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

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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

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