An Interview with Jean-Michel Cousteau
Editor Dave Moran recently caught up with Jean-Michel Cousteau while he and his film crew were filming orca with the assistance of New Zealand’s Orca Research Trust founder, Dr Ingrid Visser.
Based in Santa Barbara, USA, Jean-Michel has established Ocean Futures Society (www.oceanfutures.org) a non-profit marine conservation and education organization and the Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Adventures (pbs.org/oceanadventures) an ongoing television series.
The mission statement for 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.
Dave Moran (DM): What is your impression of Dr Ingrid Visser and the research she is doing with New Zealand orca?
Jean-Michel Cousteau (JMC): Ingrid is an unconditionally dedicated scientist who has a quality which most scientists don’t have. She can talk to the public in terms they understand. She gets criticized for that because science is not black and white. Ingrid has a natural gift as a scientist and I think she’s doing an amazing job trying to understand the real science of these creatures as well as communicating in a very poetic, emotional, beautiful way with the public. She’s very forceful, some people don’t like that from a woman. I have a lot of respect for Ingrid because of her determination. She makes it very clear what she’s doing and what she’s going to do.
DM: Did your team obtain some usable film here in New Zealand to use in your documentary about orca worldwide?
JMC: Yes. It was an amazing coup to be in New Zealand when there was a stranding which on average happens once a year. This will make the New Zealand segment very strong. People will be very taken by that experience.
DM: What other episodes in the series are you working on or have done in the past?
JMC: During the last four years we’ve worked on producing a two segment series titled Voyage to Kure, an atoll situated in the remote group of Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI). On the way we filmed Tern and Laysan islands and Midway Atoll in addition to a few seamounts in between the islands and atolls that make up the NWHI.
Due in part to our discoveries while filming at these remote locations these islands and atolls and their surrounding waters were declared a national marine monument by President Bush on 15 June 2006. We brought to the public’s attention the shocking amount of garbage present and its devastating effects on the life living in these remote areas. Witnessing turtles, seals and birds struggling to survive amongst a landscape of rubbish, was very disturbing!
We laid our finding at the steps of the White House. Many there are divers.
The Governor of Hawaii chartered a flight and took 21 people to see for themselves the mess at Midway!
We landed at night so as not to disturb over two million albatross that nest on these islands. These 21 people, representing different departments in the state and federal governments, found themselves on the island for 36 hours. They had time to observe and discuss what they were seeing. I took them snorkelling, showing them some of the debris and nets on the reef.
Before our film was screened on television we were invited to the White House to show the film. On viewing the film, President Bush simply said to the gathering, ‘Let’s get it done’. He also added ‘And no fishing!’, after Dr Sylvia Earle and I pointed out to him that fishing was allowed in all the marine sanctuaries.
The rest is history. An area, 140,000 square miles, bigger than Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (at 135,000 square miles) is now protected - fantastic! That was probably Ocean Futures Society’s biggest publicly recognized accomplishment. Other people also deserve credit.
Our other films are: Sharks at Risk, The Gray Whale Obstacle Course and America’s Underwater Treasures.
This last film came about when I realized that the majority of American people did not know that part of their tax dollars, went to the protection of national marine sanctuaries. I wanted to show them these treasures. It took us a year to film the 14 locations that covered such areas as the Great Lakes, West, East, and South United States coasts, the Gulf of Mexico and even American Samoa.
In April this year we released, Return to the Amazon. This is about my return after an absence of 25 years when I was there with my dad. You can view a preview of these films on our website.
We are currently in post production on a film about beluga whales and their struggle to survive due to climate change.
Our current filming is about orca.
I consider, as many others, that orca are the most dominant species in the ocean. They can kill the blue whale if they want to. Nobody kills them. They have so many similarities to the human species. You find orcas from the Arctic to the Antarctic. You find humans from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Nobody kills us, we can kill anything. We have a complex, social life, so do they. The big difference is, we are visual creatures and they are acoustic. That’s why we have a hard time understanding each other, but there are still some connections which are really profound in many ways.
It troubles me that we humans are polluting their world and I guess that brings me to my next passionate project. I want to do a film about the water system of the ocean which I call the bloodstream of the ocean. Current, weather, climate change – I don’t call it global warming because I believe some regions will get colder and other regions will get warmer – I believe in climate change. It is very important to show we are using the ocean as a trash-can. We’re dumping everything into it, whether it’s chemicals or heavy metals, all of this is not only affecting the quality of the ocean but also the quality of our lives. The ocean is basically our life support system. All the clouds, rain, snow and ice come from the ocean. Many believe, as a species we have reached a critical point: We need to alter our ways to prevent severe changes in the way we currently live and share this planet with other living creatures.
I believe education may hold the key. At Ocean Futures Society we are speaking to government and industry decision makers. It is absolutely critical that they have an understanding of what is going on in the environment.
We have educational programmes: Ambassadors of the Environment, we get young people involved because these are the future decision makers. Is it too late?
I don’t believe you can tackle the local issues if you don’t have a plan for the big picture. If you study young people, their attention is three to five minutes. Forget about television, it’s all internet. We need to create internet programmes which are three to five minutes long to reach young people. They don’t watch good television they watch crap – bad stuff. A good documentary they don’t watch. They plug into their computers, that’s all they do. So let’s give them good internet material to view. Still have television documentaries for adults!
DM: How do you perceive orca in the overall balance of marine life in the ocean?
JMC: Orcas are like us, they are at the top of a food chain or the pyramid of life. Like us they are affected by the way we mistreat our environment. We need to pay attention to what’s happening to not only orca but to all the species that are at the top of the pyramid. Because of their position in the food chain their bodies absorb all kinds of toxins. We are in the same position and it would be interesting to compare what is in our blood stream with that of an orca! People need to realize that dumping all manner of waste into the ocean affects us all. No one benefits.
An example: When the liquid runs out of a plastic cigarette lighter some are chucked into the sea. A flying fish will lay its eggs on the lighter because that’s what they do on anything that floats. Then albatross pick it up because of the rich nutrient eggs and feeds it to their babies. They do that a number of times to the point where the babies will have anywhere between eight and 15 objects in their stomach which they cannot regurgitate and they die. Who wins? Nobody. The general public is not aware or understands what is going on over their own back fence! How can you protect what you don’t understand? Our experience is that once people have the information, they change their behaviour because why would you hurt yourself and family.
DM: Is the technology to catch fish just too efficient these days?
JMC: I’m happy to tell you that while in New Zealand we were in Tutukaka looking for orca we came across hundreds of birds feeding on an equally large school of fish. When you see such things you realise it’s not over yet. And that’s really what I want to convey.
When we meet fishermen sometimes they feel we are a threat but we are not. I eat fish. I’m on the side of the fisherman. I don’t want them to lose their jobs; I just want us to better manage our resources. If we continue to all work together, then the fishermen will begin to realize that we are there to assist them in understanding what is going on. We learn from them because they know all kinds of stuff I don’t. They’ve spent their life out there, I haven’t, I’m not a hypocrite.
DM: Modern technology: our saviour or our demise?
JMC: I think it’s our saviour if we use it properly. The communication revolution has the power of giving us instant access to people around the planet. These tools, which unfortunately can be misused and abused, are the answer to many of our problems. We need to mature. We are infants on the planet; we just arrived three million years ago. Whales and dolphins have been around 50-60 million years, sharks, 200–300 million years, crustaceans, 400-500 million years. We’re making a lot of mistakes. We need correct information to reach the public and technology can help to achieve that.
DM: Do you feel you have a responsibility to keep the Cousteau legacy alive and the on going Cousteau commitment to continue to educate people about the marine life and the planet in general?
JMC: Naturally I feel we need to honour my dad’s accomplishments. He was motivated by the thrill of discovering things. When asked ‘What do you expect to find?’ He replied, ‘If I knew, I wouldn’t go’. I don’t particularly like to talk about myself but I saw what my dad and his team did and I was part of it. When I was young I did not have to cope with my father’s fame as he was unknown then. I have seen how my own children, Celine and Fabien, have tried to cope with the public’s expectations that the name Cousteau brings. They have had to put up with a famous grandfather and somewhat known father and they have proved to themselves that they could do their own thing. Naturally they’re interested in the environment because they were exposed to it at an early age. I never pushed them and never will, but if that’s what they want to do I want to help them because we need spokespeople and they obviously have the advantage of the name. For me it’s not a question of, ‘what if?’ It’s, ‘how to do it?’ I hope my children, in their own way, with new technology, will continue my father’s legacy. I feel very privileged and I’m very grateful that dad was so involved with his work with my mum Simone when Philippe and I were kids. Today I feel even more responsible because I’m 70 years old, I started diving 63 years ago - maybe soon I’ll be the oldest diver on the planet?
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