War­den of the wa­ters

Philippe Cousteau, grand­son of the late le­gendary ex­plorer Jac­ques-Yves Cousteau, car­ries on the fam­ily mis­sion to save the oceans.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By AL­LAN KOAY startwo@thes­tar.com.my

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.

Telling sto­ries

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.

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