Ashlan Cousteau talks about adventures in the sea with husband Philippe, and their attempts to save the environment

Philippe founded the non-profit organization, Earth Echo and Ashlan is a veteran journalist and television host.

                            Ashlan Cousteau talks about adventures in the sea with husband Philippe, and their attempts to save the environment

Philippe Cousteau, the grandson of the legendary explorer Jacques Cousteau, and his wife Ashlan Cousteau, host the Travel Channel show 'Caribbean Pirate Treasure', which wrapped up its second season in June. The show follows the couple's adventures around the Caribbean, diving into maritime mysteries and investigating the lore of lost treasures. 

They are also known around the world for their conservation efforts, with Philippe having founded the non-profit organization, Earth Echo, and is a sought-after speaker, having hosted and keynoted events for Harvard, the United Nations, The Economist magazine and countless global conferences. Ashlan is a veteran journalist and television host, having worked as an on camera correspondent for E! News, Entertainment Tonight, and many others. She has produced groundbreaking documentaries about our planet, and has spoken all over the world, regarding the same.

This year is also the 75th anniversary of the Aqua-Lung, which was invented by Philippe's grandfather, who was the one to improve the aqua-lung design with fully automatic, compressed-air scuba apparatus that enabled divers to swim freely underwater for extended periods of time. Ashlan and Philippe are both brand ambassadors for the apparatus.

Ashlan and Philippe. Photo Courtesy: Ashlan Cousteau
Ashlan and Philippe. Photo Courtesy: Ashlan Cousteau

In addition, Ashlan is also the new curiosity and travel expert for Hilton's new Curio Collection hotels. Meaww had an opportunity to talk to the stellar couple.

Here's what Ashlan had to say:

How did you go from entertainment journalist to explorer? Tell us about your journey.

I was a correspondent and fill-in anchor for seven years at E! News. I covered the Oscars, visited movie sets and interviewed every A-List actor out there. It was incredible! But there was also a part of me that yearned to travel more and have amazing adventures. Growing up, travel was instilled in me and my sister by our parents. They traveled with us as much as possible and really inspired my lust for adventure. The night I met Philippe, we talked for hours about traveling, the places we had been and where we wanted to go, and we took it from there!

You also have a minor in music. Did you ever think about taking a different career path?

I love to sing. I was one of 10 people accepted into the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s School of Music for voice.  But they concentrated on classical opera, which is beautiful but not my favorite genre to sing. After one semester with music, I turned my sights to their School of Journalism and worked my butt off to get in there (it’s one of the top J-schools in the country). But I sing every chance I get: at home, in the car, to our dog, etc.  And I sing a mean Don’t Stop Believin’ whenever we go out for karaoke!

How do you feel being a part of the legacy that Jacques Cousteau left behind? 

Jacques was an incredible man that shaped conservation and television/media.  He opened millions of people’s eyes to the world under the waves. He, along with Philippe Sr., transfixed viewers with incredible visuals, wonderful story telling and fabulous adventures.  If you think about it, the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau was one of the world’s first reality shows.  You tuned in to see where the crew was going, what they were doing and what special animals and people they would meet along the way.  You felt like you were part of the team. That is what Philippe and I strive for- to tell incredible stories with fun adventures, to get viewers excited about the natural world and in turn, do their part to save it.  I am honored to continue this legacy for future generations.


What is the biggest misconception about pirates and their shipwrecks?

Number one is that most pirates were really bad dudes!  They killed, they raped, they pillaged. Not a lot of sweet, quirky Johnny Depp’s out there.  But many pirates and buccaneers have really fascinating backstories, and the fact that they sailed across oceans in WOODEN SHIPS with no GPS, no penicillin nor proper food storage, you do have to give them a lot of respect (but never forget about the murder, rape and pillaging).

Where did you grow up? Were you dreaming of rummaging through shipwrecks then? Where does your sense of adventure come from? 

I grew up in North Carolina, with some of the most beautiful beaches in the United States and a lot of pirate history.  I was completely fascinated by mermaids, dolphins, and sharks and always dreamed of swimming with them. It was my love of travel, the ocean and storytelling that lead me to shipwrecks.

Any documentaries that you're working on or planning to work on?

We are currently working on a documentary exploring the future of coral, specifically in the Red Sea, that could save our oceans (it’s an incredible story that gives us so much hope). We are also working on an IMAX film about our oceans and a very cool experiential VR showcase all around some of the oceans’ smallest inhabitants.

If you had to suggest just one way you could do your bit for the environment, what would it be? 

I could list so many but one of the most surprising for many people is that the fashion industry is considered the second biggest polluter in the world.  On average, every American throws away 80 pounds of clothes each year.  That is an absurd amount! So what can you do? Say no to “fast-fashion” where clothes are made cheaply and fall apart after one wear. The clothes are manufactured by people in horrible conditions and many times waste is just dumped right into waterways and ends up poisoning local communities.  Instead, buy investment pieces that you will have for years and years to come and try and only buy from companies that reflect your values. The best way to get companies to change is by not buying their products until they clean up their acts.

Ashlan and Philippe. Photo Courtesy: Ashlan Cousteau
Ashlan and Philippe. Photo Courtesy: Ashlan Cousteau

Here are excerpts from the interview with Philippe about his family legacy and more: 

How are you planning to take the legacy forward?

The world is very different today and if we are going to continue and build on my father’s legacy, we have to approach it from a different perspective. When my father and grandfather were making documentaries, there were a dozen channels on television. Your audience came to you. Now, we have so many different ways of reaching different people who all have different ways of consuming content. Gone are the days when we could make an earnest wildlife documentary and consider it a job well done that would drive change on a significant level. Historically, the environmental movement has done a terrific job of preaching to the converted. It has focused on technological and legislative fixes and while those are important, until we broaden the base of people who really care about these issues, we are not going to make real change. To grow the environmental movement today, we have to create new and different kinds of media in order to reach very diverse audiences and grow the constituency of people who care about these issues. The key to that is developing a youth strategy. Unfortunately, the environmental movement has historically ignored education.

No social movement has ever been successful without youth. So, fifteen years ago we founded what has become one of the leading environmental education organizations in US, EarthEcho International, to bring our message and content into classrooms around the world and build a youth strategy for the environmental movement. But education is just the beginning. We also have to build a sustainable and profitable distributed media strategy. My father and grandfather were master storytellers and created documentaries, radio programs, movies, even graphic novels. Inspired by that, we are also building a sustainable business model around storytelling. We are creating media, developing new intellectual property, and physical experiences like resorts and location-based entertainment that can reach and inspire as many people as possible. For example, we have award winning books for elementary students and new literary projects focused on teens. I host an Emmy-nominated syndicated TV series called Xploration Awesome Planet that targets teens and tweens, now in its 5th season. My wife Ashlan and I just finished two seasons of our Travel Channel series Caribbean Pirate Treasure that takes viewers on a fun adventure exploring the ocean and diving into pirate legends and stories of buried treasure; we are working on an ocean Imax project, VR programs, a scripted TV project and even an ecoadventure hotel product. In other words, we are building a media/lifestyle brand that targets multiple audiences in multiple ways with a consistent message about conservation, exploration, and adventure.

How do you remember your great-grandfather, Jacques? Do you have any memories of him that you'd like to share?

My grandfather died when I was 17 years old, so I knew him pretty well. I remember what an incredible visionary he was. He was never content, always pushing boundaries and that was his gift. One of my fondest memories growing up is of sitting with my grandfather and hearing all about his adventures traveling around the world. While most people think of him as this pioneering environmental crusader and ocean explorer, what they don’t realize is that he didn’t start out that way. At first, when he invented scuba diving and underwater cameras, all he wanted to do was explore. He was an avid free diver who wanted to spend more time underwater. So, he met an engineer and together they tinkered and experimented until they invented a way to do it. For him, just like for all of us, his journey to becoming a conservationist was an evolution over time as he watched the health of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea rapidly decline over the 50’s and 60’s in response to post-war industrialization. Seeing this change was his “aha” moment and led him on his crusade to protect the oceans. That was an important lesson for me because it taught me that all of us start somewhere and grow over time. He was just a bit ahead of the rest of the world, but even his appreciation for conservation didn’t happen overnight. He taught me patience and the belief that it takes time for people to learn and grow and that our work will never be done. But like his awakening over a few decades, society is learning, growing and getting better and we should never give up trying to make the world a better place.

It's the 75th anniversary of Aqua Lung. The device changed the way underwater explorations were done, forever. If you took a look back into the way underwater explorations have changed over the Cousteau timeline through your eyes, what would we see?

The technology has advanced to the point where it would be unrecognizable to my grandfather and father. In the early days, they didn’t even have a view finder in their underwater cameras, and just had to point at whatever they wanted to film and hope it was in focus. The film lasted for 11 minutes and then they had to go back to the surface and swap cameras. Then the film had to be shipped back to port to be developed. Now, we have 4k cameras on our phones,360 and VR technologies, instantaneous video transmitted from submersibles in the deep ocean, and we can even stream live video from underwater to people around the world in real time! The tools available to us now as storytellers are truly fantastic.

Ashlan and Philippe in Iceland. Photo Courtesy: Ashlan Cousteau
Ashlan and Philippe in Iceland. Photo Courtesy: Ashlan Cousteau

Earth Echo has brought to light many dire situations that the environment is in currently, but it cannot be easy going up against big private interests especially since you are a non-profit. How do you deal with such situations?

We have had tremendous success in our first 15 years and in many cases that success is because of, not in spite of, corporate interests. While our government is lagging behind, the good news is many companies realize that building environmental sustainability goes hand in hand with building economic and social sustainability. Many of our key partners are companies that not only fund conservation, but are very focused on how to improve their operations to be more sustainable. No company is perfect but many of them are working hard to shift their business models towards a more sustainable approach. Companies like Xylem, United Technologies, Northrup Grumman, Starbucks, are not only supporters of our work but genuinely interested in a more sustainable world.

If you had to suggest just one way you could do your bit for the environment, what would it be?

Recognize that a healthy environment is an issue that transcends politics.
One of the greatest crises we face today is the fact that politics has infected conservation. It wasn’t always like this. Richard Nixon, a Republican president passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, founded the EPA, and much more. Today, politicians have cravenly made the environment a wedge issue as a way to divide people. But clean air and water is a universal right, and healthy ecosystems are key to our survival, not to mention a stable climate. I always tell people, set politics aside when it comes to a healthy environment and demand that your politician respects the right for all of us to thrive on a healthy planet.

The second season for "Caribbean Pirate Treasure" just wrapped up. Is there another season coming up? What do we see you next?

The second season was so much fun to do but it was also grueling. Ashlan ended up in the hospital and got a nasty staph infection from diving in polluted water, so we are still determining next steps for the show and if we want to pursue it further. We have so many other projects going, and it is always hard to juggle everything.