First, there was a faint dot in the sky above the blue water and the stark, lunar land. It was Capt. Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s seaplane.

As the single-engine craft drew closer, those at the camp could make out the silhouetted heads of the pilot and his famous passenger. Finally, the plane eased from the sky. Its pontoons skipped along the calm water, coming to a bobbing halt. When it was at least 100 yards from shore, those on land spotted instantly the lanky figure that stood firmly on one of the plane’s pontoons.

“This is a dream come true for me,” a newspaper photographer on the shore commented to a member of the Cousteau team.

“For me too,” he answered.


Few of us ever have the chance to meet a legend.

In an era when mere celebrity too often passes for accomplishment, Jacques Cousteau, the film maker, author, inventor, environmentalist, TV and movie star, adventurer, entrepreneur, scholar, self-described “impresario of science” qualifies as a genuine hero to a generation that has traveled around the world with him on TV for 32 years.

His public self, carefully created through more than 80 films and TV specials, has taken on the proportions of a 20th-Century myth, full of action and contemplation, Life and Death, Good and Evil, Love and Despair.

His private self? That’s his business, but he does give visitors a few clues.


Now making what could be his last series of specials, Cousteau, who turned 76 on Wednesday, has risen from the ocean floor to chronicle the murder of the Earth. His new five-year, 20-hour series, with its typically grandiose title of “Cousteau’s Rediscovery of the World,” examines some of the ecological disasters that humans have wrought and that, Cousteau believes, signal the beginning of the end for life on this planet.

“This series has little to do with the behavior of animals,” Cousteau said in an interview, “and everything to do with the behavior of people.”

The scene: A rare opportunity for a few reporters to spend a weekend on location with the crew of Alcyone, the Cousteau Society’s new wind-assisted research ship plying the waters this summer of the Sea of Cortez. The captain flew in from Paris just for the occasion.

The purpose: public relations; good press for Cousteau’s “Rediscovery” series bankrolled to the tune of $15 million by television magnate Ted Turner. The series’ first program, “Haiti: Waters of Sorrow,” debuted on Turner’s WTBS Atlanta superstation during the Memorial Day weekend. This one won’t be seen until 1987.


The second show in the series, an as-yet untitled program on Cuba, is scheduled for September.

Following Cousteau’s recent pattern--established in his studies of the Amazon and Mississippi River basins--less than a third of the “Haiti” program was composed of his once-standard undersea shots punctuated by mock heroism in the face of the unknown dangers of the deep. Cousteau, instead, attempts to link the religious, social and economic pressures of Haiti with its overwhelming ecological problems of deforestation, water pollution and overfishing.

True to form, however, Cousteau himself is the camera’s focus. His presence on the screen and in the narration elevates the often mundane, sometimes trite images to the level of personal essay.

“We do not make documentary,” he said later in his sometimes broken English at dinner in nearby Loreto. “We make adventure films describing nature as a personal adventure. That’s why we are still on the air, and some very good documentaries are not.”


The series will take Cousteau’s crews around the world on the Alcyone and the more famous research ship Calypso. In addition to Haiti, film has already been shot in Cuba and elsewhere in the Carribean as well as Cape Horn at the tip of South America. Cousteau’s teams will examine long-term effects of atomic bomb tests in the South Pacific. Their itinerary also calls for stops in New Zealand, Australia, China and Africa.

Cousteau has not dived in the Sea of Cortez since 1978, and he will not dive on this expedition until he returns later this month. An injury years ago to his inner ear requires that Cousteau spend days acclimating himself to diving.

There was no time for that this trip. This visit, the captain was part of the scenery, here to provide the fawning reporters with an exotic dateline, to have his picture shot in a hundred post-card poses and to swat the reporters’ lobs of softball questions like Reggie Jackson in batting practice with the Little League.

“I don’t socialize very often,” Cousteau said. “I live in my ivory tower. Nobody ever sees me. When I appear, of course, it’s rare. . . . What is rare is expensive.”


He tossed off one-liners certain to fill the yawning white space of newspapers across the country.

“Monsieur Cousteau,” one reporter asked, “what’s the most wondrous thing you have ever seen?”

“The sunrise,” he answered.

In addition, the reporters learned that: Cousteau disdains California red wines but finds the whites passable; he’s a flirt who likes to chat up and charm young women; he thinks politics is for the birds; he is shooting some of his expeditions in half-inch video instead of 35-millimeter film now that he thinks videotape quality is adequate for TV broadcasts; the good thing about using Turner’s money is that sportsman and admirer Turner, unlike ABC or PBS, hands over the dough and then pretty much leaves Cousteau alone to shoot what he wishes; he thinks Cuba takes better care of its local waters than any other country; the Soviet Union is the worst; raising the money to carry on his work is a constant irritant; he is undisturbed that his invention of the Aqua-Lung, which opened the frontier of the undersea in 1943, probably has done more to help humans destroy the world’s oceans than to preserve them.


Beyond the easily answered questions, however, the reporters got a glimpse inside the heart of the captain, a romantic figure of tragic proportion. He does not seem to fight to preserve nature so much as his films would have us believe, but, instead, to ache, genuinely, over the destruction of the world, at the folly of humanity.

“If you begin to believe in yourself, you’re sentenced to become a joke,” he said. “We’re nothing, none of us.”

In Cousteau there are strong existential currents, like the ones that produced the literature of Albert Camus, Antoine de Saint-Exupery or Louis-Ferdinand Celine.

“I am convinced that (a) world where people enjoy themselves the proper way--in creation, creating anything--and thinking only about the creation they are doing is a better world than a world in which people preach and think that they have knowledge to share with others,” Cousteau said.


“But don’t you want to leave the world a better place than when you arrived?” a reporter asked.

“It would be very presumptuous,” the captain answered.

Cousteau became a bona-fide American media star in 1968, when ABC introduced “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” intermittent documentary series. It ran until 1976.

He has been a fixture on American TV since 1954, when the classic “Omnibus” magazine show hosted by Alistair Cooke ran a Cousteau film on underwater archeology.


Four years earlier, Cousteau and his team had adapted the then cumbersome new TV technology to their underwater chores by building the first submersible TV camera. They used it to record the first underwater excavation of a 3rd Century BC Greek ship sunk off the island of Grand Congloue in the Mediterranean Sea.

Because he is both star and narrator of his adventure films, it is easy to forget that Cousteau is a serious and innovative maker of movies, that he is more than a frogman who takes a camera with him.

“When I was a boy, I wanted to do three things,” he said, “be a sailor, make films and be a doctor. If you include (his studies on) the physiology of diving, I have done all three.”

In conversation, he appears far more interested in film making than any of his other pursuits. He talks gleefully, passionately about the mechanics of production.


He first took camera in hand at the age of 13, shooting a cousin’s wedding. “These were not films,” he said, “but reels of film.

“I was fascinated by the hardware--that’s how I got started--the cameras, how to process the film and devise chemicals.”

In 1956, Cousteau won an Academy Award and the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his feature documentary, “The Silent World,” the first glimpse for millions of the strange and exciting universe beneath the waves. Since then, he has won two other Oscars and 10 Emmys.

“Silent World” was made with film director Louis Malle, who went on to make such notable films as “Pretty Baby” and “Atlantic City.” Cousteau hired Malle right out of school.


It is difficult to imagine Cousteau sharing his movie making on anything approaching a basis of artistic equality. He doesn’t really care what motivates other film makers or how they go about their craft.

“I never go to the movies. I don’t look at other people’s films. I don’t have time,” the captain said.

“I’m not interested in what other people are doing, because we are doing it differently. . . . A movie maker has his own personality and sees things differently. . . . I make my films to be different. It will be my way of looking at things.”

His aesthetic also offers a glimpse at his political leanings. He quickly dismisses questions about his politics, but, in conversation, he subtly reveals an anti-government bias bordering on a libertarian world view that values individual freedom of action and thought above ideology.


“If I were not French, I’d be Italian,” he said. “They are brilliant in all fields, artistic, industry, science, literature, music. They’re fabulous. They’re wonderful. They are the best people in the world. I am French, so I like my country. But if I had to change, I’d switch to Italy.”

Cousteau insists that a global perspective is “the only thing that counts.” He allows that communism, for example, “works” in the Soviet Union but offers little hope for it in other nations.

“The plague of communism is that it started in Russia,” he said. “They changed the label, but it’s the same dictatorship before as it is now. They took czarism off and put communism on. But it’s the same thing.”

He is no less critical of the United States, where he spent part of his boyhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., and learned his colloquial, if highly accented, English:


“The American people are generous, they are hospitable, they are wonderful people. They have lousy governments one after another, but that is another story. We do, too, in France.”

Despite the wealth of autobiographical material contained in Cousteau’s films, there is very little independently published information about him. Cousteau disputes that, but bibliographic searches by The Times have uncovered only a smattering of articles, many of which were written by long-time Cousteau associates.

No English-language biography, for example, has been written since the 1950s when American journalist and Cousteau associate James Dugan wrote a young-person’s biography for Harper & Row publishers, “Undersea Explorer: The Story of Captain Cousteau.”

Dugan first encountered the work of Cousteau in 1944, in liberated Paris, when the American correspondent for Yank magazine saw a short film called “Epaves!” (Literally translated as “sunken ships,” the film was released in the United States in 1952 as “Danger Under the Sea.”) Cousteau and early associates Frederic Dumas and Philippe Tailliez had shot “Epaves,” their second film, in the South of France during the German occupation and the reign of the collaborationist Vichy government.


Cousteau was a captain in the French navy, but was relieved from active duty in 1942 when France sunk its own fleet. After the war, he returned to the navy to found and head its Undersea Research Group.

The captain refuses to discuss his war years and says that he will never let anyone but his son, Jean-Michel, make a film about his life. “He knows and nobody else knows,” Cousteau said. “Others, they would make a legend out of it instead of making a real story.”

“But you are a legend,” a reporter responded.

“Bull,” Cousteau replied.


Cousteau claims to have headed a unit of French Resistance fighters tied to London headquarters through a spy network in Portugal. He seems to have traveled with relative ease throughout wartime France.

In Paris, late in 1942, he teamed with the late Emile Gagnan on an invention that changed history.

Gagnan, an engineer with the L’Air Liquide Corp., had developed a regulator valve that allowed French automobiles to run on cooking gas rather than gasoline. With modifications, Gagnan’s valve eventually became the Aqua-Lung, the patents for which the huge $20-billion-a-year multinational L’Air Liquide Corp. still holds and for which it pays Cousteau an annuity.

Cousteau is also a founder and chairman of the board of L’Air Liquide’s U.S. sporting-goods subsidiary, U.S.D. (Divers) Corp., based in Santa Ana. The company had sales in 1985 of about $35 million, but posted a $100,000 loss for the year.


Cousteau also has other corporate connections. Alcyone’s unique wind-propulsion system was developed with the giant Pechiney ship-building concern, for example.

In addition to his strictly commercial interests, Cousteau’s activities are varied enough to drive a younger person to exhaustion. He still tries to spend four months a year on expeditions and another four months putting his programs together. He also remains director of the Oceanographic Museum at Monaco (founded by Prince Albert I, father of the current monarch) and the head of the Cousteau Society.

As Cousteau has advanced in years, much responsibility for running his far-flung empire--which includes offices in West Hollywood, New York, Norfolk, Va., and Paris--has passed to his 48-year-old son, Jean-Michel.

An architect, Jean-Michel took over administration of the Cousteau organization after the 1979 death of his younger brother, Philippe, in an airplane crash.


Jean-Michel makes his home in New York, but, like his father, is a globe trotter who flies around the world the way most people tour their hometowns.

“There are two people I look up to,” Jean-Michel said. “One is my father, not as a father but as a person . . . a friend, a business associate, a leader . . . and the other is an Indian chief in the middle of the Amazon. He had a very, very strong impact on me. . . .”

Expansive-minded, something of an empire-builder and more commercially oriented than his father, Jean-Michel has tried to guide the Cousteau Society beyond its traditional fields of film making and book publishing. Most notably, Jean-Michel wants the society--which he refers to as a “company"--to build Disneyesque marine-oriented theme parks throughout the world.

The society’s first attempt, a $25-million center in Norfolk, failed after five years of planning and preliminary work when fund-raising efforts did not even come close to reaching the necessary $5 million in private contributions.


Raising money has long been a tricky part of the Cousteau equation. Cousteau Society expeditions are paid for out of the production budgets for the programs. The “Rediscovery” shows are budgeted at about $750,000 each, according to Susan Richards, Cousteau’s New York-based TV rights negotiator who engineered the Turner deal.

When programs go over budget, appeals for funds are made to the Cousteau Society’s 220,000 members, Cousteau said.

Mostly Americans and French, the society’s members donate about $5 million a year to subsidize the captain’s work, providing for for him and his crew the wherewithal for a great bourgeois fantasy of traveling anywhere at any time. In return, society members receive the Calypso Log magazine, a young people’s magazine and a monthly newsletter.

When the Calypso, Cousteau’s more famous research ship, recently was forced into a Miami shipyard for outfitting with new engines, an urgent appeal went out to society members, who contributed $291,000 toward the cost.


Calypso is expected to be finished in time to join in the ship parade planned for New York Harbor on July 4, the 100th anniversary of France’s gift of the Statue of Liberty.

At his age, Cousteau said he is “totally unconcerned” about the legacy, if any, that he will leave the world.

“I don’t care,” he insisted. “Have some more wine. It’s more important. . . . I care about drinking wine tonight.

“The only thing is, ‘Carry on, always, until you are switched off.’ ”


He ended the reporters’ weekend with a story of his father once visiting a 120-year-old woman.

Asked what what she would do if she had it all to do over again, Cousteau mimicked her: She sipped a little bit of cognac, took a puff on her cigar and said, “ ‘I would do exactly the same, but more often.’ ”

Then, in his own voice, he laughed: “I think it’s a good lesson.”

Times librarian Joyce Pinney contributed research assistance for this article.