A SEARCH FOR ANCIENT PIRATE TREASURES, historic shipwrecks, submerged volcanoes, the legendary giant squid and other unknown and unimaginable discoveries - its all part of Jean Michel Cousteaus ambitious Deep Ocean Odyssey project, and its being carried out right now.
    The Deep Ocean Odyssey continues the legacy of my father, and begins the next chapter in the history of underwater exploration, says Cousteau.
    The project has secured exclusive rights to two Deep Rovers, the most advanced manned submarines in the world, to explore down to 1000m. A Deep Rover can go 10 times deeper, carry 50 times more lights, five times as many cameras and stay submerged 10 times longer than a two-man scuba team.
    The aim is to produce a series of programmes for worldwide TV broadcast, as well as interactive content for the Internet, IMAX films and also for the CineMuse High-Definition Digital Museum Network.
But before plumbing the depths, Cousteau has a preliminary shallow-ocean project, an ambition he wants to fulfill and another film to make - free-swimming with great white sharks.

I did get close to white sharks near Australia, but that was done using a protective cage, he tells me on the flight from London to Cape Town. In 1991 he had produced a one-hour special on great whites called The Lonely Lords of the Sea. This will be entirely different, he says. He didnt know how different.
    Cousteau is keenly aware that it was through the films of his late father and co-inventor of scuba gear, Jacques Cousteau, that millions of people first glimpsed beneath the surface of the oceans. And he is committed to unravelling whats out of reach.
    This is a unique opportunity to get a special look at a creature of perfection, says Cousteau.
    The white shark has been 400 million years in the making. It is at the apex of sea predators and provides an essential function for the health of oceans. It is unmatched as a scavenger, cleansing the sea of the sick and dead and mortally injured. And yet we know so little about it. We do not know how it mates, nor when or where. We do not know if it migrates or has territorial practices.
    The public needs to learn the truth about sharks, especially the great white. Yes, humans have been killed but I believe records show only 74 documented cases during the past 100 years.
    At one point there was such widespread fear of sharks, mostly because of the Jaws film, that some people seemed afraid to take showers. That has led to wanton killing of the sharks.
    Cousteau seems contemplative rather than excited or fearful.
    I want to feel that I have considered all the options for a successful swim, he says. By that I mean that I suffer no harm and that no harm comes to the sharks. I firmly believe the white sharks have been recklessly demonised and that they are not bloodthirsty man-killers.
    What better way to show this than to visit them like another fish
    Free-swimming with a white shark is something my dad never did, but I know that hed love it.
    So is he doing it for his dad No, I am doing it for myself. I am not a daredevil. Im not being foolish. I am taking a calculated risk, relying on the fact that Deep Ocean Odyssey has assembled a brilliant production team, including some of the worlds best divers. One of the outstanding experts regarding these sharks, Andre Hartman, will be guiding me.
    As we are coming in to land, Cousteau says: I was introduced to the water by my father when he threw me overboard into the Mediterranean near Toulon.
    I was seven then, Im 62 now. And the truth is that I love the ocean. I love to dive. I love to be away from humans and be with nature. Sharks are part of that nature. And it is there, among all the creatures and flora, that I charge my batteries. It is where, if we protect the ocean, we protect ourselves.

    Its a sparkling morning in Gansbaii. Dive team, surface camera crew and support team assemble at the postage-stamp-sized Kleine Baai harbour. After a week of crappy weather, they tell each other: Its going to be a great day!
    The more sedate Jean-Michel Cousteau begins to soak up some of their enthusiasm. Though grey-bearded, he seems a young elder statesman, smiling easily. He gets into a huddle with brown-bearded Andre Hartman, the Afrikaans champion spearfisherman who has become a walking encyclopaedia of shark lore and behaviour.
    Hartman wears shoes only to go to church and for court appearances. Now he wears an olive-green wetsuit. His job is to provide in-water security. Cousteau pulls on a light blue suit. It feels too snug around the neck and he complains that pressure on his Adams apple might make him vomit. It is cut away and he is ready.
    The French dive team of eight like to give the impression that this project is a piece of cake, though they know it is not. They are aboard the Swallow, a 10m catamaran with a 3m beam.
    The US team of four, including Cousteaus son Fabien, is responsible for all surface or terrestrial camerawork. They are aboard a smaller catamaran, the Black Cat. A third boat, the 8m Moby Dick, provides support for the others.
    Five miles out, the boats rendezvous and drop anchor, trying to remain within 20m of each other. The water here is only 9-12m deep, cold but bearable. Hartman slings a bag of chum from the Swallow to attract the sharks: I get cow shark livers and innards, he says. Thats what they love. Theyre after the energy from the livers.
    He also drops in a float with the head of a large fish as bait, then enters the water. Youve got to do it without splashing, he says. If not, the shark might get spooked.
    Cousteau follows. Using snorkels, they swim close to one another. The rest of the French team are right behind them.

    Ten minutes later, a cry goes up on the boats: Theres oneÉ there it is! There! There! The dorsal fin slices neatly and steadily through the water. At the surface, 15m away, it seems as if a torpedo is coming straight at them. Then they see the eyes, the underslung mouth and flashes of its white underside. The shark is around 6m long.
    Another joins it, and the two sharks begin to circle the boats, then swim between them. Except for the two cameramen, the team is armed with stout sticks, not to beat the sharks but to poke them. Thats the way you can change them from an attack, says Hartman.
    After 45 minutes, everyone is back aboard the Swallow. Its time for deeper water, to get below the sharks and see how they move.
    Cousteau and Hartman are in scuba gear, and this time three sharks come visiting. One has been tagged some time ago - a lot of algae is attached to it.
    Cousteau, at about 14m, sees this shark move above him. He says later that it was like lying on an airport tarmac with a 747 landing overhead. We break off the dive after 40 minutes.
    The third swim is with two sharks. The divers are at 14m, videotaping the jagged rocks on the seabed and the circling creatures. Cameraman Yves Lefevre is concentrating on Cousteau and suddenly sees him lurch.
    I saw this shark going straight at Yves, aimed at his tank, says Cousteau later. I reacted. It was a reflex action that could have come from any of us. All the others saw it at the same time and moved to be of help.
    The shark is perhaps a metre away from Lefevre. Franois Sarano springs into action, poking the shark with his stick and turning it away from the cameraman.
    Lefevre shakes Saranos hand. Seeing that made me feel very proud of the team, says Cousteau. It was very moving.

Then, incredibly, it happens. Cousteau is above and to the side of a shark. He reaches out to touch it. He takes the back of the dorsal fin between his thumb and a finger. Will the shark shake him off Cousteau senses no resistance. He holds on. For a brief span of seconds, the shark is giving him a ride.
    We are astonished. After 30 minutes, the swim ends. Later, screening the days shooting, it seems unbelievable, but it is no camera trick.
    You can put this in your record book, says Andre Hartman. With todays swim, Jean-Michel Cousteau became the 16th person ever to get in the water with a white shark without being in a protective cage.
    The following day, we take the chance to get some cover footage with Cousteau going over things with Hartman.
    The barefoot sharkster, who says he first entered the water with great white sharks without the protection of a cage about three years ago, talks about them as though he talks with them.
    Right now, the two are concerned that Cousteaus ride might lead other scuba-divers or extreme sports enthusiasts to try the same thing.
    That would be foolish and dangerous, says Cousteau. A great deal of very careful planning is necessary. It requires an expert, thoroughly trained support team. This up-close visit with the white sharks has a serious purpose in helping to educate the public about the shark and its role in the health and viability of our oceans.
    Hartman says he fears that some simple-minded nut will do it and get killed and that would bring some governmental crackdown. It is dangerous and thinking of it as a sport would be the worst thing that could happen.
    According to Gansbaais tourism campaign, a part of which is to dub itself the White Shark Capital of the World, winter is the best time of year to look at great whites. The town wants to lure tourists into being lowered into the frigid waters in the hope of seeing one up close.
    For Deep Ocean Odyssey, however, winter in Gansbaai is, as the French team would say, a pain in the derriere. The weather can turn foul any minute, says Hartman. He is right.

    Four days later, the sky remains grey, but the weather is more promising than it has been, with little wind. By 11, the sun is poking through. The harbour is calm, but outside it big rollers are in evidence.
    We head for Dyers Island, a restricted area blanketed by tens of thousands of fur seals, near where Cousteau rode with the shark. The swells get deeper.
    Cousteau and Hartman snorkel for surface shots, but visibility is terrible, down to 1.5m. A shark comes in but cant be seen properly and it is declared too dangerous to continue.
    The next day there are no clouds, no fog on the hills, a mild breeze, mild temperatures - a perfect day to get a helicopter shot containing the boat and Cousteau in the water. Lets hope there are going to be sharks, says Cousteau as the boat leaves the harbour. I guarantee therell be some, says Hartman, who reckons his chum recipe is flawless.
    Out at Dyer Island, we eventually hear that egg-beater sound. The Bell Jet Ranger 3 touches down in a field at the edge of Kleinbaai Harbour, but so far there is no word from the boats that sharks have been spotted.
    The Black Cat gets ready to join the Shadow and spread chum.
    An hour passes; people are edgy. By 1pm the sea is churning and word is that if no sharks are sighted, the shoot will be cancelled at 1.30.
    At 1.45 the cellphone rings. The Shadow reports sharks at hand and the pilot brings the jet helicopter to life.
    It touches back down at 3.09. Im ecstatic, reports Cousteau. When the sharks were after the bait they seemed agitated, angry. And yet, when we got in the water, they seemed to calm down. It was an incredible thing.
    However, two hours later, when the video is screened, it becomes clear that the surface camera crew can be seen but not Cousteau, Hartman or any of the French divers.
    Excitement wanes as frame after frame passes. It could be a bunch of tourists on the boat. There are some very short scenes with sharks near the boat, but they are long shots: Maybe we should have hovered.
    Cousteau seems subdued after viewing the footage. It was disappointing, he says.
The water outside the harbour is churning, creating whitecaps as, with his son Fabien, Cousteau does some promos on the rocky shoreline.
    The French divers gather to see him off and break into a lewd version of Casimir, a childrens song - a tribute to their respect and fondness for Cousteau. He seems charmed.

    Aboard BA58 to Heathrow, Cousteau mulls over the trip. I learned that I have a great deal of respect and a sense of admiration for the great white shark, he says. I also have had confirmation of my belief that they are not monsters and man-eaters as they have been portrayed, especially if you are in their environment and on par with them.
    Whether you are scuba-diving or snorkelling, it is important that the water be clear so they can see what they are looking at. Humans are not their normal prey. Since I was not in a cage and could swim in a horizontal position, I think I was able to understand them more than I did before.
    It probably makes me a better defender, a better protector of sharks. They need help.
    Between 100 and 200 million sharks of all kinds are killed each year. The white sharks have a function that must be respected. They are the scavengers, they keep the ocean clean, just as shrimps and lobsters do. We have to recognise that and we have to leave them alone for our own benefit.
    How did these great whites compare to those he had encountered in Australia
    They look very much alike, and behave in exactly the same way. Very careful, trying to avoid physical contact, and as soon as they touch something hard they go away.
    And thats probably why they are so sensitive. Remember, they dont have hands to do what we do, they do it with their snout - they smell, they feel, then they make a decision.
    Thats where we lose it, because we dont know when they make the decision. And the decision could be goodbye, or it could be ah... and they will go for it. They wont eat a person, but unfortunately the victim can bleed to death.
    I have a non-scientific opinion of certain things, such as that they give right of way to bigger sharks, and for some reason you dont see them close together - they are lonely creatures.
    They are not as successful as we think they are in getting what they need. I think they work a lot for it.

    Africa, a great deal will be learnt over the coming year about life beneath the seas.

Cousteau does not recommend that other divers follow his example
Jean-Michel Cousteau (right) with his son Fabien (left) and shark expert Andre Hartman
Cousteau snorkels with one of the great whites
one of the cameramen grabs a close-up
with jaws like this you need confidence to interact with white sharks
The French team celebrate a good days work aboard the Swallow
in silhouette
the view from the helicopter as a shark follows the chum
they didnt stroke the sharks in Jaws
on camera