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How the Cousteau family is Saving The Planet

“Hope is the best motivator,” said Philippe Cousteau Jr., grandson of Jacques Cousteau, famed marine explorer and co-inventor of the Aqua-Lung. Philippe, a FrenchView Post-American dual citizen, lives in California where he and his wife, Ashlan, run their numerous marine conservation campaigns, television, broadcasting, and publishing interests.

“We’re storytellers,” said Philippe. “We’re journalists, broadcasters, explorers — but we’re Ocean Advocates first.”

In fact, as I learned, no-one in this ‘first family of the ocean’ is, or ever was, a scientist or marine biologist.

“My grandfather Jacques wasn’t a scientist. He was a captain in the French Navy,” said Philippe. “My uncle was an architect, and my father was a filmmaker. We are a family of storytellers and advocates for marine conservation rather than actually doing the science.”

“That said,” the 40-year-old scion clarified, “77 years ago, when my grandfather first tested his invention, the Aqua-Lung, it opened the door to real scientific exploration because prior to that, little was known about what lay under the waves.”

Did being born with such a famous name make his choice of career a bit of a foregone conclusion?

“My grandfather told me towards the end of his life, ‘Conservation starts with education,’ and that really shaped my interest,” said Philippe. “It is also complicated because my father died six months before I was born, and I had this desire to connect with his work and legacy. I always felt a calling and fascination with what my father and grandfather did, and I’m grateful they had this remarkable catalogue of work — the films, photographs, TV shows — for me to learn from.”

Having been raised by his mother, I wondered what influence the women in the Cousteau clan had on the legacy.

“Pure Inspiration,” said Philippe. “My mother spent 13 years on expeditions with my father Philippe Sr., and my grandmother spent more time on the Cousteau boat Calypso than my grandfather did, but principally behind the scenes. My sister — also an environmental campaigner — and I are a testament to their encouragement. My grandmother and mother are an important part of the Cousteau story and now, my wife Ashlan is making her contribution too.”

Was it easy joining a family so steeped in marine conservation?

“Thank God I love to swim,” joked Ashlan. “I grew up in North Carolina and spent a lot of time at the beach and out on the water.”

Ashlan first met Philippe at a conference, while working as an entertainment journalist.

“I was working on stories about the Kardashians, Justin Bieber, pop culture — but I kind of had an a-ha moment after learning about Philippe’s work,” she said. “I thought, why can’t we make saving the world cool, too? Why can’t these issues be highlighted and be fun and sexy? Not to lighten the seriousness of the issues, but to make them more accessible, so more people care.”

And that became the couple’s mission.

“People still don’t fully understand the way our oceans work,” said Ashlan. So during the pandemic lockdown, the couple wrote a book, part of the hugely successful ‘… For Dummies’ series called Oceans for Dummies!

“It explains how weather patterns work, how the currents work, and all about different species of animals,” said Ashlan. “It answers questions like, why are the oceans salty? We just want more people to be ocean literate.

“After all, we know more about the moon than the bottom of the sea.”

“Today’s generation gets it,” added Philippe. “They understand the importance of environmental conservation. It’s part of their curriculum and their school clubs.”

Philippe sees an important shift happening in the conversation: How can solving these ocean-related problems also be an opportunity to grow our economy, provide jobs, and enable people to live healthier and more sustainable lives?

“I think my grandfather and father would be encouraged by that,” said Philippe.

And are we seeing success?

Photo Credit: Shane Reynolds, Color Earth

“In the 40 years I have been alive, we have lost 50% of our biodiversity — 68% of wildlife is gone,” said Philippe. “So no, we don’t have a good track record over the last 40 years. But we are hopeful for the future. We know what works. The science is clear.”

Their non-profit, EarthEcho International, is a leading global environmental education organization. They work with Ocean Conservancy, WWF and others to campaign for what they call “30×30” — their goal to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030.

“These are areas where we advocate ‘No Take’ — no fishing, drilling, or hunting,” explained Ashlan. “Especially in areas of biodiversity hotspots, like Antarctica.”

“We’re not saying we have to stop all fishing,” said Philippe. “But we need to look at the ocean as our ally when it comes to having a healthy planet.”

“Nature is extremely resilient — it bounces back — if we give it a chance.”

“Philippe and I went to Bikini Atoll in the Pacific,” recalled Ashlan. “The U.S. detonated 23 nuclear bombs there during the Cold War. Because of the radiation, no one had been there for 60 years — untouched by humans. But in what had been a dead zone, we now see some of the most amazing and diverse diving environments anywhere in the world.”

So, are the Cousteaus hopeful for the future?

“The planet isn’t a partisan political issue,” said Ashlan. “It isn’t just for liberals to care about the environment. After all, it was Richard Nixon’s administration that created the EPA and passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Now, politicians of all stripes are stepping up and looking for solutions to environmental problems for the good of our economy, jobs, and health.”

“The new President has already taken positive steps on solving the climate crisis and he has backed 30×30, which is great news,” said Philippe.

“There is also a big push right now to protect three marine areas in Antarctica,” said Ashlan. “If enacted, this will be the single largest act of conservation in history, so yes, we have hope.”

And what about that Cousteau family lineage?

“We are proud to be continuing the spirit of my family’s legacy,” said Philippe. “My grandfather was one of the originators of a campaign to protect the landmass of Antarctica, and now Ashlan and I get to carry that challenge forward through a campaign to protect the ocean around Antarctica. As you can imagine, this is really special from a personal point of view, but shows the work is never done.”

To learn more about EarthEcho International, visit earthecho.org.

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