As a child, I spent many hours scouring over countless stacks of my grandparents’ old copies of National Geographic and watching Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s captivating television specials about his groundbreaking pelagic expeditions and exploration of the world’s oceans.
His discoveries were astounding, revealing underwater habitats to millions of viewers and readers. While he was educating the world, he was also introducing his own sons, Philippe, who died in 1979, and Jean-Michel, to a life of adventure.
"My father pushed me overboard when I was 7," said Jean-Michel Cousteau, who is now 67 and president of the Santa Barbara-based Ocean Futures Society, a nonprofit organization committed to saving wild places. "In those days, kids didn’t argue with their parents. I became an instant scuba diver with my late brother. As a family, we began discovering the south of France."
Jean-Michel is a tall man with flowing white hair and a full beard. His presence and deep bellowing voice demand attention. In his Santa Barbara office, a sculpted bust of his late father looks on from an otherwise vacant corner, and a map of the world hangs on the wall, revealing bodies of water and islands of special environmental concern.
By the time Jean-Michel was 12, the entire family began exploring the Mediterranean – Greece, Italy and Turkey. At 13, his father had the boys diving off the coasts of Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Curiosity, adventure and discovery shaped Jacques Cousteau’s life, and those qualities were instilled into his sons. Jean-Michel said his father was very determined; nothing stopped him. If a piece of equipment was needed but didn’t exist, his father invented it.
However, as driven as his father was, it was his mother, Simone, and her work behind the scenes that fueled much of the family’s success.
"The typical cliché is a strong woman behind a famous person," said Jean-Michel. "That was my mother. I don’t think he would’ve gone as far or accomplished as much without her."
According to Jean-Michel, Simone hid behind the scenes (she didn’t want to be on film), but she called the shots. While the Cousteaus explored the Amazon in 1982 and ’83, Simone spent more time on the ship than all the rest of the family combined.
"She spent 10 months on the ship without getting off. I don’t know anyone who would’ve done that," recalled Jean-Michel. "She was the real captain. It comes from the fact that she descended from many generations of naval officers. She wanted to be in the navy, but in those days women weren’t allowed."
When it came to Jacques Cousteau’s vision of discovery on their many global expeditions aboard the Calypso, Jean-Michel found his father to be very demanding, but for good reason: Not only was he the parent, he was also a friend and boss.
Sometimes it was difficult to juggle their relationship, but they always managed.
"When we had breakfast together, I felt like I was with the president or prime minister," said Jean-Michel. "We argued about all kinds of things like we should, and then we walked out of there with a plan."
Ocean Futures Society
Jacques Cousteau died in 1997, but his legacy lives on in the nonprofit organizations founded and in Jean-Michel’s Ocean Futures Society, a global organization created in 1999 and dedicated to spreading the word about the environmental plight facing the planet. He started the organization to honor his father’s memory, realizing that if he didn’t grab the reins there would be no one to continue his father’s mission.
"I worked with him most of my life," said Cousteau. "He had a vision, then suddenly he’s gone. He didn’t give me any indication that it would continue unless I did something about it. We want to be the voice of the ocean."
Ocean Futures Society lives by its motto, "Protect the ocean and you protect yourself." However, protecting this vital resource has been a massive uphill battle against a mounting world population, greed, ignorance and politics. For centuries, the ocean has been the world’s personal garbage dump, beginning in the mountains, flowing down creeks and rivers and eventually spilling into the ocean.
According to Jean-Michel, there are more than 100 dead zones, virtual wastelands beneath the sea that were once thriving habitats. Now, nothing lives there. These oxygen-deprived regions have died off due to chemicals, like DDT, being dumped into the ocean, nitrogen runoff from fertilizers, oil spills, lead and mercury. Marine life either succumbs to the pollution or moves on to healthier waters.
The world’s largest known dead zone is located in the Gulf of Mexico. Jean-Michel became aware of it in 1982 while giving a presentation in Mississippi. Since then, it’s doubled in size, and it has become as large as the state of Pennsylvania. In the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the dead zone will continue to grow.
"We continue to use the ocean as a garbage can, a universal sewer," said Jean-Michel. "Our infrastructure has been wrong since day one, and it’s a huge headache. Anyone that’s aware of it and wants to correct it, that’s very, very difficult. From an economical point of view, it’s a total nightmare."
He’s also concerned about our coastlines, where 90 percent of all forms of marine life go to find places for protection, reproduction and food.
"We’re doing to the ocean exactly what we’re doing on land," he said. "We’re trying to catch everything we can catch. Because of the sophistication of technology today, we even know where certain species are going to meet, mate and have their young."
But Cousteau doesn’t blame the fishermen. In fact, he’s on their side. He feels government agencies have left fishermen with no other options but to keep taking fish.
"If you don’t catch all these fish, you’re not going to make the payments on your boat; the bank is going to take it away from you," he said. "The regulations are totally screwed up."
As bleak as this all sounds, Jean-Michel is confident the pendulum will swing in conservation’s favor. One way his organization has attacked this global problem is by educating the world’s youth, taking teachers and kids out of schools and introducing them to nature. Currently, Cousteau has educational sites located in California, Hawaii, French Polynesia, France, the Cayman Islands, the Caribbean and the British Virgin Islands. Next year there will be sites in Italy, Greece, Brazil and possibly Florida.
At these sites, students are taught about the relationship between the land and ocean. The programs also attempt to instill self-confidence and teamwork, as well as teach pragmatic problem-solving skills.
Students are provided the necessary materials, translated into local languages. Instead of Jean-Michel making appearances in the classrooms, teachers and local people in each country teach the classes. After the classes are taught, Ocean Futures Society retrieves feedback to explore modifications needed for the next program.
"We can take a kid out of downtown Los Angeles who has never seen the ocean – believe me there are a lot of them," said Cousteau, "and in three days we make a swimmer, snorkeling at night."
Another program is focused on sustainable coral reefs and protecting islands, 85 percent of which are located in Third World countries. The program seeks to understand how coral reefs work in places like the Bahamas and Fiji. The Caribbean country’s maximum altitude on 95 to 98 percent of its islands is 10 feet above sea level. Without a barrier of coral reefs surrounding the chain, the islets would be exposed to storms, tsunamis and hurricanes, thereby washing the tiny Caribbean nation away.
During a recent United Nations meeting that Cousteau attended, he recalled that the Fijian leader took offense at his country being referred to as "a small island nation." What many in the audience didn’t realize is that Fiji’s entire territory encompassing its pelagic resources is larger than North America.
"This was powerful to me because finally someone was looking at this not from land but water," said Cousteau. "It’s all territory!"
Most countries bordered by coral reefs rely on tourism, some of them for up to 90 percent of their income. "Destroy your reefs and no one will show up again," explained Jean-Michel. "If you go to a place that’s been trashed, you’re not going to go back."
One ocean that isn’t completely trashed that is of special concern to Cousteau is the Pacific because, he said, "it’s such a huge place and we know so little about it."
However, Jean-Michel – working in conjunction with the National Marine Sanctuary and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – is in the process of converting one of the most biologically diverse regions of the Pacific into the largest marine sanctuary in America.
The proposed sanctuary would begin in the Hawaiian Islands at Kauai and head 1,200 miles northwest to Kure, the northernmost coral atoll on the planet. Characterized by massive sea mounts teeming with marine life, remote reefs and endangered species like monk seals and green sea turtles, it’s one of the most unique chains of islands in the world and almost as large as the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.
"There are species of endemic fish and corals that we don’t even know about," stated Cousteau. "It’s a legacy we can pass on to the next generation."