Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#247: Cousteau on Catalina

Last week I was asked to do an interview for the Bloomberg Financial News about diving on Catalina. My Dad would have been proud to see my commentary embedded in a publication like that... business was his passion. My little sister Nancy reads their newsletter as well. I guess I just didn't inherit the business gene... as I can attest from the reverse Midas touch I seem to exhibit with my own commercial endeavors. When the reporter, Nadja Brandt, called to arrange logistics she said she would also be interviewing my old friend Jean-Michel Cousteau. What does he know about Catalina diving, you ask? Hang on... I'll tell you.

Many people including residents of the island may not be aware of Jean-Michel's history on, and attachment to, our home. His father filmed here on several occasions, including the "Night of the Squid" episode in "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" back in 1969, the year I arrived here. I first became associated with Jean-Michel back in 1974 when his science/education sidekick Dr. Richard C. "Murph" Murphy came to Toyon aboard the tallship Golden Dawn. Jean-Michel was planning to offer a Project Ocean Search program using this vessel and my home, Toyon Bay, as the land base.

The tallship was sold out from under us, but Project Ocean Search Catalina opened in 1976 using the former Catalina Island School as its base. I was the terrestrial ecologist on that program since I had stopped diving the year before. Why? I had seen a little movie called "Jaws" that year, and was scared right out of the water and up the steep slopes of Mt. Orizaba where I felt safe from everything but "land sharks." Two years later I did a little diving during the program. Jean-Michel asked me why I had resumed SCUBA. I said I had seen "Jaws 2." I last served as POS staff in 1979, the year Jean-Michel's brother Philippe died in the PBY crash in Lisbon, Portugal. I was with Jean-Michel that day while he was interviewed for a Los Angeles Times piece on edible seafood.

Project Ocean Search Catalina ran through the late 1970's and into the early 1980's using the same Toyon Bay facility after CIMI (the Catalina Island Marine Institute) took over our lease when the school closed. Jean-Michel joined his father at The Cousteau Society (TCS) following his brother's death. I was in Chicago during the early 80's, working with my father, so I didn't participate in POS but did see Jean-Michel several times in Chicago and Hilton Head Island. Jean-Michel program staff included the likes of Dr. Sylvia Earle, known as "Her Deepness" for her record-shattering untethered deep dive, and later as Chief Scientist for NOAA and currently a National Geographic Explorer; Dr. Milton Love, author of the humorous fish ID book Probably More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast; Murph who became TCS' Vice President for Science and Education (and was my role model when I, like him, returned to grad school to get a PhD); Pam Stacey who edited TCS' The Dolphin Log and wrote scripts and other material for them; Don Santee who became a TCS expedition leader and still works with Jean-Michel at OceanFutures, headquartered in Santa Barbara; and others.

I returned to Catalina in 1982. Jean-Michel made a number of trips to Catalina to test new diving and film equipment in our clear waters. He would stop by the old Antonio's where I usually ate, and we'd connect for some fun. Then in 1985 I received a message from Murph who was diving Cocos Island off Costa Rica... Jean-Michel would be filming a Channel Islands episode of TCS' "Rediscovery of the World" documentary series for Turner Broadcasting. He asked me to be the Catalina expert and filming began a few months later. Originally envisioned as a one-hour episode, it quickly expanded to two hours as the crew tried to cover all eight of our Channel Islands. Jean-Michel, Murph, Pam, Don and I arrived in Avalon Bay aboard their windship Alcyone and proceeded to spend the better part of several weeks filming the island topside and underwater. It was during this project that Jean-Michel introduced me to the use of video as a tool to document not just family reunions and kids, but natural history!

In the late 1980's Jean-Michel again expressed interest in locating a facility on the island where he could run various programs. I worked with the Island Company and Conservancy to see what we could do. In September of 1989 I joined Jean-Michel, Murph and others on nearby Santa Cruz Island for some diving and discussions about a proposal to use Emerald Bay. The existing tenants were way behind on their lease payments, so it was thought the facility might open up for a new lessee. Jean-Michel and Murph liked the idea. I returned to Catalina to help get the ball rolling. However, the existing tenant was well connected, and created a PR nightmare over this. True to their ethics, neither the Island Company or Cousteau mentioned the issues of their default on the lease.

In the 1980's I introduced Packy Offield to Jean-Michel and Dick Murphy over peanuts and beer at the old Antonio's. Both of them were asked to join the Conservancy board just before I was hired as Vice President for Science, Education and Ecological Restoration. They were a great addition to the board, bringing scientific acumen to the table complimenting the financial and legal knowledge of other board members. The search continued for a proper site for them to operate on Catalina. Eventually an agreement was reached with the Horner family which operates the Catalina Island Camps at Howland's Landing. Jean-Michel and Murph would run several programs there, primarily during slack periods in the camp schedule.

Two of the programs are the "Jean-Michel Cousteau Family Camp" and "Ambassadors of the Environment." The latter program has used Catalina's Howlands Landing site as a model to develop a series of similar programs in different areas around the world. This program introduces participants to the marine and terrestrial ecosystems of the area, as well as demonstrating ways that they can reduce their impact on the environment. These include solar energy use, recycling of materials, composting in an organic garden in which some camp food is grown, reductions in water use and other methods. I suggested our own Mayor Bob Kennedy might be interested in talking with them about such possibilities for Avalon itself. After all, we used to have solar collectors here to heat our water decades ago based on pictures from our Museum. Why not now?

Nadja, her husband Matt and I met Capt. Rob of Catalina Snorkeling for the fast trip down to Howlands. When we arrived, Jean-Michel and Murph were out snorkeling with the camp participants. Nadja and Matt set up, and recorded my interview while we waited. Shortly after, the group returned from snorkeling and Jean-Michel got a shower before his interview. While this was going on, Murph took me on a tour of the facility to show me the progress they had made since my last visit. We then joined Jean-Michel and Nan for lunch... some of which came straight from the organic garden, grown with compost from previous meals.

So, you can now see that Jean-Michel has had a long history of association with Catalina and our marine and terrestrial environments. Personally, his father's television shows and books were one of the influences that led to my love of marine life. Jean-Michel himself turned the light bulb on in my little brain that led to my using video to document both our land and sea critters. This is something he and his father have strived to do... turn people on to our world and how best to live in it with minimal impact in hopes they will help educate others. Given that, I have to add a little personal story. As we sat down at the table, Nan introduced us to some of the campers eating there. When she introduced "Dr. Bill," a boy looked at me and asked "Are you THE Dr. Bill?" I asked what he meant. He said he had one of my "Munching and Mating in the Macrocystis" DVD's and loved to watch it because it was informative and funny. Now THAT made my day!

© 2007 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my "Munching and Mating in the Macrocystis," "Great White Sharks of Guadalupe," "Calimari Concupiscence: Mating Squid, " "Playful Pinnipeds: California Sea Lions," "Belize It or Not: Western Caribbean Invertebrates, Fish and Turtles," "Gentle Giants: Giant Sea Bass" or "Common Fish and Invertebrates of the Sea of Cortez" DVD's. Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

Jean-Michel interviewed by Nadja and videotaped by Matt for Bloomberg Financial News.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2007 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia