This week we pay tribute to the legendary Jacques-Yves Cousteau, told through the words of his grandson, Philippe Cousteau:
My grandfather was an innovator. As a young man he wanted to be a pilot in the French military, but unfortunately he broke his back in a car accident and was removed from the aviation programme. He started swimming in the Mediterranean to rehabilitate himself and his curiosity about the oceans was born from there. He co-invented the Aqua-Lung because he wanted to spend more time underwater, and he created underwater cameras because he wanted to tell the story of what he saw.
Throughout his life, when my grandfather saw a problem, he worked to fix it. It wasn’t until the 60s that he really began to see a change in the health of the oceans that shifted his perspective from one of pure exploration to one of conservation. I believe he was initially driven by a passion for adventure and over time became increasingly concerned about what he was experiencing, the changes he was seeing with his own eyes.
It was an evolution for him just like it is an evolution for all of us.
Father and son
My father, Philippe Sr., was the heir apparent to my grandfather’s work. A sense of adventure was passed on to him by my grandfather at an early age and my father was very well known in his time as an integral part of his father’s work. But it went both ways. I know that my father was more passionate about the human connection to the environment than my grandfather initially was. As you watch the films of the 70s, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, many of which my father filmed, directed and produced, my grandfather’s desire to explore that connection becomes more and more evident as the decade wore on and my father’s influence increased.
My father died six months before I was born. My mother moved back home to Los Angeles – the place where she grew up – and my upbringing was a lot more normal than most people would imagine. We lived in a regular middle-class house and my mother worked to support us. Like everyone else, I went to the local school and even experienced a few awkward teenage years.
But every once in a while I got to see my grandfather and he would share stories of his adventures with my sister Alexandra and me. He was fun and engaging and while I never went on expedition with him or spent much time on the Calypso, he did inspire us to recognise that no matter what we are passionate about doing with our lives, no matter what career we wanted to follow, we should embrace the fact that we have a responsibility to make the world a better place.
But I would have to say that an even bigger influence on me was, and continues to be, my mother. She spent 13 years on expedition with my father and she is the real hero who kept the Cousteau legacy alive for us. It was she who sent me, at the age of 16, on my first longed-for expedition with a scientist friend Dr. Eugene Clark, and that was when the world of exploration and adventure really opened up to me.
A changing world
My grandfather and father were both stewards of an idea, best articulated by my father actually when he wrote, “I believe that every child born has the fundamental right to walk on green grass, under a blue sky, to breathe fresh air and drink clean water.” Their legacy is to inspire all of us to fight for a world where that is possible. They were great men who achieved incredible, world-changing things. I have always been instinctively motivated to contribute to that legacy and do what I can to make the world a better place and honour their pioneering work.
Yet the condition of our oceans has changed since my grandfather’s time. Climate change and ocean acidification were not on the agenda back then. We now live in an age where declining fisheries and the disruption of the biochemistry of the oceans are the new normal. From ocean acidification to climate change, to dead zones caused by too many nutrients in the water, we are recklessly undermining and changing the very system that we rely on to survive. Population continues to be the driver of many of these problems, and that has only grown. The scale of the challenge has increased.
The good news is that since my grandfather’s era, we have developed new technologies like renewable energy, carbon sequestration and made advances in aquaculture; all these things have a major role to play in restoring the oceans and our planet, bringing it back into balance. In many cases it’s simply a matter of giving nature the space and time to do what it needs to do with a helping hand from all of us. Regulations that help replenish and protect fish stocks, restoration and conservation projects to protect and nurture natural barriers like reefs and wetlands, and reforestation efforts are all things that can have a huge impact on ocean health.
The legacy today
By following our own dreams, in our own ways my sister Alexandra and I are now working to bring the Cousteau legacy into the present.
I am keeping a strong presence on people’s TVs through my series on CNN International. I have also expanded into education by co-founding one of the leading youth environmental education organisations in the USA, EarthEcho International, and we are now even harnessing financial markets as a major driver of positive change through building socially responsible businesses.
Alexandra is doing terrific work through her Blue Legacy organisation; connecting people to the defining crisis of the 21st century – the fresh water crisis. I am very inspired by my sister’s work. She is such a gifted communicator and advocate for these issues.
There are a lot of ways that everyone can take action. Future-focused groups are providing us with some great tools and resources to get inspired and make smart decisions. I know my grandfather would have loved using the new technologies that exist today. Being a storyteller, the Internet and smartphones would have been a dream come true for him – being able to reach people and have a dialogue with them anywhere in the world in real time was the stuff of science fiction when he was alive.
Take, for example, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch pocket guide and Ocean Conservancy’s Rippl app or my own EarthEcho International’s Expedition programme for use in schools. We have even launched an investment fund that has a positive social, environmental and governance policy, and anyone with access to the New York Stock Exchange can purchase shares and buy into it – the ticker symbol is GIVE.
It is important that each of us take stock of our choices in life, and realise how everything, from where we invest our money to what we eat to how our children learn, impacts the world around us. If my grandfather were alive today, I think his message would remain the same, so I will quote him: “For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realise that, in order to survive, he must protect it.”
By Philippe Cousteau. This article featured in Scuba Diver Through The Lens (Issue 8, 2013)