Jean-Michael Cousteau on Killer Whales

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Amos Nachoum / Corbis

Son of the legendary Jacques Cousteau, oceanographer Jean-Michel has followed in his father's footsteps. Call of the Killer Whale, the latest entry in his environmental series Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures airs Earth Day, April 22, on PBS. Cousteau spoke to TIME about orcas, building cities underwater and dealing with his very famous last name. (Read "Will Killing Whales Save the World's Fisheries?.")

Your documentary gives the impression that killer whales are cuddly, social creatures. Have they gotten a bad rap over the years? People seem to equate them with great white sharks. (See pictures of a closer look at sharks.)

Well, fortunately, I don't think that misconception has led people to do the same thing with killer whales that they do with sharks. They don't go out just to kill them. There are a lot of people who kill sharks for this huge shark fin industry. There's between a hundred million and two hundred million sharks that have been slaughtered for their fins while the carcasses of the bleeding sharks are dumped overboard. We're really very poor managers of our environment. (See the top animal stories of the past year.)

Do you think that having the word killer in its name predisposes people to see them as frightening? As you show in your documentary, they are quite like humans.

There's a lot of comparison with the human species. They are the dominant species on the ocean, just like we are the dominant species on land. They also occupy the entire ocean — 71 percent of the planet, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, which is unusual for a marine mammal. It's a very sophisticated species. But they are called killer whales because they do kill whales.

What do you want people to walk away from having watched this documentary with?

The message is the fact that we are using the ocean as a garbage can by dumping things we don't see — such as chemicals and heavy metals — into the environment. Orcas are having problems coping with these toxins, and it all comes back to harm us — including in the food that we harvest from the ocean. So in the end, let's be very selfish. It's not the issue of saving fish and marine mammals, it's about saving ourselves.

A large part of your documentary shows the work you did trying to free Keiko, the star of Free Willy, who was ironically trapped in a Mexican Sea World for much of his life. How did you get involved with what is arguably the most famous orca ever?

Only Hollywood would call him Willy. The owner of Keiko realized that he was going to die, because he was underweight, he had a skin disease, he was eating frozen fish in an artificial saltwater tank at high altitude, breathing the most polluted air on the planet in Mexico City. So they gave him away. They were not ocean people, and they asked us if we wanted to help them. I ended up on the board of the Free Willy-Keiko foundation. And we ended up doing everything.

We moved him to a new tank in Newport, Oregon, and for two years we made him gain a ton of weight, got rid of his skin disease, trained him to catch live fish, and gave him exercise. We got him used to real saltwater. And then when he was ready, we put him on the plane and flew him to Iceland, where he had been captured when he was two years old. There, little by little, we adapted him to being in his natural environment. On the 5th of July, 2002 — I was there — he decided to say goodbye. Our mission was accomplished.

You studied architecture in school. Was that ever going to be a viable option for you, or was it always a foregone conclusion that you would become an oceanographer?

The reason I went into architecture is because I wanted to build cities underwater. That was my obsession as a teenager.

You mean actual cities where people could live?

That's right. So I went to get my license as an architect, which I still have, and then I went to a shipyard, and learned about ship construction. With these two disciplines, I was ready to do marine architecture. I'm still waiting for my first client. I don't think that's going to happen, though. We're land creatures. But if I had my choice, I would never come to land.

You got into the ocean business under your father Jacques. And now you've gotten your children involved. Were they ever resistant?

You have to realize that when I was a kid, my father was unknown. It's only when I turned 18 that I really realized, "Wow, my dad's a big shot." My children grew up with a famous name, so it was tough for them. I never tried to push them in any direction other than what they wanted to do. So they both went their own merry way. My daughter has a Masters in psychology and my son went into environmental economics. After proving to themselves that they could do other things, they knocked on the door and said we'd love to be part of the expedition.

At a certain point, you realized that you could not escape your last name. Did you ever want to have a different last name?

No, never. Never. I've always felt extremely privileged because the name has opened doors. So, no. It's not easy. It doesn't come without any liabilites, but that's not the point. Overall, it's a plus, plus, plus.

When George W. Bush was president, he saw one of your documentaries, which resulted in the establishment of the largest marine wildlife reserve in the world. But he wasn't necessarily known as a person particularly concerned about nature. Have you had any conversations with anyone in the Obama administration yet about such matters?

You know they just showed up. As far as the president is concerned, he's pretty busy right now. So I'm going to give him another five months and then I'm going to knock on his door. But I've already spoken to people like the new head of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), who is a marine scientist. So, hooray!

Having watched your documentaries, I'm sorta sad because I don't know how to swim. Am I missing out on something?

Yeah, you're missing out on a lot. If you physically can learn how to swim, you should start learning. Then little by little maybe you want to experience the third dimension and scuba dive. You're weightless, which everyone dreams about. When you're a little kid, you look up, you don't look down. You look at the stars, the sun, and the moon, and you want to go there, you want to take off. Well you can't. So, go diving.

See the special report on saving the world's endangered species.

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