Dispatches, August 1998
"We always said that we would be looking at the man, warts and all," declares John Farren, director of a controversial BBC documentary about the late Jacques Cousteau. If that was Farren's goal, he succeeded in spades. The report, which aired on British television in May, is a generally flattering portrait of an extraordinary pioneer-but it also offers up some scathing allegations that the legendary French explorer, who dedicated his life to unraveling the mysteries of the sea, harbored a few secrets of his own. Namely, that key scenes in some of Cousteau's most famous films were egregious acts of fakery.
The alleged subterfuge involved more than, say, moving a starfish to gain a better camera angle. In one case, a former Cousteau diver claims, footage of an octopus scrambling out of a tank aboard Calypso was obtained by dumping bleach into its container. Another diver says he was required to simulate a case of the bends for the cameras. And in the most damaging accusation, a crew member says that a scene depicting a charming pair of captured sea lions being released back to the ocean, purportedly unharmed, was based on a lie. The footage actually depicts two understudies; the first two animals, which had been kept out of the water too long, had already died.
The accusations come at a difficult time for the famously tight-lipped Cousteau Society, now headed by the mariner's widow, Francine. While struggling to protect Cousteau's sanctified image in the face of disputes over the use of his name and his legacy, the Society has been at somewhat of a loss to craft a credible response to the documentary. "The [BBC] producers are attacking the man after he's gone," exclaims spokesman Marty Bergman. "They're a bunch of cowards!" Conceding, however, that he cannot disprove the allegations, Bergman then switches gears. "OK, let's assume it's true. To judge a man's 50-year career on a few incidents is unfair. The importance of what he did for our awareness of marine life just can't be underestimated."
Dismaying as the allegations are, Bergman's point echoes the sentiments of some leading oceanographers. "Passing something off as a representation of truth is an unfortunate lapse of judgment," says Elliott A. Norse, president of the prestigious Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Redmond, Washington. "But I would hope that anybody who would judge Captain Cousteau would look at this in the context of what he was trying to do. He was a pioneer, and he wanted to bring the miracle of life in the sea to a larger audience. I still thank him for that."