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Interview with Jean-Michel Cousteau

Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, is an explorer, environmentalist, educator and film producer. For more than four decades, Jean-Michel Cousteau has dedicated himself and his vast experience to communicate to people of all nations and generations his love and concern for our water planet. He is an impassioned, eloquent spokesman for the oceans, continuing his pioneering work through Ocean Futures Society.

Many people are familiar with your family name and some of the work that you and your father have done to explore the oceans, and educate people about the importance of protecting them. What drives you to do this kind of work?

JMC: Along with my late father Jacques Cousteau, I have spent my life exploring the ocean. Since first being thrown overboard by my father at the age of seven, I have been compelled to explore, to discover, to understand the secrets of the sea. An oft quoted fact is that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about our own ocean. How can we protect what we don’t yet understand? This is what has made me want to continue to support the philosophy of my father through our efforts at the Ocean Futures Society.

What is the mission of Ocean Futures Society?

JMC: The mission of Ocean Futures Society is to explore our global ocean, inspiring and educating people throughout the world to act responsibly for its protection,documenting the critical connection between humanity and nature, and celebrating the ocean’s vital importance to the survival of all life on our planet. I founded OFS in 1999. We are headquartered in Santa Barbara, CA. with offices in Sanary, France Lucca, Italy and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

What do you see as the biggest threats to our oceans?

Unfortunately the biggest threat to our oceans is us. Overfishing, pollution, climate change, ocean acidification are all impacting the oceans because of the misuse and abuse caused by humans. The ocean is our life support system. We need to stop harming it because what we do to the ocean we ultimately do to ourselves. It is ironic that the depletion of our ocean resources has accelerated at the same time we were personally donning dive masks and witnessing the richness of the ocean firsthand over 50 years ago. Just as we started to dignify and appreciate the ecological role of individual marine species and how they contribute to the sustainability of the marine ecosystem they call home, we were improving our fishing technology to remove them faster than they were replenishing their populations. From an ecological standpoint, we now understand how everything is connected. We now appreciate the need to set aside protected areas in the ocean just as we have done on land. But we are over a hundred years behind terrestrial conservation measures when it comes to protecting our marine assets. We protect over 14% of our land and less than 1% of the ocean. It is time to demonstrate the same stewardship for the ocean and recognize the importance of marine protected areas as a way to increase abundance, improve biodiversity and provide a nursery for species that will spill over into areas open to fishing. It is a win-win situation for us all. Ninety percent of all large fish populations are at risk from overfishing and most commercial fisheries are in decline. The problem is enormous but the solution is clear, quickly effective, and costs little.

Given these grim statistics; do you have hope for the future of the health o four oceans?

Absolutely, I have to or otherwise I would not keep traversing the planet, sharing the mission of Ocean Futures Society, empowering people to take personal responsibility for the long-term sustainability of our oceans. It starts with the individual; it starts with the heart and a desire to care.The more I learn about the ocean, the more I realize how little I truly understand it.Even after all these years, a sense of exploration and wonder still fills me each time I dive into the ocean’s depths.We owe it to ourselves–we owe it to our water planet—to do all that we can to protect our life support system.

Can you share with us one of your more memorable dives in the kelp forests that surround the Channel Islands National Park and National Marine Sanctuary, found off the coast where you live in Santa Barbara and where the headquarter is located for OFS?

YES I even included this one particular dive in my recently published book: “My Father the Captain: My Life with Jacques Cousteau”; I recall this memorable dive:”I notice an unusual opening in the kelp. All around, there is this dense and marvelous kelp forest, which appears to collect around a silky, sandy bottom. The way it appears before me, at just that moment, is almost otherworldly. The sun’s-rays are shining brightly through the kelp, lighting up this little, inexplicable patch of sand-like a spotlight on an empty stage. All around me there are tiny garibaldi,brightly colored damsel- fish native to the area. In normal light, they’re a fantastic,shimmering orange, but here in this bright sunlight, they are like festive candles, string of party decorations announcing some underwater fiesta. What can I do but follow these playful, carrot-colored fish to the sandy bottom? What can I do but give myself over to their sweet allure? I drop to my knees and fall on the spot and I am overcome with emotion. It is almost mystical. I have been thinking of my father, of course, and now it feels as if he is here with me, on this sun-splashed ocean floor.For the first time since his death, he is near.”

As an ocean conservationist, how are you supporting businesses that are instilling green practices and being social responsible?

In today’s marketplace, no business can ignore its environmental footprint because its customers now want to know what that business is doing to minimize waste,minimize use of resources, and create products that are not harmful to the environment. We are beginning to experience a wave of sustainable prosperity and it is a wave capable of reaching all shores. I appreciate La Isla for using the inspiration from the ocean to create swimwear and clothing that is in the spirit of enticing people to be outdoors, to be close to water; to feel, breathe the natural world.

You have a sense there is an ocean hero in us all?

Give us an example where one of your TV documentaries had immediate action to create change? My father was asked many times in interviews, “Mr. Cousteau what do you hope to find on your next expedition?” And my father would reply; “but if I knew, I wouldn’t go”. For me the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are one of those of places, far off the beaten path, little explored; where my team and I spent a month on expedition,diving reefs never filmed before and walking on some of the most isolated islands in the world. These islands and surrounding coral reefs have become a symbol of ocean stewardship. At a special screening of our film, “Voyage to Kure” in 2006, then-President Bush was moved by the beauty of this marine paradise and shocked by the trash piled up on the shore. He immediately acted to create what was then the largest marine protected area in the world. These areas become our partnership with nature where we uphold our side, which is basically to do no harm. We know the harm we have done to the ocean, and now we must act with greater commitment and knowledge and speed. It is time. There is an ocean hero within us all.

Do you have any last words you would like to share?

We must connect the ocean to the existence of every human being. This is the only way for people to understand that the quality of each and every one of our lives depends on water, depends on the ocean. My father said, “People protect what they love”, and so we want more people to fall in love with water. And I say, “Protect the ocean and you protect yourself”.

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