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Los Angeles Times Interview : Jacques Cousteau : A Lifetime Spent Fighting for the Environment

October 01, 1995|Scott Kraft | Scott Kraft is Paris bureau chief for The Times. He interviewed Jacques Cousteau in the oceanographer's Paris office

PARIS — Jacques Cousteau had risen at 4 a.m. to polish a speech and then spent the day in the editing room, working on yet another documentary. It was after sunset when the 85-year-old French oceanographer emerged, but the night was young.

"The day rarely ends before 11 p.m.," he said. "I have a dinner tonight at 9:30 until I-don't-know-when with the director-general of UNESCO."

After more than six decades of traveling, diving, writing and producing films, Cousteau, as his scheduled suggests, still has plenty of energy left for a good fight. And that is bad news for the French government.

Since June, when President Jacques Chirac decided to resume nuclear-weapons tests in the South Pacific, Cousteau has become a vocal critic, calling the tests "an unavowed menace to future generations." A few days ago, he and other members of a presidential advisory group, the French Council for the Rights of Future Generations, abruptly resigned, en masse, in protest.

Of course, the French government faces worldwide protests. But criticism from the slender, gray-haired Jacques-Yves Cousteau carries great weight here. For years now, opinion polls have ranked him among the most-respected French figures, second only to Abbe Pierre, another octogenarian who is an advocate for the homeless.

Now known worldwide, Cousteau was born to an internationally minded family near Bordeaux. "My father was an international lawyer; my mother was a saint," he says. Some of his fondest early memories were of attending summer camp in Vermont.

Cousteau first made his international mark in 1943, when he invented the aqualung, which allows divers to move freely underwater for long periods. Beginning in 1951, he explored the oceans with Calypso, his research ship, and wrote many books on underwater exploration, including "The Silent World," in 1953, and "The Living Sea," in 1962. He made numerous visits to Los Angeles to learn the filmmaking trade, and three of his documentaries on sea life have won Academy Awards.

He still travels widely and is working on an autobiographical film and, at the same time, a movie on the ecological situation in South Africa. He walks more slowly these days, though he spends long hours in an office filled with diving memorabilia at the Paris headquarters of the Cousteau Society, a private organization.

He has a 58-year-old son from his first marriage, and two teen-age children from his second to Francine, a former airline executive who runs the Cousteau Society's daily affairs. They met while diving in the Gulf of Mexico and have been together 19 years.

Cousteau's battle with the French government isn't his first. In 1960, Cousteau and Prince Ranier of Monaco opposed France's plan to dump radioactive wastes into the Mediterranean Sea, eventually forcing France to abandon the plan.

This season's battle, though, is tougher. Chirac shows no signs of calling off the tests and, so far, he has declined to meet Cousteau and others on the presidential advisory council. But, as Cousteau put it, "He can't avoid us forever."


Question: Let's begin with the hot political issue of the moment. What is your opinion of President Jacques Chirac's decision to resume nuclear tests?

Answer: I would have been surprised if you hadn't asked me that. I'm not a nuclear specialist, but I know what I'm talking about. I was one of the directors of the Marine Radioactivity Laboratory of the International Atomic Energy Agency for 25 years. We measured the radioactive fallout from the atmospheric tests done by the Russians and Americans during 1972-1973, and so there I got quite an experience.

When France began its tests in Mururoa, I was worried and wanted to know the truth. In 1988, I got permission from the French government--and I was the only one to get it--to take Calypso, my ship, to Mururoa, with our specialists, to make a film. We took samples of air, water, sediment and plankton before, during and after a test, and measured the samples back in my lab.

We found that the underground test did not measurably increase the radioactivity in the volcanic rock. The coral ridge had fissures from the explosions but no radioactivity.

However, I asked the head of the French atomic-research bureau why we needed to do these tests. And, of course, the answers were very bad.

I have all my life been against atomic bombs and for complete nuclear disarmament. I have never approved of these tests, because they can only mean improving bombs that are meant to kill more people if you use them. There is no question about that.

Q: Were you surprised by Chirac's decision?

A: Chirac was a remarkable mayor of Paris. He is a very charming, very warm person, and I like him. When he was mayor, he married my wife and I. So we have a relationship. And when he was elected, I was rather pleased. I didn't care whether he was right or left, because I have no politics. But what was important for me was that he was a good man.

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