[Exclusive] Philippe Cousteau Jr on being Jaques Cousteau's grandson, sustainability and Caribbean Pirate Treasure
Philippe talked to MEAWW about carrying his grandfather's legacy forward, about environmental conservation, the importance of youth and how one can make their own contribution in giving back to the Earth.
They say the apple doesn't fall from the tree and in the case of Philippe Cousteau Jr, it certainly rings true. The grandson of the legendary French explorer Jacques Cousteau, is a traveler, environmentalist, and host of the Travel Channel show, 'Carribean Pirate Treasure' which just wrapped up its second season. He and his wife Ashlan have become known around the globe for their conservation efforts. For anyone interested in adventure Jacques Cousteau is a household name. The creator of Aqua Lung, the first fully automatic, compressed-air scuba apparatus which allowed divers to swim freely underwater for extended periods of time, he was a pioneer in the world of deep-sea explorations.
Philippe talked to MEAWW about carrying his grandfather's legacy forward, about environmental conservation, the importance of youth and how one can make their own contribution in giving back to the Earth. Here are the excerpts from the interview.
Did you feel the pressure of being Jaques Cousteau's grandson growing up? What was the reality like?
My father Philippe Sr. was the heir to my grandfather’s work. When he died, it left a huge hole and I was acutely aware of the pain his passing caused my grandfather for the rest of his life. Of course, that loss was also devastating for my mother who raised my sister Alexandra and me by herself. So, it was difficult growing up without him. But in many ways, I was fortunate. Most kids who lose a parent have a few photos and maybe a home video to look back on. But I had his books, films, articles…this whole body of work that I was able to look at and be inspired by. And while I always saw myself doing something similar to him, I can’t say that I felt a lot of pressure growing up. I credit my mother for that.
We only saw my grandfather a few times a year, my uncle was absent from our lives and so we didn’t grow up on an expedition on the Calypso or adventures with the Cousteau team. My mother was the one who taught us about our legacy, my father’s work and how to stay true to that vision. She is the one who taught us that conservation and environmental sustainability is not just about protecting forests or animals, it is about protecting the very basic necessities of life like air and water. My father believed that every single child has the basic right to breath fresh air, drink clean water and walk on green grass under a blue sky. That belief is the legacy he left behind, the legacy he died for, and the legacy we seek to carry on.
How do you plan 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.
How do you remember your 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.
Coming from a long line of adventurers, did you ever want to do something radically different?
I think when I was a little boy, I wanted to be a fireman for a little while, but when I got into my teens, watching my father’s films, it was like real life Indiana Jones. To think you could make a living exploring the world and sharing your adventures with others-I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
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 viewfinder 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.
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.
What is it like traveling and working with Ashlan?
It is a dream come true. My grandmother Simone spent decades on an expedition with my grandfather, my mother spent thirteen years on an expedition with my father before he died. The simple truth is that Ashlan makes me a better person. We have so much fun together and challenge each other in nothing but good ways. We can spend weeks working 18-hour days on a show and then get home and look at each other and say, “let’s go out to dinner on a date night.” We love each other and being around each other, and that is a blessing.
The second season for 'Caribbean Pirate Treasure' just wrapped up. Is there another season coming up?
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 the 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.