As a third generation explorer, filmmaker and oceanographer, Philippe Cousteau has salt water pumping through his veins.
His grandfather was Jacques Cousteau, the pioneer of scuba diving who dedicated his life to sharing his underwater adventures to help protect oceans, and his father and namesake, Philippe Cousteau Sr, was also a renowned conservationist and cinematographer.
Philippe’s calling to continue the legacy of his ancestors was intensified by the death of his father in an amphibious aircraft accident six months before his birth. And guided by his grandfather’s influence, alongside his drive to connect with his dad, he has followed in their footsteps to become one of the leading ocean activists of his generation. He has produced and hosted an impressive slate of award-winning environmental shows alongside his wife, Ashlan Gorse Cousteau, and launched EarthEcho International in 2005, the leading ocean education group in the world, to guide and inspire the next generation of leaders.
We spoke to Philippe to mark Earth Day 2021. In an era where every day is a holiday but most barely register (did World Husband Day on Saturday pass without fanfare in your house too?!) this one truly matters. Celebrated on April 22 each year to recognize the anniversary of the modern environmental movement in 1970, it is observed by over a billion people and regarded as the largest non-religious holiday in the world, bringing much-needed attention to the challenges facing our planet.
Here Philippe discusses taking up the baton from his famous forefathers, the biggest threats to our oceans and how we can help, and the importance of accessible content like his latest book ‘Oceans for Dummies’ to ensure we are not just preaching to the converted.
You have a remarkable family. Did this path and career always feel like your purpose and destiny in life? And how does it feel following in the footsteps of those amazing characters that came before you?
My grandfather was a visionary and an inspiration. He passed away when I was 17, so I got to know him pretty well. He was certainly an inspiration to me, growing up with his films, his stories and his work. But my father, in many ways, was even more of an inspiration. I never knew my father, he died in an airplane accident six months before I was born. And searching for your father and trying to connect with them at a deeper level is a journey I think every child goes through. And fortunately, while I didn’t have him, I had his films and his books and his work. So it was certainly a way for me to connect and get to know him, as I was growing up, to pursue this kind of work.
On top of that, I always remember my grandfather’s belief that those who can live an extraordinary life have a responsibility to share it with others and to advocate for the world. And being able to be a storyteller and filmmaker, visit these wonderful places, and then share them with others and advocate for their protection is an amazing opportunity and career.
So while I think it started out where I was trying to connect and understand more about my father, then I got the bug.
We would go and visit my grandfather in New York, and there would be people chasing him and hiding in the stairwell for autographs. And he always had a way about him that was so kind and patient, and that left a mark on me. The fame did frustrate him. He wanted people to focus more on his methods than his autograph, but he recognized it was necessary for inspiring people and connecting with them. He taught me that a real man, a strong, competent man, lifts those up around them. I think the greatest lesson I ever learned from him, and what I’ve always tried to do in my life and career.
It’s a huge topic of course, what headlines should we all know about the important role that the ocean plays in our existence, and what we can be doing to help improve its plight?
We’re facing some extraordinary challenges. And one of the problems is that people aren’t connecting the dots around how the ocean is absolutely vital to solving many of the big issues that we’re all so aware and concerned about, like climate change. Historically, and to this day, the oceans tend to be an afterthought. But we can’t solve the climate crisis without restoring the ocean. It’s as simple as that.
There was a recent survey done of global leaders ranking the world’s problems and their priorities. Climate change was towards the top and the ocean was towards the bottom, which is ironic, because climate change is an ocean problem. The ocean regulates our climate and produces oxygen, food and economic value to the tune of trillions of dollars.
So fundamentally, I think one of the biggest problems we face is that people don’t recognize the importance of the ocean in regulating our climate and giving us food, commerce and security.
Right now, we’re heavily involved in is this concept of ‘30 by 30’, which is a challenge issued by eminent marine biologist EO Wilson. In my lifetime, in 40 years, half the world’s biodiversity has disappeared. And in order to stem that catastrophic decline, we need to set apart 30% of land and 30% of the ocean as fully protected places by 2030. We need to reduce and eliminate carbon emissions, we need to stop pollution, we need to do a lot of different things. But we know that one of the effective tools we have for the ocean is that if we just set places in the ocean aside, then we can allow the ocean to be resilient in the face of all these problems and renew abundance.
The Netflix documentary ‘Seaspiracy’ has got a lot of people talking recently, and among the arguments in that film is that we hear so much about not using plastic straws, but we don’t hear as much about just eating less fish, which would be far more beneficial for the oceans. What do you think about that?
We advocate for, at the very least, people to look at their seafood choices. Certainly in places like the US, where we don’t need to eat seafood. I recognize that there are parts of the world where that’s the only source of food, so I don’t necessarily think that we need to stop eating seafood globally, period. There are some examples of sustainable seafood and fisheries. So it’s a little bit more complex.
But I do agree, and it’s a frustration, that people oftentimes miss the forest for the trees. We tend to focus on these small little solutions, that are in the grand scheme of things not going to solve the problem. Plastic straws are just an entry point for the discussion. So cutting out straws needs to be the very first step on a longer journey, not the end of it.
We need to change our behavior and the discussion around seafood, but I think there’s a couple challenges. Perhaps the biggest is it’s very hard to visualize. Bottom trawling is so devastating and would never be allowed on land. It’s like taking a massive rake a couple of hundred feet across, and raking the entire forest to the ground in order to catch rabbits. You would never be allowed to do that on land, and that’s exactly what happens in the ocean. But nobody talks about it, because it’s deep, it’s cold, it’s dark, and you can’t really visualize it. It’s out of sight, out of mind. We’re a visual species. And that’s the challenge of our work, to help people visualize it and pay attention to it as well.
And we need to help people change their behavior around food in general. 40% of the food that we grow and manufacture is wasted. That’s an enormous carbon and water loss. And it’s not just about food, it’s about politics and all of those deep-seated choices that we need to think about differently if we want to build a world we can pass on to our children.
Tell us some more about the specific work you are involved in to increase awareness and further the mission?
Yesterday I was on a call with the Council of Environmental Quality in the White House, and last week we were working with [White House national climate advisor] Gina McCarthy, and I’m on an advisory board with the King of Jordan, for example, for a new marine protected area we are developing out there.
But it’s really important to remember that we need to expand the audience of people that understand these issues. We can’t just preach to the converted. My wife and I hosted a show called ‘Caribbean Pirate Treasure’ on the Travel Channel for several seasons, and we did a special for the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week a couple of years ago.
Our new book, ‘Oceans for Dummies’, is really an essential primer on the ocean. It was fun for me in particular, since my grandfather wrote the encyclopedia on the ocean, and and I think it fills an important space. There’s a lot of textbooks, big coffee table books and other more complex books about the ocean. But there’s really nothing that’s quite like this, that is easily accessible that you can pick up and read a few pages, and be like, ‘So, what’s the climate, ocean connection? Okay, got it.’
And I started the leading environmental ocean education organization anywhere in the world, EarthEcho International. And we work with young leaders and do training, education and movement building around the world, to really look at how we can create the momentum and increase the literacy of a new generation that are being activated around solving these types of problems.
The current engagement of young people in these issues feels unprecedented to me, are you hopeful for the future?
It is unprecedented — and it’s all over the world. We work with young leaders in Kenya, Galapagos, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, India, Australia, UK, France, Nigeria, Cameroon, Taiwan… It’s happening everywhere. And that’s definitely hopeful.
So yes, the good news is that we’re finding a new level of optimism, determination and ambition on the part of young people. And in the recent presidential election, people turned out in unprecedented numbers and things like climate change and social justice were at the top of their list of priorities for the first time.
My daughter Vivienne is 22 months old, and we have another one on the way. And whenever I look down at my daughter, I think to myself, ‘What kind of a world am I passing on to you?’ So as a father and a husband, I look at this as the greatest challenge, the greatest responsibility, to stand up and make some difficult choices and fight. If nothing else is our job and our role is to try and provide for those that we care about.
So what about the adventure of fatherhood, how are you enjoying that?
My father had a saying that adventure is where you lead a full life. And I’ve always wanted to be a father, and be able to give those experiences that I didn’t have.
We’ve been on all these crazy adventures, but being a father is the greatest, and it’s so fun. And I’m grateful every day that I have that opportunity, because a lot of people don’t. My father never got to have these experiences. So when my daughter was born, I swore to myself that I would never wish for any moments, even the difficult ones, to go by more quickly, I would never lament or take for granted the times that I have with her. It’s just a gift and a privilege to be a father, and I’ve loved every second of it.