Jacques-Yves Cousteau, a 20th-century Neptune to countless TV viewers, has brought more people "down to the sea in ships" than all the naval captains of history. When the subject is the sea, not even Walter Cronkite summons more goodwill or engenders more trust in the popular imagination than Captain Cousteau.

Cousteau plans to tap this reservoir of goodwill by shifting the emphasis of his message about "our water planet, our home." For the rest of this century the delight of discovery must share equally with a concern and alarm about pollution , about a planet more fragile than ever before realized, and ultimately about the survival of man.

Cousteau's global research aboard his beloved vessel Calypso has given a universal scope to man's desire to explore the oceans. He has produced over 50 films for television and three full-length theatrical feature films. And in 1974 he founded the Cousteau Society, an educational organization dedicated to the protection and improvement of life.

His love for the sea was well established when he graduated from the French Naval Academy in 1932. He took part in numerous campaigns in the Far East and served as chief of the French naval base in Shanghai in 1935. In 1936 he began experimenting with various prototypes of underwater breathing apparatus in an attempt to realize his dream of freely exploring the sea. Then in 1943, Cousteau and Emile Gagna developed the Aqua-lung and the possibility of exploring the sea became a reality.

His researches didn't end there. With Andre Laban, Cousteau went on to perfect the first underwater TV camera equipment. This was followed in 1959 by another engineering collaboration, the Diving Saucer. The revolutionary saucer allowed deep-sea viewing at heretofore unimagined depths.

Despite his momentary setting in a Manhattan skyscraper here, Captain Cousteau has the manner of a man used to commanding a ship. In a wide-reaching Monitor inscraper here, Captain Cousteau has the manner of a man used to commanding a ship. In a wide-reaching Monitor interview he spoke slowly and thoughtfully, exploring a variety of topics.

"I want to make something very clear," he begins. "Most of the people today are talking about survival. And they are looking for the ocean as a kind of parachute. They are looking to the ocean as something as a last resource in the case of nuclear war -- can we escape into the sea? For resources, can the sea feed a hungry world? [People are] looking to the sea for minerals, sometimes for strategic reasons. Also, because the mineral resources are finite, they are not unlimited. They are looking to the sea for energy, mainly at the moment for offshore drilling for oil. All of this is based on the fact that we have to survive, we have to survive.

"The goal of society is not survival. The goal of society is quality life. We are fighting not for survival but for quality of life.For happiness. People can only be happy if they marvel at nature, if they marvel at creation, if they marvel at what surrounds them. If they love it, if they protect it, if they extend into other people's jobs and in other animals' lives and in other planets. An extension of mind, an extension of everything. . . ."

As to what constitutes one of the major dangers to the oceans in the next decade, Cousteau sees "dumping in the ocean of any nondegradable toxic wastes. Every time an action has a risk to produce irreversible damage, the answer [ should be] no. It's very simple. You want to do something. Does it harm any piece of the environment irreversibly? If it does, no." That doesn't mean you have to cancel such a project, though, just "modify it in order not to destroy anything irreversibly," he says.

"We have no right to put this product in contact with the water system. It is assassination of future generations. It's a delayed genocide. And we don't have the right to do that."

Another concern is the safety of maritime traffic. Citing the more than a million tons of shipping that sinks every year, Cousteau calls for upgrading port entry and crew professional standards.

The global nature of maritime trade allows shipping companies, foreign and domestic, to register their ships in smaller countries where the regulations and crew standards are least restrictive. But what is least restrictive in economic terms may be the worst possible situation for the ocean environment.

Ironically, Cousteau points out, these "flag" of convenience" registrations -- Panamanian, Liberian, or whatever -- have not been fully analyzed for their economic effect. They may be havens for ship operators seeking lower taxes and cheap labor costs from developed nations. But they put US seamen out of work, and US taxpayers make up the difference in unemployment and other such social costs.

The freedom of access for research on the oceans must be guaranteed. It is one of the issues of the recently suspended Law of the Sea conference.

"But the developing countries often have a point," he says. "They don't make the difference, for example, between an oil exploration ship and a geophysical scientific team. As soon as they hear the word 'geophysics' they associate it with oil. And they are afraid that these expeditions will take advantage of them and not publish the results, and keep them for private use.

"With Calypso we don't have that problem, because they know that we automatically take on board scientists from that country, and they have access to everything, and we publish everything."

Captain Cousteau's intense interest in everything relating to the seas includes the Law of the Sea conference.

Signing of the draft treaty has been delayed by the Reagan administration, which wants to throughly review the treaty. This caused an uproar among the other nations that had worked for eight years to hammer out the agreement. America's reluctance to sign is tied, in part, to the mining of mineral-laden nodules from the ocean floor. The treaty sets limits on mining and requires that a proportion of the profits be shared with the developing nations.

Suprisingly, Cousteau welcomes the suspension. He sees it as an opportunity to refine, enhance, and educate world opinion on just what is at stake.

Of the numerous environmental groups in the United States, it is only the Cousteau Society and Captain Cousteua himself who have been invited to the Reagan White House to discuss the Law of the Sea conference, environmental issues, and armaments at sea.

The treaty grant all coastal and island nations "Exclusive Economic Zones" that extend their territorial boundaries by 200 miles, to the point where one-third of the world's oceans will be treated as if they were land. Nearly all significant oil deposits and most of the world's major fisheries are estimated to be in this third of the ocean.Cousteau wonders if the living, moving sea will now inherit the failed vision his tory rerords of nations with their endless, possessive boundary disputes, rather than the possibility of an open and dynamic interrelationship among men.

"Bordering countries are grasping a piece of ocean as if it was a territory -- it isn't. It's moving. So to start with, we are attempting to do something that doesn't exist. It is not a territorial expansion.

"What we are trying to do, but we have very little hope to change through governments, is to use the delay in signing the treaty to slighly modify the concept of exclusive economic zones into zones of responsibility. But in order to do that we would have to create a world ocean authority. Not only for the open ocean, but also for the continental shelves.

"This world ocean authority could set global rules of management of the ocean accepted by every nation. And then every coastal nation would be responsible to implement these rules in the so-called economic zones. That's a dream that we're trying."

For Cousteau, regulation of the coastal zones is much more critical to the health of the seas than the concern "to solve the deep-sea problem. We must solve the better management of the coastal zones."

He points to the decline in world fisheries. Just as modern research can tell us more and more of the habits of migratory fish, so it can commercially exploit this knowledge, so that now everyone is catching less. Just roping off a sea zone is a stopgap measure. "Only with some type of international regulation can fish stocks be replenished and brought into balance."

Cousteau's vision of a world authority is not an unrealistic dream. A man who fought in the French Resistance in World War II and took part in the demining operations of various French ports after the war would not be so naive.

One strategy Captain Cousteau hopes will succeed in bringing about an international governing body on the seas is the sharing of leadership outside the dominant Western countries.

"In the meetings of the Law of the Sea conference, the undeveloped countries have a majority. And they are very suspicious of any initiative coming from developed countries. So I think our best bet is Mexico [for a country like it] as a leader in this field. And I talked to President Lopez Portillo about that.

Does the present Reagan administration attitute toward the Law of the Sea conference parallel the US Senate's rejection of the League of National after World War I? Cousteau's answer to this question reflects his pragmatic optimism:

"I'm very skeptical about that. I talked about that with President Reagan and with President Lopez Portillo already. And I'm going to talk to President Mitterrand soon. And I have touched the subject with [Chancellor] Schmidt of Germany.

"At the moment the only difficulty is a false difficulty. The difficulties arise when the nations talk about the exploitation of minerals in the deep ocean , which means outside of the economic zones.

"I see nothing wrong about dredging nodules from the bottom of the ocean. But it is not economical at the moment. It is only justified for strategic reasons in the US and in France and Japan -- three countries that have already invested a lot in this field -- because they understand that some of the minerals are in short supply."

Educating the world about the importance of the Law of the Sea is just another part of Cousteau's life work of showing the world the value and fragility of the oceans.

Any human interference in an ecosystem as complex and delicate as the ocean's brings about consequences that will be extremely difficult to control. This fact is known, is a given, thanks largely to "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau."

It is with a degree of pride and a still greater sense of the task yet ahead that Captain Cousteau says, "The main success we can be proud of is the awakening of the awareness of the people at large about these problems. Five years ago we couldn't talk the way we talk today. And that is the proof that our television series has awakened some awareness in the people. So that's the thing we are most proud of. Then the rest is peanuts."

But "peanuts" for Jacques Cousteau stems only from the distance between his actual accomplishments and the scope of his desire to extend humankind's vision of life, a vision as wide as the oceanic world he loves.

"What we want is the entire population of the earth to have a fulfilling, interesting life. One of the things that provides this quality of life is the variety of life itself. Today most of the kids that grow up in cities like New York have never seen a wild animal. They don't even know what it is. And that's something, a thought that really makes me shudder.

"They have to fall in love with these things in order to protect them and keep them as an asset, an incomparable asset. To own it, and to extend the scope of their life."

As part of its educational activities the Cousteau Society has produced filmstrip, educational films,and printed material, and made them available on a worldwid basis. Recently, Cousteau signed a contract with Turner Cablevision for distritubion rights to two 90-minute Cousteau film productions. Options for six more over the next three years were also negotiated for the 90,000-plus Turner cable subscribers.

Since schools, in the developed countries at least, will eventually be wired to those cable systems, Cousteau plans to be at the head of the class.

"I'll tell you why we went to the Turner deal, because we think that television will go through a revolution anyway. And usually we always have been pioneers. We don't want to stay behind. And maybe our move to cable was a little premature. It's better to do it now than later. And I think it will help, yes. then satellite television throughout the world will also be a great help. And it's on the way now. So we are watching this development also.

"As everybody knows, television is tool No. 1 to plant seeds. But television is not enough to teach. After television you have to have the books, and the museums and the exhibits and the teachers. So we know that. How can we do it? We know how to produce the televison films. We know how to produce the educational material. We do not have yet the scope to research all the countries yet. We will try and will endeavor to do so in the future."

Another tool the Cousteau Society just completed is "The Cousteau Alamanac: An inventory of Life on Our Water Planet" (New York: Doubleday. $15.95).

About its major role in environmental education, Cousteau says, "We are proud to have contributed to the Mediterranean Action Plan." This is a program sponsored by the UN and designed to bring together all of the nations bordering the Mediterranean to study its health, to clean it, and to protect it from major pollutant sources.

As secretary-general of the Mediterranean Commission, Cousteau hopes to have the UN undertake the same intensive study of the Caribbean as was done in the Mediterranean. "The Caribbean provides an enormous effort for education on what has to be done."

Allowing himself some individual praise, he says, "Another thing that I am personally proud about is that I have stopped the French government from dumping nuclear waste in the Mediterranean. That's already some years ago, but it was one of the very rare victories against the nuclear lobby."

In still another effort to protect and improve the environment Cousteau, through the Cousteau Society, is launching a new intellectual discipline: Ecotech. It is central to the society's concern about the future of man. Not in final draft form, but well beyond developmental stages, it entails what many of Cousteau's closest associates believe will be his final gift for guaranteeing the quality of life for his fellowman.

Under the conceptual inspiration of Ecothech, one of the main objectives of the Cousteau Society is to reconcile ecology with science, economics, and Technology.

"Ecology and economy, considered todays as fierce enemies, are by nature brothers," Cousteau says in his disarming but forceful way. "Both sciences have the same duty: the art of harmoniously managing our household, the water planet Earth. Both can do little without the help or technology, and technology goes wild without economical and ecological controls."

Ecotech hopes to wed the disparate interests of society's competing claims on the world oceans, so that a nation's merchant marine industry can agree with its labor unions, and the major oil corporations can agree with the Audubon Society.

Ecotech is really a new triangular science which will, it is hoped, "find antidotes to most of the problems inherent in development and progress," Cousteau says.

For the Cousteau Society, the first steps to carry out this concept the lie in creating worldwide professorial chairs of Ecotech in leading universities.

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