Making a splash for kids
Jean-Michel Cousteau’s pioneering eco-work is well known. Now, he’s taken a step further in educating youth through Ritz Kids, says Shiva Kumar Thekkepat
Jean-Michel Cousteau first dived in the ocean when he was seven years old and that began a life-long obsession with the sea that he is now passing on to children all over the world through his programme for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. “I dived with an aqualung 68 years ago,” he chuckles. “My plan is to be the first human to dive at 107 years old, after 100 years of diving!”
Jean-Michel obviously has a sense of drama, which is not surprising considering he has produced over 70 TV documentaries and features. He may be known as the eldest son of the late renowned explorer, author and film-maker Jacques Cousteau, but Jean-Michel is himself no stranger to fame or recognition for his ocean-related activism.
An Emmy Award-winner for his TV series TheMississippi— Reluctant Ally, he has also received a Peabody Award for distinguished and meritorious public service as a TV personality, and he is a member of the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame. He was presented with the Environmental Hero Award in 1998 by the then US vice president, Al Gore.
As president of the Ocean Futures Society, which he founded in 1999, Jean-Michel has made education an integral part of his work. He has teamed up with the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company to create programmes to educate children about different elements of nature. The Ambassadors of the Environment, which is available at the Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, has been hugely popular.
“It is for children who stay at the hotel for at least three days. Instructors take them out by boat or on land, or to explore the forests or deserts,” says Jean-Michel, 75, who is based in the US. “But because such facilities are not available at all properties, we came up with Ritz Kids to get the message across in a way that allows them not only to have fun, but also experience the elements.”
The new programme for children up to 12 years old is based on four themes: water, which emphasises the importance of sea life; land, which encourages exploration; environmental responsibility, which is focused on the health of the planet; and culture indigenous to the area, which covers music, customs, history and food.
Each of the Ritz-Carlton hotels offering the programme will have between three and 12 activities, lasting from 90 minutes to three hours. But the experience begins right from check-in with a welcome kit, involving a scavenger hunt and an activity book. There are also inroom amenities, including recycled coloured pencils, a gardening kit to tend to plants or a magnifying glass with tweezers to examine microscopic flora.
Says Jean-Michel, “I know that kids get bored easily and need to be occupied when they’re on the road, so I wanted to give them options that I tried to have for my two kids where they actually learn something.”
Jean-Michel’s interest in educating children was sparked by teaching his own, Celine and Fabien. Only four years old when he first dived, Fabien has been working to educate others about the global ocean, while Celine has her own film production company focusing on the human story behind environmental issues.
Jean-Michel believes children will be the ones who will save the world, especially the ocean and its many denizens. Foremost on his mind at the moment is the endangered
orca, or killer whales. “My dream is for it to be made illegal to capture any orca anywhere for any reason,” he says.
JeanMichel’s interest in orcas peaked in the case of the captive male orca, Keiko, better known as the star of Free Willy, the 1993 Hollywood film. “For more than four years, I was directly involved with the release of Keiko,” says Jean-Michel.
Like many of the orcas now in captivity, Keiko was captured when still young by whalers. “After years of training, at great expense, Keiko was finally able to catch and eat live fish and was returned to the waters in Iceland near where he had been captured,” he says. “But he never integrated with the wild whales he encountered because he didn’t know how to. He often swam back to the boat for protection and waited at the gate of his enclosure to be let back in.”
The conservationists had to constantly nanny him, until Keiko finally left his human caregivers and swam more than 1,600km, feeding himself, from Iceland to Norway, where he entered a fjord and stayed, dependent again on human attention, until his death from a pneumonia-like disease in December of 2003.
“What it taught us is that we can observe them in the ocean and learn from them, but if you capture them and confine them in facilities… they are literally as well as physically cut off from their only means of communication,” says Jean-Michel. He explains that whales use sound waves to communicate with each other, and to sense their way around the ocean. When they are confined in tanks, their sense of orientation is disturbed and their means of communicating through sound waves is rendered ineffective.
The consequences of such confinement was the subject of a 2013 documentary called Blackfish that traces the history of killer whales in captivity leading up to the 2010 killing of a SeaWorld trainer by a captured orca named Tilikum.
Jean-Michel is currently involved in trying to free a five-year-old orca called Morgan from a marine theme park in Spain. “In 2010, Morgan was found underweight and separated from her pod in her native waters of the Netherlands,” he says. “She was allowed to be held in captivity at Dolphinarium Harderwijk under the condition that she would be [released] after regaining her health. However, in 2011 Dutch authorities allowed Morgan to be transferred to Spanish marine park Loro Parque, despite her return to good health.
“Orca specialist Dr Ingrid Visser, myself, and many others have fought vigilantly in the Amsterdam Court for the release of Morgan… Despite our best efforts, she remains captive in Loro Parque, but it does not change
‘I wanted to give kids options where they actually learn something’
the fact that she remains a perfect candidate to be released… Through my involvement with Free Morgan Foundation, I will continue to lend my voice, support and do anything possible to get her out of captivity.”
Jean-Michel offers an alternative to entertainment centres that have captive marine animals. “Our efforts need to be spent on educating people with the emerging 3D technologies or, eventually, as my father dreamt, using holograms to instil wonder and awe in observing images of these truly majestic orcas living a life free and wild in the vastness of the ocean,” he says.
Regarding the programmes for children, he says, “The point is for them to be engaged, not as spectators but by actual interaction. These are the kids who will communicate with their friends in school, and share their knowledge with their parents. They will be the decision makers who will be making the right decisions when they grow up. They are like sponges and unbelievably stimulated by anything you make available to them, provided it’s not boring. You can meet those kids 10, 15, 20 years from now, and they’ll remember what they learnt here. I have.’’
The Ritz-Carlton project encourages
kids to explore
A still from Free Willy, which told the tale of a captive orca
Jean-Michel believes children will retain information they learn here for years