it sounds a little gritty for America's Disney Hour. "At one point a male mated with a female in a very aggressive, nasty way. Finally he dropped her, all beaten up and bleeding, and swam away. She was totally zonked and sank to the bottom - and four or five other sharks came and tore her apart, destroyed her. It was very dramatic and hard to accept."
Jean-Michel Cousteau is always quick to rally to stricken marine creatures. Sometimes his efforts backfire, as recently when he endeavoured to release the star of Free Willy back into the wild, only to find that the last thing the ageing orca wanted was freedom.
But currently Cousteau is making noises about underwater noise - the naval practice of using low-frequency sonar to detect enemy submarines. "The French are doing it, the British are doing it, the only difference is that the US Navy got caught. Every time a whale's killed, and its inner ear is damaged and bleeding, they say: how could that happen?
"They always blame it on mid-range frequencies, but different species are sensitive to different frequencies. It doesn't matter whether it's low or mid-range, it's all the same. Conservative scientists say it's not proven. I hate that attitude. It should be the opposite - until it's proven that it doesn't hurt, we won't do it.
"The problem is a lot bigger. All these noises we are constantly dispersing in the ocean, for instance from boats or jetskis, are very confusing for a range of creatures that see, find food, find their way and find each other using sound. If you scramble their senses, they're lost.
"I'm not fighting the navy, but I want dialogue and there are very strong forces behind the navy which I would say they have no control over. I think good sense will prevail at some point."
Where you and I might fire off a letter of protest, Cousteau has bigger guns. "I hate to say no without offering an alternative, so we're looking at what else can be done for the navy to detect an enemy earlier than they can now!"
But Cousteau is also waging a more controversial campaign as part of the commitment to youth behind his Ocean Futures organisation. He wants to drive down the age at which kids start diving.
Training agencies such as PADI have already reduced the starting age for Open Water qualification to 10. "I think we can do better than that. I think children at eight start to have a sense of responsibility, a concern for danger and they listen better to their parents or their instructors. They have no fear, making it so easy to teach them."
But isn't lack of fear dangerous in itself? "I don't think so, provided that an instructor or responsible parent is present. Diving's not dangerous compared to a lot of activities, and flying airplanes and diving are the only two activities where you need certification.
"Divers are already pretty restricted and I'm glad we are in many ways, but we've also promoted danger, a sense of risk and the macho image, which has been extremely detrimental to the industry.
"Lately we're starting to see things changing. I would say to the diving industry chiefs, keep pushing it that way, making it friendly, promoting the ocean as an accessible place for the whole family.
"I took my son [Fabien] diving when he was four. My nephew Philippe has been diving since he was a kid. My brother started at four and a half.
"It's the lawyers and insurance companies who are saying no."
Jean-Michel then was a bit of a late starter - his dad didn't take him scuba-diving till he was a mature seven. But what if Jacques Cousteau had been an irresponsible parent, or instructor?
"But you have stupid people everywhere! It's one in a million, but it happens. The number of diving accidents is very few compared with sports like skiing, but we make a big deal of it because it's such a foreign world to most people."
So why stop at eight? Should there be any age limit? "None! It depends how well you take care of the child. We spend nine months in liquid, so we are prepared, but then we untrain ourselves later on. It is a controversial topic but I don't care because I know where it's going.
"The younger you expose people to the marine environment, the more they will assimilate like sponges. I don't know if they will be better divers, but they will be more aware and concerned people. And later on, when it's their turn to make decisions, they'll make better decisions. That's really what I'm after."
But Cousteau can't wait for this responsible new generation to mature - he wants to transform the trainers now. "I know many very good instructors who know absolutely nothing about the ocean. So you have great technicians who're selling a product they don't know. Certification agencies should introduce environmental awareness into the curriculum in a mandatory way, but nobody does it.
"We treat diving like driving a car. You get your driver's licence, and technically you know what to do, but it's where we go in the car that I care about."
He worries that divers are easy targets for the media. "Divers are the bad guys and that's very unfair. If we had a proper education we'd become effective ambassadors of the marine environment, the very thing we enjoy and should be protecting. When you've finished diving, you have to carry the message.
"The tendency of a diver is to ‘do mileage', instead of slowing down and watching what's going on. To maximise your investment in money and time, you should know what you're looking for and you'll enjoy your visit even more.
"We preach to watch, take pictures, don't touch, don't spearfish except for survival, but what do we get in exchange? Well, I get knowledge, I get to observe, I get to discover, I get to be wowed by things I never expected.
"As I have less and less time left in my life, so I'm more and more in a hurry." And perhaps why he looks increasingly to those who will come after him.