What, Capt. Jacques-Yves Cousteau was asked at a National Press Club lunch in his honor yesterday, would he like to leave as his legacy? "I'm trying very hard," he said, "to leave not one cent when I die." Has he ever seen the Loch Ness Monster? "Certainly there are animals we don't know," he said, not rising to the bait. "We discover more of them every year, but they are generally tiny things -- tiny monsters." Fit and grinning, the 79-year-old ocean explorer and filmmaker charmed his way through Washington yesterday, drawing laughs from the somewhat hard-bitten roomful of journalists as he launched an intensive one-week lobbying effort to prevent American participation in a treaty that he thinks will promote the plundering of the vast and pristine continent of Antarctica. He proved himself master of the humorous 10-second sound bite, drove home his points with the usual combination of passion and surprising fact (Antarctica has 90 percent of the world's ice, and God help us if it melts, "whales will be swimming in the streets of New York"), and even accepted a can of Old Bay seasoning from Barbara Haddock, a Baltimore Sun photographer who trembled with admiration as she gave it to him. "He's been my hero since I was 6 years old," said Haddock, whose name really is Haddock. Cousteau told her he would give it to the crew of Calypso, his research ship, which is making a film in the waters off Indonesia. In fact, he said, he'd just come from Indonesia, where he was diving extensively off the ship; he discounted reports that ear problems have limited his abilities. "If you had seen me last week," he said, "I was diving every day. It was great, the best I've had in years." Now he's navigating Washington's policymaking channels in hopes that he can stop Senate approval of the Wellington Convention on mineral resources in Antarctica, a proposed international accord that would regulate oil drilling and mining there, should anyone want to do these things in a place where the average annual temperature is 49 degrees below zero. Cousteau wants to ban these activities altogether, and declare the continent -- nearly twice the size of Australia and owned by no nation -- an "international natural reserve." Yesterday he had breakfast with the relevant State Department official ("nice people, but they're wrong"), gave a speech at the Press Club lunch, motorcaded to Capitol Hill for a session with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), motorcaded back downtown to meet with Secretary of State James A. Baker III, then motorcaded back to the Hill for a reception and dinner. Seven days of this could get on a man's nerves. "Did you see the schedule?" he said at the Press Club. "It's mad! Every half hour a new event." "He's trying to get to people who are influential," said his longtime aide, Karen Brazeau. "Well, I don't want to use the word influential. I mean, everyone is influential in some way. ..." Karen, stop! This is Washington! Brazeau, a fountainhead of competence who has spent years of her life in some of the world's most exotic locations planning Cousteau expeditions, seemed to be finding this town as strange as any. A meeting for the captain with President Bush? Well, Bush seems to be away for a while, but maybe ... Maybe. An appearance on "McNeil/Lehrer"? Well, maybe ... But no, in the end it falls through -- "not hot news, from their point of view." Visits with members of Congress are a little easier to arrange. "Last time he was here," Charles Vinick, the Cousteau Society's vice president for business affairs, said wryly, "every congressman seemed to have his family in the office that day." Even at the lunch, there were those not too shy to ask for Cousteau's autograph at the end of his speech. Who can resist this guy? In France, his Fondation Cousteau gets a million signatures against the Wellington Convention and -- voila! -- suddenly the government, naturally, is no longer for it. He goes down to Australia and talks with the prime minister there, Bob Hawke, and -- voila! -- Australia is no longer for it. The 1961 Antarctic Treaty, signed by 37 nations including the United States and the Soviet Union, barred among other things most mining and drilling on the continent and the disposal of nuclear wastes. The Wellington Convention to the treaty, established June 2, 1988, in Wellington, New Zealand, would allow for controlled mineral exploration and exploitation. Now Cousteau's here, telling the Press Club audience how he spent three months in Antarctica -- "an almost mythical land" -- back in 1972-73 when Calypso was filming there, including hours flying in the ship's helicopter "over majestic mountains" and under the sea in the ship's mini-submarine. "I will never forget," he said, "the pristine beauty and majesty above and below water." It's also a place, he said, with "the harshest weather conditions in the world," and he and his crew almost got killed there when a sunny afternoon suddenly produced -- seemingly out of nowhere -- a blizzard with 150-mph winds. Another time, the practical difficulties of dealing with the continent's "incredible fragility" was made clear when, after a delivery of fuel oil to the ship, the crew suddenly found itself with a number of steel drums to dispose of. "In desperation we cleaned them and stuck them on land, where they probably still are," admitted Cousteau. The disaster last January of the Bahia Paraiso -- an Argentine navy resupply ship that ran aground and sank near a colony of 30,000 sea birds in the Antarctic -- points up the reality of accidents and the virtual impossibility of adequately cleaning up after them under harsh weather conditions, according to Cousteau. The climate is so cold there that the ocean has low levels of the bacteria that normally help dispose of oil, and evaporation is minimal. Spilled oil, he said, can last in the environment for hundreds of years. "Imagine bulldozers, airplanes and ships bringing in supplies," he said. "Accidents would be inevitable, and the consequences are frightful. ... Why silence forever the whales and seals that sing under the ice?"