Jacques Cousteau's TBS special last year, "My First 85 Years," contained many beautiful underwater shots, accompanied by the familiar voice of the old Sea Dog himself. "I have chased the stealthy octopus," he intones. "I have shivered in the corridors of castles haunted by the phantom of time." Here, he appears to be referring to a coral formation.

Toward the end of the documentary, I got a shock. Cousteau, having in 1990 buried "my first wife, Simone Cousteau, who lived aboard Calypso for 50 years," shows scenes of his 1991 wedding to Francine Triplet, 40 years his junior. "Life goes on, and for me life begins anew," he says. He mentions that the priest "has understood and supported us through all our trials," though no further explanation is given. And he notes that, "All our friends and close relatives are there, and, of course, our children."

A couple of young children are shown, but I found myself looking in vain for a glimpse of Jean-Michel Cousteau, 57, Jacques and Simone's firstborn son and, for many years after the 1979 death of their younger son, Philippe, the old Sea Dog's right hand at the helm of the Cousteau Society with its myriad films and books, worldwide membership and far-flung expeditions aboard the legendary Calypso and the newer "windship" Alcyone.

"My First 85 Years" was of some personal interest to me because back in the late '80s I'd been assigned to write about the Cousteaus' adventures. This kind of thing happens in journalism. You can be covering a sewer board meeting one week, and the next you're steaming from New Zealand to Tahiti aboard Calypso. I noticed that Simone was spending a lot of time in her cabin, and did not in general appear to be a very happy camper, but discreetly limited my dispatches to the likes of sharks and undersea volcanoes nonetheless.

I stayed away from writing about the family's interpersonal relations until 1988, when on the Papua New Guinea expedition the Cousteaus made a great to-do about father and son sailing their separate ships (the old man on Calypso) to a cheerful rendezvous at an ocean lagoon where, amid the whirring of cameras and clink of champagne glasses, they toasted their efforts to save the environment, and made a sentimental dive together.

The old man had trouble diving, and Jean-Michel was obviously itching to get his hands on the tiller of the whole Cousteau operation, so I took the opportunity to explore their "complex pattern of cooperation and jockeying in which tender mutual regard seems mixed with barely suppressed irritation." Back home, a headline writer summarized: "Jacques Cousteau Passes the Snorkel."

Well, not quite.

Now, seven years later you flip on the tube and there on TBS is the old Sea Dog resplendent in his various costumes and chipper as all get-out at 85 with a young wife who looks like she might have been a fashion model hanging around his neck and a couple of kids (theirs) bopping here and there looking like maybe they belong in the freshman class at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and Jean-Michel is nowhere in sight.

Not in the wedding scene, anyway. There's a glimpse of him in the sequence on Simone's burial, in which the old man refers to him simply as "Jean-Michel" without further elaboration, the way you might mention "New Zealand" in passing. Philippe, by contrast, is "my beloved son . . . a part of me." I didn't see any mention in the film, either, of Fabien and Celine, Jean-Michel's children, who, at the time I was hanging around the Cousteaus, were frequently mentioned by the old man himself as his beloved grandchildren.

"I had underestimated the stubborn and boundless spirit of my father, who had overcome every challenge," Jean-Michel wrote in a beautiful coffee-table book, "Cousteau's Papua New Guinea Journey," that he co-authored with Mose Richards in 1989. He was referring to the difficulties his father had had diving, and quoted the old man as resolutely declaring: "I am going back to Paris and invent a new scuba system for old people."

Apparently that was not all Jacques was going back to Paris for. Now, in an article called "Daddy Dearest" by John Brant in the March issue of Outside magazine, we learn that Jacques and Francine, before their marriage, "had maintained a 15-year romantic liaison that had produced two children, a daughter born in 1980 and a son born two years later."

No wonder Simone stayed with the boat. As a marital strategy, it was perfect. Not only did her husband have to return to Calypso regularly, but in the meantime La Bergere ("The Shepherdess"), as she was known to the crew, was surrounded by a score of bronzed hunks.

The Brant article lays out gory details of a deeply conflicted father-son relationship, in the most recent skirmish of which the old man and the Society sued Jean-Michel to force him to call his new eco-resort in the South Pacific the "Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort" rather than just the "Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort." A judge in San Francisco ruled in favor of the old man, ordering among other things that the words "Jean Michel" must be at least as large as the word "Cousteau" in resort advertising.

Jean-Michel resigned from the Society in 1993, according to the article, after his father transferred most of his power to Francine, who "quickly moved to put her stamp on the organization. . . . She summoned him {Jean-Michel} for a private confrontation in Paris. I have been living in the dark for 15 years,' Francine allegedly said. Now I am Mrs. Cousteau.' From that moment, sources say, Francine systematically imposed her will."

Though Jacques didn't cooperate with Brant, the article quotes him from a 1993 interview, in which he was asked what Jean-Michel lacked, as answering: "Judgment. He is not a peasant. Me, I'm a peasant. That's my force. Dynasties have never worked. It is not because a kid is born from your sperm that he has the necessary qualities to replace you."

Jean-Michel, who did cooperate with Brant, is quoted as saying rather sadly, "I'm sorry it has to be this way. I really don't understand. I keep sending faxes, begging my father for a dialogue. My daughter -- his granddaughter -- even went to see him but he refused to let her into his office. . . .

"I think my father would confess to being a very lonely person. When he does relate to other people, it's of no great importance to him. He has a great need for support in his endeavors but little consideration for the needs of others. People are to be used, then forgotten. . . . Once they are no longer part of his team, they're gone."

Brant, in a little flourish of his own, notes that the "My First 85 Years" show "expends more time and affection on a school of anchovies than it does on the Captain's firstborn."

I placed calls to Jacques and Jean-Michel to discuss the matter, and both replied through their spokesmen. Jean-Michel's said he couldn't call because he was traveling. Jacques' faxed a number of news releases about the lawsuit, and finally this:

"I am, of course, deeply saddened and disappointed that my son, Jean-Michel, now seems to be driven more by the profit motive than by the goals I have taught him.

"The lawsuit filed by the Cousteau Society and me was aimed at avoiding confusion between Jean-Michel's business ventures and the integrity of the not-for-profit Cousteau Society, an organization that reflects my life's work. . . .

"I am also deeply disturbed by Jean-Michel's apparent need to air personal problems in the media. Though I am frustrated by erroneous one-sided portrayals, I will attempt to resist speaking in public about private family issues.

"My work, and all that I have tried to accomplish to explore, understand, and appreciate our global surroundings, is too important to let any disagreements with Jean-Michel cloud or overshadow this primary mission in my life."

Toward the end of "My First 85 Years," there's an odd sequence in which Cousteau talks of saving the planet for the children of the world, and how he and his new wife are eager to fight "against the thieves of innocence" and "add another chapter to the greatest adventure."

From the bottom of my heart I wish them well, because maybe now I understand a little better how terribly cold it must be, down there in the corridors of castles haunted by the phantom of time. CAPTION: Jean-Michel Cousteau and his estranged father, Jacques Yves Cousteau, talk aboard ship in friendlier times, 1986 in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico.