An interview with Jean-Michel Cousteau
As a self-described “voice for the ocean,” Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the famous ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, has a clear message: “It’s all about connections. What we do to the oceans we do to ourselves. If you protect the oceans you protect yourself. We have to examine in general terms what we are doing to the planet as a whole.”

Cousteau will bring this message to Salem on May 20 when he delivers a benefit lecture at the Salem Conference Center for the Medical Foundation of Marion & Polk Counties, in support of the MedAssist Program, which provides free life-saving prescription medications for the uninsured in those counties.

To emphasize his point, Cousteau drew a connection between our current healthcare crisis and the health of the planet’s oceans.
“We place our priorities on issues that appear to bring in money, or are popular and spectacular, and ignore the human and environmental consequences,” he said. “To create a foundation for any kind of success, we have to ensure that the environment is able to perform at its best. Healthcare, the environment, it is all connected in one single issue. But we have a tendency to ignore the impact we have on ourselves, and we are heading toward problems.”

Years ago in his television documentaries, Jacques Cousteau already was warning us that the health of the oceans was deteriorating rapidly, and now with global warming, the decay of vital coral reefs, and the exponential growth of human impact on our water resources, the warnings issued by Jean-Michel are even more urgent.

“In the world everyday there are 5,000 children who die because they have no access to water,” Cousteau said.

While continuing the work of his father, Cousteau has created a nonprofit organization called Ocean Futures Society. In addition to exploring and documenting the health of oceans all over the world, Ocean Futures Society also devotes much of its time and resources to inspiring and educating people to protect the oceans, while emphasizing the vital connection between humanity and nature.

“People protect what they love if they recognize and understand its importance,” Cousteau said. “How can you protect something you don’t understand?”

Ocean Futures Society has several programs that attempt to address all aspects of its mission. Sustainable Reefs is a program for island nations that sponsors efforts to repair and monitor decaying coral reefs while providing educational materials on the necessity of healthy coral reefs for the environment as a whole.

Cousteau was particularly excited about one of their educational programs, Ambassadors of the Environment, in which school children are taken out of the classroom and brought to the shoreline to directly experience the interconnections between land and water.

“We have had approximately 12,000 children go through this program and it has been enormously successful,” Cousteau said.

Cousteau and Ocean Futures Society has been instrumental in using a variety of media to convey its message of interconnection, including the production of documentaries much in the spirit of those filmed by his late father. PBS is now televising a six-part series throughout the spring called, “Ocean Adventures.”

At the time of this interview, the first two installments, called “Voyage to Kure,” had already been shown. These episodes follow Cousteau and his crew to a chain of little known remote islands that lie northwest of Hawaii.

The stated goal of this trip was “to discover what sea life was once like around the big Hawaiian Islands,” by exploring these smaller islands. It was a nostalgic look back on what the surrounding sea was like before large scale human impact but also with an eye on the critical management necessary for this environment: “to show people how to preserve it.”

At one point in the first episode, to demonstrate the interconnection between our actions and their effect on nature, Cousteau holds a plastic bag filled with trash collected in the water even around these remote and uninhabited islands.

“We are impacting these places. The trash we dump in Topeka, Kansas will end up in the ocean,” Cousteau said.

To highlight his theme of connection, Cousteau takes a variety of approaches to investigate and understand the islands he studies in “Voyage to Kure.” He not only explores the biology of the islands and the surrounding sea, but the geology and cultural history as well.

In the first episode, Cousteau tackles the question of why ancient islanders considered sacred one of the remote islands with a stark and particularly harsh environment, and why they used to travel hundreds of miles through rough seas to visit it. Answers to questions such as these are intended to broaden our understanding of our own interaction with nature.

“Everything is connected. There is something spiritual that captures you there. But we keep tiptoeing and seeing environmental problems,” Cousteau said.
Despite the obvious urgency of these problems, a touch of optimism pervades the message of the series.

“We need to highlight to the world that it is not too late. Our life support system has problems, and thus, so do we,” Cousteau says in the film.

This optimism likely will be apparent in Cousteau’s lecture as well.  At the beginning of his interview, one of the first things Cousteau brought up was the level of interest in these issues here in Oregon.

“Our highest ratings [for the PBS series] so far have been in Oregon. You live up to your reputation as environmental thinkers up there.”

One of the future episodes in the series is called, “The Gray Whale Obstacle Course.” It will follow the Cousteau team as they track the migration of gray whales from the lagoons of Baja California north along the west coast to the frigid Bering Sea.

Cousteau will discuss this in his Salem lecture because it has particular significance for us here in Oregon. There are approximately 60 gray whales that travel as far north as Depot Bay and then inexplicably stop their migration. A local scientist who has been researching this phenomenon will be featured in the film.

Another project that Cousteau has been involved with is the Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort. While this may seem odd for someone with his environmental concerns, Cousteau has a degree in architecture and has worked on several projects using his knowledge and skill to create artificial floating islands, schools, and the headquarters of an advanced marine studies center in France. The resort is designed to be an environmentally responsible vacation destination.

“The resort has been rated by Conde Nast as ‘Best Small Resort’ from an environmental point of view,” Cousteau said. “Vacations on shore have a tremendous impact. It was an experiment for us. The objective was to prove to the world that such a business could be environmentally friendly and economically successful. This project gives us a point of recognition that it can happen.”

In the first episode of “Voyage to Kure,” Cousteau points out that much of his crew is new and quite young. When asked about his future plans, Cousteau sounded characteristically optimistic.

“I celebrated 60 years of living last June. Some of us are the dinosaurs in the crew, but I will be around for a long, long time. We are trying to raise a new crop, a full team, with men and women who are the best of the best.”

Both his son and daughter currently assist him in his work which means a third generation of Cousteaus will carry on this family’s important legacy. As Cousteau says in his latest television series, “We are doing justice to the ocean.”