Back to Stories

A Time To Rally: When Ted Turner Gave Jacques Cousteau An End-Of-Life Pep Talk

How A Famous Student Refused To Let His Legendary Environmental Mentor Give Up Hope

Jacques Cousteau and his prized pupil Ted Turner
There was a time at the end of his life when the most famous living environmentalist on Earth wanted to throw in the towel. Ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, left despondent by the behavior and attitudes of humanity, decided to quit his activism—surrender, capitulate, concede there was little hope for saving what remains of our wild planet from destruction.

The very thought that Cousteau, an inspiring hero to millions of American Baby Boomers and billions around the world, might turn cynical seems heresy.  But that is exactly where Cousteau's mental state was when he had a confrontation with Ted Turner.

Jean-Michel Cousteau, the eldest and only surviving son of Cousteau's, says the pep talk Turner gave his father was one for the ages and it holds special context now as the effects of climate change are deepening, as the problems of ocean acidification, pollution and overfishing are growing worse, and as the world moves closer than ever to the brink of a nuclear weapons exchange.  

Only a few years after Turner founded CNN in Atlanta on June 1, 1980, he was invited by Cousteau to join him aboard his research ship, Calypso, in the Amazon River. Cousteau and Turner had been introduced to each other by the late folk singer John Denver. The French diver, known for pioneering scuba and the aqua-lung, had received funding from Turner to keep making his conservation documentaries, and Turner, who lost his father to suicide, got a nurturing parental figure in Cousteau.

Those years, at the time of their rendezvous in South America, were bleak ones for people worried about the future of humanity and the environment.  They bear remarkable similarity to the present state of affairs. 

Ronald Reagan was in the White House and he selected James Watt, a Sagebrush rebel from Wyoming, to be his Interior Secretary. The Reagan Administration very publicly announced its intention to roll back and weaken federal environmental laws, sell off public lands and open up the interior West and coastal areas to more intensive natural resource development.

Along with these radical actions on the homefront, troubling ecological indicators were surfacing around the world. Amid it all, Reagan and his cabinet were rattling sabers with the Soviet Union. With the nuclear arsenals of both rivals on hair-trigger alert, the specter of a nuclear exchange caused by computer or human error had never been higher.

Turner flew to Brazil with his sons, Rhett and Beau, with the family three-some joining Captain Cousteau as his crew was making a documentary nature film about the wonders of the Amazon Basin for TBS.

One evening after his sons had gone to bed, Turner and Cousteau sat together on the prow of Calypso, listening to the twilight sounds of the jungle and the gurgling river.  Fish jumped.  Howler monkeys and birds vocalized in the canopy.  They could feel the Amazon’s power flowing beneath them.

Cousteau mentioned disturbing things he and his diving crews had observed over the years since his first documentaries were made. Based upon those disturbing trends, he presciently began to extrapolate with deadly accuracy today’s destruction of coral reefs, the expansion of dead zones caused by pollution in the ocean, the toppling of rainforests, humans being poisoned by eating fish contaminated with mercury and PCBs, the decimation of high-end bellwether species like sharks, ocean bottoms being destroyed through commercial trawling, and the toll of driftnets and bycatch on species.

Soon enough, Cousteau, too, would express his concern about climate change.

On land, he said events foretold a precipitous decline of amphibians, the widespread effects of freshwater shortages and droughts, increased desertification and the over-pumping of the Ogallala aquifer on the high plains of the United States. The result of accumulating abuse and neglect, Cousteau warned, will be an ever-expanding crisis, the ecological interconnections no less entwined than the international economy and banking system.

As Cousteau rendered his assessment, Turner was left speechless. He had come to the Amazon "to be inspired and pumped up," he told Cousteau.  

Cousteau’s authoritative litany, however, jolted him and drove up his pulse rate. “Captain, not only am I depressed, but now I’m discouraged.," Turner said.

For the much younger Turner, then barely into middle age, the implication was, “Why even bother?”

Cousteau told Turner to look him in the eye. “Ted, we cannot afford to get discouraged, Even if we know the end is coming for certain, which we do not, what can men of good conscience do but keep trying to do the right thing until the very end?”
Cousteau told Turner to look him in the eye. “Ted, we cannot afford to get discouraged. Even if we know the end is coming for certain, which we do not, what can men of good conscience do but keep trying to do the right thing until the very end?”
If an asteroid were streaking on a collision course and Homo sapiens had a few decades to plan ahead, would humanity accept its fate with indifference, he asked.  The environmental challenge, Cousteau said, is no different.

Turner, now a white-haired elder himself, returns to that conversation often, calling it a defining one in his thinking. For the first time, he remembers, he came to understand what Thomas Babington Macauley had meant when he penned one of Turner's favorite epic verse, "Horatius At The Bridge," that he learned to recite by heart.

Macauley's heroic poem is all about individuals rallying in the face of overwhelming odds, condemning those who sit on the sidelines and are unwilling to rally the courage to take action. 

For Ted Turner, his passion for environmental protection blossomed during his days racing boats on the ocean. And it became galvanized after he met Jacques Cousteau.
For Ted Turner, his passion for environmental protection blossomed during his days racing boats on the ocean. And it became galvanized after he met Jacques Cousteau.
“I think of Macauley's words and  those of Captain Cousteau and I press on,” Turner says. “Failure cannot be an option here. We’re talking about the survival of the human race and of all the major life forms on the planet.”


Cousteau handed Turner a challenge that night—to use his influence, resources, and place in media to raise awareness about the environment based on his assumption that human society had little time to act.  It is, Cousteau noted, what an ethical, responsible business person does.  

Cousteau and Turner agreed on something else that is even more timely today.. They believed the documentary wildlife film industry has a moral and ethical responsibility to step up—to help save the natural world rather than only treat it as a resource to exploit for high ratings and commercial profit.  

In fact today in our time, with so many serious environmental problems converging, never has the nature documentary industry and mass media in general come under greater ridicule and scrutiny from scientists and conservation activists.  Many of the biggest players in wildlife filmmaking stand accused of dumbing down the social discourse on environmental issues and natural history, 

More than a generation ago, Turner at CNN created the world's first major environmental reporting division on TV and he green-lighted documentaries for airing on TBS, on topics ranging from the destruction of clearcut logging to predator control and ocean pollution, that he knew would alienate advertisers.  When they complained, he aired them anyway.  
Cousteau and Turner agreed on something else that is even more timely today. They believed the documentary wildlife film industry has a moral and ethical responsibility to step up—to help save the natural world rather than only treat it as a resource to exploit for high ratings and commercial profit.  
Turner told me not long ago that network TV, cable channels and film production companies have lost their way, rationalizing their bad decisions based upon a faulty premise that their foremost duty is to "entertain".  Turner says that if nature filmmakers aren't leaving millions of viewers smarter about the challenges facing the environment, then it is failing in its obligation to leave the world better.  He says mass media needs to up its game.

° ° °

In 1971, Cousteau had calculated that humanity had a fifty-year window of opportunity to commence corrective action in how it consumed and stewarded resources—or face dire consequences. 

Given today's mega issues—climate change, rising human population, the extinction crisis and increasing threats of terrorism—Turner believes we have until the middle of this century to alter the trajectories of troubling trendlines or risk calamity. 

What Cousteau recognized in his student, what he admired about Turner, was an uncanny ability to see into the future.  It’s a skill Turner demonstrated with media, and even in seeing bison ranching as a tool for re-wilding the West in a way in which profits pay for better conservation outcomes.

A decade passed after the first Turner-Cousteau encounter on Calypso.  Eventually, he started a family foundation that supported hundreds of different conservation causes, bought up large tracts of land and put conservation easements on them, and was on the cusp of committing almost $1.5 billion to support the United Nations and a group devoted to ultimately eliminating nuclear weapons.

Cousteau, whom Turner called "the father of the modern environmental movement," influenced leaders around the world, including presidents of both political parties ranging from John F. Kennedy, pictured here, to Bill Clinton who was in office when Cousteau died.
Cousteau, whom Turner called "the father of the modern environmental movement," influenced leaders around the world, including presidents of both political parties ranging from John F. Kennedy, pictured here, to Bill Clinton who was in office when Cousteau died.

Late in the 1980s, George Herbert Walker Bush had succeeded Reagan as president. The Bush Administration, heeding the conclusions of leading scientists, acknowledged that human-caused climate change linked to the burning of fossil fuels was real. 

Meanwhile, as he watched him age, Jean-Michel Cousteau says his father became increasingly depressed almost bitter about the direction of the world.

Overwhelmed by the magnitude of growing environmental and human problems, Cousteau was frustrated by inaction from governments and the prevailing consumptive culture of society.

Part of him had abandoned hope that the oceans could ever be saved.  Also, after decades of activism, Jacques Cousteau was simply burned out.  

The fathers and mothers of social movements are products of their own time and can only carry them so far, Jean-Michel says. That's why they need to be constantly reinvigorated with fresh blood.

The issue would soon come to a head in the form of another pivotal meeting between Cousteau and Turner. With his mentor in decline, Turner reached out by inviting him to share in the premiere of the motion picture Gettysburg at the National Theater in Washington, DC.  Turner had bankrolled the project, and considered it an achievement of personal importance in telling the story of one of the bloodiest battles in US. history.

That night, Turner helped usher the old oceanographer to his seat and together they watched. On one side of Turner was Cousteau and on the other Turner’s daughter and son-in-law, Laura and Rutherford Seydel, as well as other members of his family.  Nearly an hour into the screening, the reel broke and the film needed to be spliced back together. Lights in the theater came on.
'Ted," Cousteau said to Turner, "you worry too much.  My advice to you is to not let it get to you. Enjoy the time you have, because it is already too late. We’ve passed the threshold. The beginning of the end has started."
People for several seats around pressed closer to hear the conversations playing out between one of the architects of the green age and one of his prized students.  Jacques-Yves had become so distressed by the trend lines he witnessed that he no longer had any fight left in him.

“Ted,” Cousteau said, “you worry too much.  My advice to you is to not let it get to you. Enjoy the time you have, because it is already too late. We’ve passed the threshold.  The beginning of the end has started.  Man may, or may not be, part of the plan nature has for the Earth in the future. Life will be reborn, but first the world as we know it now will die.”

Those around Cousteau could not believe what they were hearing. They looked to Turner for his response.

“I thought Ted would be crestfallen,” Turner’s son-in-law, Rutherford Seydel, recalled.

But Turner remained quiet for a few seconds. Finally, he put his hand down on Cousteau’s, defying his reputation for not being touchy-feely.

“Captain, you are a great scientist, you’ve been a friend who was always there for me, but isn’t there a possibility, say, even a 3 to 5 percent chance that you are wrong?  It may be a long shot, but that’s what I am going to focus on.  I’ll take those odds. You know I admire you, that I love you, but I can’t accept what you are saying.”

Turner’s family members were touched by the expression of warmth, and they waited for the answer.

“I’m sorry, Ted but I can’t agree,” Cousteau responded.

To those witnessing the exchange, it was almost as if a transference had occurred.  “Ted is ever the eternal optimist because the alternative—the prospect of being a failure because you didn't work hard enough — is part of the personal pain he has carried forward all these years whenever someone has sold him short,” Seydel told me.  “If there is an infinitesimal reason to have hope, he will choose to search for it rather than resign himself to the bleak future Captain Cousteau told him was inevitable.”

“My Dad told Ted in the beginning, during their visit along the Amazon together, to never give up,” Jean-Michel Cousteau explained.  “For Ted, I know that my father represented a role model whom he did not want to let down. And he has managed his life in a way to make certain it never happens. But what I don’t think Ted realizes is that he is doing what my Dad did not possess the strength and endurance to do, which is maintain optimism to whatever end.”
"Captain, you are a great scientist, you’ve been a friend who was always there for me, but isn’t there a possibility, say, even a 3 to 5 percent chance that you are wrong?" Turner asked. "It may be a long shot, but that’s what I am going to focus on.  I’ll take those odds. You know I admire you, that I love you, but I can’t accept what you are saying."
In reflection, Turner says it always meant a lot to him whenever Cousteau expressed personal praise. It is important for elders to place confidence in the next generations, to let them know their backs are covered when they step forward and act on what their conscience is telling them. 

Turner is not one to lecture but he says there is no retirement age for citizenship and that senior citizens who believe they have already given enough to leave behind a healthy environment are shirking their obligation as humans.  At the same time, he says elders have a lot of wisdom, based upon personal experience, to share. All generations need to do a better job of listening to each other—oldsters and the young alike embracing the call to rally together.

People get tired, Turner says. Individuals may feel like they are out there blowing in the wind alone but, in fact, millions of others feel the same way.  Environmental protection shouldn't be a partisan issue, nor should the media treat environmental destruction as a topic that has two equally-valid sides.

° ° °

When the Captain died in 1997 at age eighty-seven, Turner paid homage by calling Cousteau “the father of the environmental movement,” a reference that newspapers around the world cited.

Jean-Michel Cousteau has pondered the meaning of that epitaph, and the symbolism of Cousteau the elder passing the torch to a handful of protégées. Jean-Michel and Turner were both born in the same year, 1938, and they’ve regarded each other as brothers in conservation.

While his father became cynical, Turner kept going.  “He has fulfilled the challenge my Father placed upon him and succeeded in a way my Father himself never could.  Ted started as a follower and he has become a leader of the pack. My Dad used to tell me that the American dream isn’t about money.  It is about the possibility of exceeding a person’s own expectations of himself.”
"My Dad used to tell me that the American dream isn’t about money.  It is about the possibility of exceeding a person’s own expectations of himself.”                 —Jean-Michel Cousteau
Jean-Michel pointed to a troubling me-first, apathetic attitude that today is rampant in the world. “When you lose hope, you become a pessimist,” he notes. “Instead of believing in brighter possibilities, you accept the things that are wrong and surrender to them.  Rather than working to change them, you pray they don’t become worse or impact you personally even as they harm other people.  I think that’s why Ted feels drawn to the parable of Horatius at the Bridge.

In the year before his father died, Jean-Michel says that he and his patriarch would get into intense arguments.  “When he told me he didn’t believe that we could win the battle to save the earth, I told him that, of all people, it was an unacceptable conclusion coming from him.”

All hope, however, was not lost for Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Jean-Michel shares the details of a conversation that his father had, while on his deathbed, with Jean-Pierre Cousteau, the attenting physician and Jean-Michel’s cousin. 

The world’s most famous aquaman looked into the approaching dusk and had a final statement of conviction. "My Father didn’t say, 'I don’t want to die, I want to live,'" Jean-Michel notes, but rather, “I haven’t finished my work.”

That work is the epic challenge of awakening society out of its technology-addled stupor and making the environmental crisis real and tangible for average people before it is too late.

Turner wonders how Jacques Cousteau would be responding to climate change, more real than he could have imagined. He would not be marveling at the prospect of a new commercial shipping lane opening through Arctic waters, Turner says. Cousteau would be in a wetsuit with camera, accompanying desperate polar bears that literally are having their footing melt away beneath their paws and, as a consequence, must swim hundreds of miles further to the find seals and walruses—their sustenance—on waning sea ice. 

Most definitely, he says, Cousteau would be pushing back harshly against those who are waging attacks against science and scientists on behalf of special interests, trying to confuse the masses by spouting "alternative facts".  Together, they would be leaning on media to do a better job.

Turner remembers Jacques-Yves Cousteau only with deference, humility and gratitude.  “He was my first hero and I’m grateful for having known him. The legacy of activism that exists in Jean-Michel and all of the Cousteau grandchildren is inspiring.”  Turner also recited a long list of others in politics, science and the private sector who are putting their rally caps on.

Jean-Michel Cousteau who, like Turner, will soon become an octogenarian adds,  “Every time that I get depressed I look into the eyes of a child and I think to myself, ‘We can’t let you down.’  Ted has the same set of values with his grandchildren and all young people he meets. That’s why young people like him. He doesn’t sell them short. He is telling them to go out and change the world. There is not time to think about ‘what ifs” as in ‘What if we do nothing?’  With the limited time we have, we can only be thinking about brave solutions.”

Jean-Michel agrees with Turner that fighting for the public good is the most admirable thing a human being can do. That's not their mantra. It's one taught to them by Jacques Cousteau who, at the very end, was, like Horatius, willing to rally one more time.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Part of the above is excerpted from Todd Wilkinson's book, Last Stand: Ted Turner's Quest to Save a Troubled Planet.
Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition of asking hard questions and pressing for honest answers. For more on his career, click below.
Increase our impact by sharing this story.

Related Stories

October 8, 2017

Greater Yellowstone's Coming Plague
Mountain Journal's special multi-part series on Chronic Wasting Disease and the potential dangers it poses to Greater Yellowstone's unparalleled wildlife and...

August 14, 2017

Wildness into focus: Franz Camenzind's view of the Tetons from the perspective of a recent paddle on the Snake River.
Franz Camenzind Pens "Wild Ideas"
Has the conservation leadership of Greater Yellowstone lost its edge in the face of so many emerging challenges? With a background...

October 17, 2017

America's National Elk Refuge: A ‘Miasmic Zone Of Life-Threatening Diseases'
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is known internationally for its wildlife. With the arrival of Chronic Wasting Disease looming, the epicenter of...