Warden of the waters
Philippe Cousteau, grandson of the late legendary explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, carries on the family mission to save the oceans.
IT IS like flying, or at least what it must feel like to fly. Philippe Cousteau, grandson of the legendary French seafarer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, readily responded when asked about the time he first took to diving in the ocean.
He recalled, when he was very young, just putting his head underwater to get a feel of what it was like. He also remembered the time when he was taken to a dive at a coral reef, an experience that changed his life forever.
“The explosion of colours and beauty is still one of the things that I remember the most,” said Philippe. “The experience of being able to fly through an alien world was so rich.”
This description of flying is uncannily similar to what his late grandfather wrote about his first scuba dive in 1943, in the book The Silent World: “At night, I had often had visions of flying by extending my arms as wings. Now I flew without wings ...”
Philippe is a difficult man to reach. He is extremely busy, constantly on the move, especially now with the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico with which he is deeply concerned and involved. It was a case of second time lucky when the first attempt to reach him in Los Angeles failed.
On the phone from Washington DC one evening, Philippe sounded genuinely surprised that a newspaper from halfway across the world wanted to interview him. He also admitted that he hardly has any personal time. On the day we finally reached him, the Obama administration had just lifted the moratorium on the Gulf oil spill.
“We’re moving on to phase two of this disaster, and people are gearing up for what is going to be a very long road ahead to clean up what has become an unparalleled disaster in the history of this country,” said Philippe.
The oil spill disaster, unprecedented in its nature, is the current preoccupation for Philippe who has carried on the legacy of his grandfather and his father, the famous oceanographer Philippe Cousteau, Sr. Just a mere glance at his bio reveals the amount of work that he has undertaken for ocean conservation and the environment. He is definitely not cruising through life just on a famous last name.
Leaving his own ‘footprint’
Philippe serves as CEO of EarthEcho International, a non-profit outfit he founded in 2000 with his sister Alexandra and mother Jan. The Washington DC-based organisation aims to empower young people towards protecting and restoring the planet’s water. He is also co-founder of Azure Worldwide, a strategic environmental development, design and marketing company that works on environmentally friendly resorts and eco-entertainment attractions around the world.
On top of that, Philippe is also chief ocean correspondent for Discovery’s Planet Green, TV host for programmes Blue August and Oceans Blue, and chief spokesman for Environmental Education for Discovery Education.
Philippe has also lectured at the United Nations and Harvard University, and serves on the board of directors of The Ocean Conservancy, Marine Conservation Biology Institute and the National Environ- mental Education Foundation, in the United States, and the advisory board of Discovery’s Planet Green and the US National Council of the World Wildlife Fund.
With such achievements, distinctions and positions of responsibilities, Philippe, 30, remains humble and unassuming. He said he and his sister never regarded their legendary last name as a birthright to anything. Clearly, they have worked just as hard as anyone else, if not twice as hard.
“It’s an honour,” said Philippe of his family legacy. “I think in life, we do what we can with what we’re given. And I’m so fortunate to have the legacy of my father and my grandfather. My sister and I always thought of it as something that was a positive responsibility, a positive opportunity to try and continue in the spirit of everything that (our grandfather) had taught us.”
Their grandfather, he said, was a huge influence on them. Captain Jacques Cousteau (1910 -1997) was a pioneer who changed the world of deep-sea diving forever. He was the man who helped to develop the aqualung and the diving saucer, and various equipment for underwater filming, among other technologies.
He also pioneered marine conservation, and left behind more than 120 TV documentaries and over 50 books.
While Philippe has carried on his father’s work with EarthEcho, The Cousteau Society (of which Captain Cousteau’s second wife, Francine, is president) and its sister organisation Equipe Cousteau continue the work of Captain Cousteau till today, with the society having over 50,000 members worldwide.
Captain Cousteau’s famous boat, the Calypso, which sank in Singapore in 1996, was recently restored by the society. Incidentally, according to an Associated Press report, EarthEcho was originally to be named The Philippe Cousteau Foundation but the rights to the Cousteau name is held exclusively by the Society and Philippe’s organisation lost the legal battle.
Memories of Grandpa
“He spent a good deal of time with my sister and I,” said Philippe of his grandfather. “I remember the many dinners, and spending so many days in Paris and New York, having him tell us all about his amazing adventures, and also about all the serious issues that were facing the world. He was always the pioneer on the cutting edge of conservation and the environment. And so we grew up with those stories and that knowledge.”
He said he never got the chance to go on the Calypso expeditions, but Alexandra, who is three-and-ahalf years older than him, did. “By the time I was old enough for those trips, he wasn’t spending as much time on expeditions and on the Calypso as he had grown quite old,” said Philippe.
Philippe was 17 when his grandfather died at 87. Captain Cousteau had two sons from his first marriage (to Simone Melchior) – Jean-Michel, born in 1938, and Philippe, in 1940.
The elder Philippe was killed in 1979 when a seaplane he was travelling in crashed into a river near Lisbon, six months before his son was born. So the younger Philippe never got to meet his father, but only knew him through the films
and books his father left behind.
“I am lucky to have a wonderful, amazing mother,” said Philippe. “And I was able to have photographs, films, stories and books by my father. A lot of people grow up not knowing anything about their parents. I tried to be optimistic; it was a terrible tragedy. But at least I had all of that.”
The senior Philippe had been diving since he was seven years old, and in 1967, followed Captain Cousteau on an expedition to film the sharks of the Red Sea. He also wrote a book about his experiences there. Today, apart from EarthEcho which was created in his honour, there is also an open-air Philippe Cousteau Anchor Museum in Asturias, Spain.
The younger Philippe represents the third generation of ocean lovers and experts, but he noted that there have always been seafarers in the Cousteau genealogy, especially with naval officers on the French side of the family. But surprisingly Philippe holds a master’s degree in History.
In 2006, he was working with crocodile hunter Steve Irwin on Animal Planet’s Ocean’s Deadliest when the latter was killed by a stingray barb. Irwin literally died in his arms, and the incident devastated him. But later, Philippe agreed to finish filming the programme in honour of his friend. It was then that his talent in front of the camera was discovered.
One of the most distinguishing features of Captain Cousteau’s work was how he was able to make often-complicated scientific concepts accessible and under- standable to the layman. This is also something Philippe tries to do in his work, to tell interesting stories about our oceans.
“I always knew that I would be working in communications or helping people to understand the gravity of what’s happening in the world,” said Philippe. “I’m not a scientist or a marine biologist, and neither were my father and grandfather. They were communicators, storytellers. And I knew that was what I wanted to do.
“We can’t know where we’re going unless we know where we come from. And history has helped me to understand a lot of different things, from economics and politics to social issues. It’s a good understanding of the world. And as an environmental communicator and conservation advocate, I have to understand a lot about the world.”
But his biggest passion, he said, is to work with young people around the world, teaching them about the importance of our seas and oceans, empowering them with knowledge and tools. And the latest EarthEcho programme will train young people to be citizen journalists, and provide them with cameras so that they can tell the stories that are important to them.
But for now, Philippe is spending much time working on the Gulf oil spill. Whatever little personal time he has is spent with family at home in or his girlfriend, or on his other pastimes such as cooking, snowboarding and rock-climbing.
Still, conservation work takes centre stage, and hearing him say that our oceans are unhealthy and that the situation is “very scary”, one can’t help but feel the urgency of it all. Two of the biggest prob- lems facing our oceans today, he said, are climate change, which is destroying coral reefs and upsetting whole ecosystems, and ocean acidification.
But he remains hopeful and thinks that the world today has progressed a lot in terms of caring for the environment, compared to the days when his grandfather started marine conservation. The reaction to the Gulf oil spill and the global attention on climate change all spell hope, but he cautioned that we still have a long way to go.
“It’s in how you tell stories and open people’s eyes to the wonder and beauty and the mystery of the world,” said Philippe. “My grandfather always said you have to get people to love and care about something before you can get them to take care of it. So we have to start with the heart and go to the head.”
Disaster site: Not a sight that Philippe Cousteau would like to see – a beach covered in oil. The Gulf oil spill is one of the major environmental concerns keeping Cousteau busy these days.
Ocean lover and expert: Philippe Cousteau continues his grandfather Jacques Cousteau’s legacy by making films,
documentaries and TV shows about our oceans.