An interview with Jean-Michel Cousteau, champion of ocean conservation. He’s teamed up with Aqua Expeditions as a special guest on board their Amazon and Mekong River Cruises where he’ll be sharing films and leading discussions on what he’s learned through his work around the world.
Jean-Michel Cousteau grew up on the water. The son of legendary oceanographic explorer Jacques Cousteau, he made his first dive when he was just seven years old in 1945. His life is characterized by a devotion to marine conservation and education. He’s produced over 70 films and in 1999, he founded the Ocean Futures Society to help spread conservation awareness. Ker & Downey’s Elizabeth Frels had the opportunity to interview him about his work and his new collaboration with Aqua Expeditions.
Tell us a bit about your work at Ocean Futures Society.
The mission of Ocean Futures Society is: “If you protect the ocean, you protect yourself.” There is only one water system on the planet. That is why Ocean Futures is communicating in different ways; one way is to a very large audience, through television programs, theaters, and iMax that we are involved with and creating. Right now, we are working on finalizing a show for the Cannes Film Festival, which will be fascinating for the public, I already know. We did something called Secret Ocean [in 2015] in 3D with technology developed specifically for us. It allows us to capture things in slow motion and see behaviors that have never been seen before. And that can be done in the ocean or anywhere in the rivers or lakes.
It’s fascinating – I mean, how can you protect something you don’t understand?
The second approach [of Ocean Futures Society] is education. We have a program called Ambassador of the Environment. We train through my extraordinary team of naturalists, who are in different hotels – including many Ritz Carlton and other places around the globe including a Family Camp in Fiji and on many cruise ships.
Finally, the third thing we do is what I call diplomacy. I sit down with people in government and in the industry. Their responsibilities are short-term (making a profit this year or re-election). I want them to connect with the future, and the best way to do that is to connect them with their family and say, “Hey, I know what you are doing, and it’s great. But you have a family, you have children, you have grandchildren, you want to care what they are going to have and what they are going to inherit from all of us.” And then their defense systems goes away, they never point a finger, and they listen. That’s how President George W. Bush decided – after seeing my films on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which we were invited to show at the White House. He was so touched, he said, “Let’s get it done.” So he declared the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands the largest protected piece of ocean and under the control of the United States. And guess what? In September of last year, President Obama went out there and made that protected space four times bigger than President Bush.
So we have the left and the right trying to help protect the future of our planet, which means protecting ourselves. We are the only species on the planet that has the privilege to decide not to disappear. It’s our choice. So education and communication with the decision makers is critical for us at Ocean Futures.
There is only one water system on the planet, and all our lives depend on the quality of the water.
With Aqua, when we are at the top of the Amazon River, which presents one-fifth of the fresh water coming out of any land mass on the planet, I can drop some leaves and follow them all the way down into the Atlantic Ocean along the river systems and currents that have been created and pushed up north. Some of it goes into the Mexican gulf, and some of it goes up to the northern part of the United States and Canada – and we can follow it all the way to England! It is one water system, and we are all connected to that water system. And you know, next time you drink a glass of water, you are drinking the ocean.
Why Aqua Expeditions and why now?
Because Aqua Expeditions is going to allow me to make people aware that these rivers are connected to the ocean and to the entire planet, to every one of us. And they can bring that knowledge home to their neighbors, to the educators of their children and grandchildren, to the decision makers that they have an opportunity to meet. Some of them may be retired. Some of them can connect with the people who will replace them. And for me, that is a huge opportunity. That is why I am doing this not only with Aqua, but also with Crystal – because Crystal Cruises is in the ocean.
It gives me an opportunity to meet with a lot of people and to pass on a message – there is only one water system on the planet, and being on rivers to me is something I’ve done – I’ve spent hours and hours on the Amazon particularly for about 2 years. Even my daughter has been there a lot. We’re making the connection with these critical rivers with the ocean and the fact that we’re impacting the ocean, which we all depend upon. For me, I am excited to get back there. I don’t know if I’ll be able to, but I want to get back in the water and I want to see if maybe at some point we can have images transferred from underwater to people on the boat. So I am looking forward to doing this, and I hope this will make Aqua more successful because of my involvement and connection with the passengers.
I was also very touched by the gentleman, Francesco Galli Zugaro, who is responsible for Aqua, to have had the pleasure of not only meeting him, but for this opportunity and his cleverness of wanting to connect me with his company. I am very grateful.
What is the ultimate goal of your collaboration?
They’re giving Ocean Futures an opportunity to pass on the message. And also to have these people – everyone of them is a decision maker, making these decisions. And that’s our goal. To me, it’s exciting to go to the Mekong and the Amazon. It’s just amazing, and I’m so excited. I will never stop.
What makes the Mekong and Amazon rivers the perfect setting in achieving this goal?
If Aqua was in other rivers in other parts of the world, I would be just as excited as I am now of course. But for the time being, the fact that Aqua and the people involved – thanks to the business – we are able to communicate to visitors, the people on the boat, information that they have probably never had. For me, it’s a very exciting opportunity to connect the river systems with the ocean and with every one of us. You know, let’s not forget that 40% of any quantity of water coming out of the Amazon is the fresh water of the planet.
There’s a little island at the opening of the Amazon in the Atlantic Ocean in Brazil. That island, right where the Amazon comes out, is as big as Switzerland. The water goes from the top of the mountains on the other side 2,000 kilometers away, coming down and going around that island. Fresh water! It’s fascinating.
And we’ll communicate that with the people on the boats. We will show them images, I have videos, and I’ll of course answer their questions.
If there is one thing you would like passengers to take away from your presence on the Aqua Expedition vessels, what would that be?
You know, when my father pushed me overboard when I was 7 years old with a tank on my back, that is when I became a scuba diver. And my dad kept telling me, “People protect what they love”, but I kept telling him, “How can you protect what you don’t understand”. And that’s what we are doing today. We want people to understand so that they will protect what they love. But you have to fall in love first.
What species are you most excited to interact with in the Amazon? How about the Mekong?
To swim with pink dolphins. To go and see species I have never seen. To swim with snakes, because snakes – they are going from one side of the river to the other side. They don’t like you. They want to get away!
Now on land, that’s different. On the Aqua, I don’t know if we’ll have the opportunity to swim with these creatures with the big teeth – the piranhas. On land, it’s scary. Under water, they don’t open their mouths because they would drown. That’s why I’m a diver! And, when you are underwater, there are no mosquitoes to bite you! That’s why I dive, dive, dive.
Check back tomorrow for part two of our interview with Jean-Michel Cousteau, where we find out more about his life with father Jacques Cousteau and his movies.
*This interview has been edited for clarity.