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Focus : The Time of the Not-So-Ancient Mariner : JACQUES-YVES COUSTEAU REFLECTS ON SIX DECADES PLUMBING THE HIGH SEAS

November 05, 1995|JON MATSUMOTO | Jon Matsumoto is a frequent contributor to TV Times and Calendar

"When I was a child my mother read me a book which was about curiosity," Jacques-Yves Cousteau recalls. "That type of curiosity has inspired my whole life."

Just where Cousteau's curiosity has led him--and what that journey has opened our eyes and minds to--is the subject of "Jacques-Yves Cousteau: My First 85 Years." His two-hour film autobiography premieres Sunday on TBS.

The word retirement doesn't appear to be a part of the pioneering underwater filmmaker-inventor-environmentalist's vocabulary. After spending six decades bringing marine life and the natural world vibrantly alive through films, television specials and books, he still spends long days working at his Cousteau Society headquarters in Paris, where he is currently producing environmental films about South Africa and China.

"I can't wait to join the expedition I just sent to China," Cousteau says enthusiastically over the phone.

The indefatigable 85-year-old oceanic explorer still dons scuba gear when the water proves amenable. "At my age I don't go diving in ice-cold water anymore," he says with a good-natured laugh. "But if the water is warm or lukewarm then, yes, I go with pleasure!"

Making "My First 85 Years" posed a creative challenge for Cousteau. He didn't want to present a standard film autobiography that would simply highlight his life chronologically. Instead, he decided to divide the film into 10 segments all having to do with the theme of imagination. One section encompasses the idea of curiosity and the important role that trait played in his life.

Another segment explains how the oil crisis of the '70s motivated him to develop the Alcyone, a wind-powered ship using two Turbosails for propulsion. The Turbosails are thin towers that use the wind to propel the ship while also acting as rudders. Currently, Cousteau is in the process of building Calypso II using the same technology to replace the original Calypso, the converted World War II-era minesweeper the captain has piloted on his many research expeditions.

"My First 85 Years" will not only feature familiar scenes from some of his films, but also previously unreleased footage from his travels.

Cousteau says his fascination with the sea began when he was just 5 years old.

"I was like a sponge when I was a boy," says Cousteau, who annually ranks as one of the most popular figures in France in national polls. "At the age of 11 I created at school a film production company. I acquired a small 9.5 mm camera and I started making films. [Eventually] I began to film underwater with very simple equipment. Then slowly I perfected them."

In 1936, Cousteau developed the first waterproof housing for movie cameras. While serving in the French navy in 1943, he also invented the Aqua-Lung, which allows divers to remain under water for extended periods. Then in the 1950s he co-created photo equipment that made it possible for film to be shot on the ocean's floor by remote control.

Cousteau and his team of explorers have produced dozens of books and more than 80 documentaries seen theatrically and on television--offering unforgettable images of monstrous-looking deep-sea fish and intrepid divers swimming with sharks. Three of his films have won Academy Awards. Several Cousteau films have underscored humankind's disregard for the environment, including the TBS-produced documentary "Amazon: River of the Future" which offers compelling and disturbing scenes of the Amazon rain forest being shredded by men and machines.

However, Cousteau acknowledges that he wasn't always imbued with an environmental consciousness.

"The beginning of my life was mostly exploration," he says. "I was curious to see what was under the surface of the sea and couldn't care less about the environment. I didn't even know what it was. I never heard that word in the 1950s. But after a few years I found that the marvelous things that I had discovered were beginning to suffer from overfishing, pollution, dynamite fishing, a lot of things we were doing after the war. My friends and I became enraged and decided that we had to do something about it. That is what started us in the ecology movement."

Cousteau believes one of the greatest threats to the survival of humankind is overpopulation, pointing out that in 50 years the population of the Earth will almost double from its current 5.6 billion mark. This will further stretch the world's limited natural resources and lead to possibly catastrophic societal and environmental consequences, he says. Cousteau believes that countries, especially those in the more prosperous West, need to start looking at the future in more global terms.

"The West is the richest part of the world, yet it is not prepared to share," he laments. "I can't understand this."

"Jacques-Yves Cousteau: My First 85 Years" airs Sunday at 6 p.m. and repeats Monday at 10:05 a.m.; Saturday at 7:05 a.m. and Nov. 13 at 12:05 a.m.

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