After falling prey to piracy, family feuds and financial crisis, the Cousteau clan sets sail on another adventure

Click to follow

The ship is different. The captain is different. The name is the same. For the first time since the death of Captain Jacques Cousteau six years ago, his organisation has managed to put together a voyage of underwater discovery of the kind that gripped television audiences all over the world in the 1970s and 1980s.

Cousteau's legendary ship, the Calypso, is rusting in La Rochelle harbour. Relations between his widow and the family from his first marriage remain glacial. But the Cousteau Society has managed to shake off a series of calamities ranging from a financial crisis to the murder by pirates of Cousteau's successor, and has sent an expedition to the Red Sea.

The society's new ship, the Alcyone, left Monaco with each crew member dressed in the white overalls and red, woollen bobble hat that were the marks of Captain Cousteau. The voyage will be under the command of Jean Jaubert, a professor of oceanography, and Cousteau's second wife, Francine, a former flight attendant.

Fifty years after Cousteau started his voyages of exploration with a trip to the same area, the aim is to study the giant fish species and coral reefs of the Red Sea. A book, an exhibition and a series of TV films on the voyage are planned by the end of next year or in 2005.

Francine Cousteau said: "We have been through a bad patch. We have had to trim our sails ... but we are determined to keep the Cousteau adventure going."

Two years ago there were reports in the French press that the Cousteau Society might be forced to close down, buffeted by financial problems and legal disputes within the Cousteau family over the rights to use the explorer's name. The new voyage follows a sponsorship deal with a Swiss watch company, IWS, and a court settlement in Miami, which gave his widow sole ownership of the Cousteau name as a trademark.

The wife, son and daughter of his younger son, Philippe, killed in 1979, won limited rights to use the Cousteau name for their website and for their Philippe Cousteau Foundation at Vero Beach in Florida.

Cousteau's older son, Jean-Michel, also runs an oceanographic foundation, dedicated to continuing his father's work. After his father's death in 1997, Jean-Michel protested against his stepmother's decision to place herself at the head of the Cousteau Society. "My stepmother was an Air France stewardess. I hardly think that she is the right person to carry on my father's work," he said at the time.

Francine Cousteau eventually appointed the New Zealand yachtsman and adventurer Sir Peter Blake as the society's head of explorations, but he was murdered by pirates off the South American coast two years ago.

There have also been family battles over the fate of the Calypso, the vessel used in Captain Cousteau's voyages for more than 40 years. The ship, once a British minesweeper, is rusting in the harbour at La Rochelle, on the west coast of France.

The Calypso sank in Singapore in 1996 and was expensively brought back to Marseilles in a floating dry-dock. After Cousteau's death, the ship was left to rot until June 1998, when it was towed to La Rochelle.

Francine Cousteau and Sir Peter Blake had persuaded Michel Crépeau, the mayor of La Rochelle, to take the ship into his maritime museum. M. Crépeau announced that the ship would become the centrepiece of an underwater exploration exhibition, entitled "From Captain Nemo to Commander Cousteau".

The mayor collapsed and died in the National Assembly a few days later and the new mayor abandoned the plan. Five years later, the Calypso's future remains in doubt.

Francine Cousteau said the Red Sea voyage had ecological as well as cinematic aims. The area's coral reefs were little known and under threat, she said.

"They are not only beautiful, they protect the coast and they contain useful substances. Coral reefs are the pharmacies of the oceans. We must learn not to destroy what could be useful to us in the future."

Comments