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The Aquanaut Next Door​​​​​
Filmmaker and philanthropist Fabien Cousteau explores the famed yet deeply endangered mangrove forests of Bimini, a tiny group of islands in the Bahamas

The grandson of explorer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau joins the family business with a lineup of ocean-saving projects that would make his late grandfather proud

abien Cousteau, the eldest grandchild of legendary ocean explorer and documentarian Jacques Cousteau, has roamed the oceans in the belly of a robotic shark and helped save populations of baby sea turtles on the beaches of El Salvador, yet he still remains largely in the shadow of his family’s patriarch. That should soon change, as the philanthropist and entrepreneur prepares to mobilize his charity organization’s ocean-replenishing efforts and film a documentary about living underwater. First, however, he has to tell the world who he is.

Still boyish at age 45, with windswept brown hair and piercing blue eyes, Cousteau lives at the edge of New York Harbor in downtown Brooklyn with his girlfriend and a German shepherd mix. His home life is a fairly quiet one: He spends his days working at the official headquarters of his nonprofit, Plant a Fish, which was founded in 2010, and in the strategy room for Mission 31, a forthcoming project involving underwater living and lots of cameras.

Cousteau dives off the coast of Bimini—with a shark alongside him

 

It wasn’t always thus. Though he admits he was not always the most focused student, Cousteau earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental economics from Boston University and a master’s in international business and marketing from New York University. As a young adult, he worked for companies as varied as a graphic design firm, a luxury textile business and sustainable-products company Seventh Generation. Although clearly interested in environmental studies, Cousteau nonetheless avoided his grandfather’s path early in his career.

This experience outside the family line of work instilled in him a business mentality that stands out from that of typical conservation programs. He speaks of his efforts as working to improve a “natural resource bank account” and improving human lives rather than just saving endangered species. “A lot of nonprofits think in very philosophical and overcomplicated ways. As a result, many nonprofits are not run like a business, and some fail due to inefficiencies,” Cousteau says. “The Cousteau Society was no exception. The difference was that my grandfather was at the head of it and could solicit support in a way that very few others could.”

 
 
 
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Fabien Cousteau’s grandfather Jacques Cousteau spent 30 days living underwater to produce his Oscar-winning documentary, World Without Sun
 

rmed with that practical outlook, Fabien Cousteau finally drifted back to his family’s work with the oceans, just as rainwater eventually reaches the sea again. “I always had the idea of going back into the family business,” he says. “First, however, it was about wanting to make my own way and show that I could survive on my own, that sort of thing. I always felt the trajectory was always going back that way.” In 2006, he spearheaded a documentary called Shark: Mind of a Demon, in which he prowled the oceans inside a shark-shaped submarine called Troy.

And three years ago, Cousteau founded Plant a Fish, an organization that mobilizes volunteers to “replant” depleted coastal populations of plants, fish and shellfish. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, that goal felt even more prescient. Cousteau hopes that newly restored oyster populations off the coasts of Manhattan and Brooklyn—created by installing underwater sculptures seeded with baby oysters that will one day form the base of reef systems—will help improve water quality and act as a buffer against storm surges like those that caused so much damage in October 2012. The plan is to mobilize volunteers in the near future to start the process. Though the reefs may not develop fully for some time, Cousteau remains patient and optimistic.

“I always had the idea of going back into the family business,” Cousteau says. “First, however, it was about wanting to make my own way and show that I could survive on my own.”

Also on the docket and far more high-tech is the filmmaker’s production of a movie about Mission 31, a Truman Show–like experience in which Cousteau will spend 31 days living underwater at a research base owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that is stationed off Florida’s Key Largo. The mission begins in the fall of 2013.

Though in large part an homage to his grandfather, who spent 30 days living below the sea and used his experience there as the basis for his Academy Award–winning film World Without Sun, Mission 31 will also fulfill Fabien Cousteau’s dreams of exploration and education.

 
 
 
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Cousteau’s deep-sea-diving vessel for Mission 31 is warm and cozy on the inside (first slide) but appears cold and forbidding on the outside
 

“I’ve always wanted to be Aquaman,” he says. “Maybe, more importantly than that, I always found it fascinating that we know so little about our oceans. Being a diver from such a young age, thanks to my grandfather’s invention”—Jacques Cousteau co-created the aqualung, an underwater breathing device, which helped Fabien Cousteau take his first dive at age 4—“one of the things that’s most frustrating is you’re only a temporary visitor, not a resident, and that limits how you can learn, observe, explore, all those things.”

So that all may learn and explore by proxy, Mission 31’s film content will be produced for IMAX theaters, and celebrities, such as Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, will join him for underwater visits. In addition, hip-hop star will.i.am is planning to sponsor 12 high school students to take diving lessons so they can visit the research station. Such a well-publicized event could have the potential of introducing Cousteau and his family legacy to an entirely new generation.

Children in El Salvador, where Cousteau has worked for years to restore sea turtle populations, join the explorer on the beach

 

Cousteau says his primary goal is to share his findings on the effects of living beneath the ocean and the effect climate change has on our planet’s largest but least known habitats.

Of course, Cousteau isn’t above a little jest on behalf of his family name—or his lofty goals. He is open to playing into pop culture by referencing The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Wes Anderson’s 2004 quasi-satirical cult film, which paints the Jacques Cousteau–like Zissou character, played by Bill Murray, as a comically eccentric and tortured obsessive. (Fabien Cousteau says he found the film entertaining.)

“I do have a Team Zissou T-shirt,” he says, “and I may even wear it on Mission 31 if Bill Murray comes down for a dive.”

Mr. Murray, consider that your official invitation.

 

CAROLINE MCCARTHY has worked for CNET, CBS and Google, among other companies. She lives in Brooklyn.

  • Photo courtesy of Carrie Vonderhaar (2)
  • All photos courtesy of the Everett Collection
  • Courtesy of Mission 31
  • Courtesy of DJ Roller
  • Photo courtesy of Carrie Vonderhaar
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