Wonders of the Sea 3D team exploring coral reefs.

 Wonders of the Sea 3D team exploring coral reefs.

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU, son of the famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, was born in Toulon, the South of France. From a young age, Jean-Michel was quite literally immersed in the ocean. Shortly after his father created the aqua-lung, he strapped it onto Jean-Michel’s back and launched him into the Mediterranean Sea. Rather than being met with fear, he instead discovered his passion – the awe-inspiring beauty and mystery of the ocean.

This motivated Jean-Michel to study marine architecture at the Paris School of Architecture, which gave him the opportunity to work on international marine design projects. Since then, he has been heavily involved in education and public engagement, founding numerous organizations such as Project Ocean Search, Living Design and the Jean-Michel Cousteau Institute. During this time, he became much more involved with the work of his father in creating films such as: Cousteau’s Amazon, Cousteau’s Mississippi and Jacques Cousteau: the First 75 Years. His work has been decorated with numerous awards such as the Peabody Award, the Ace Award, and the 7 d’Or.

Continuing his father’s legacy, Jean-Michel Cousteau and his two children, Celine and Fabien, share with audiences what they’ve been fiercely defending their entire lives. In his new film, Wonders of the Sea 3D, new advances in technology have allowed them to dive deeper and explore further, shedding light on species that have rarely been seen before. The film itself is embellished with playful storytelling that is narrated by Celine, Fabien, Jean-Michel and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Through this narrative, they guide the audience through their expedition, which reveals everything from iridescent coral reefs to the darkest ocean depths.

The film also reveals the ugly truth of what has become of the ocean – plastic pollution, ocean acidification, toxic chemicals and noise pollution mean that now more than ever, films like Wonders of the Sea 3D are crucial to protecting the ocean and the vast number of species within it. I had the opportunity to talk about some of these issues with Jean-Michel over the phone, while he was at the Ocean Futures Society in Toronto. Here’s the conversation.

Adam: I want to start by talking about technology. I understand your father co-invented the ‘aqua-lung’ that allowed people to dive deeper and go further in the ocean. So I was wondering how recent advancements in technology have empowered you in ways that weren't possible before?

Jean-Michel: You know, I grew up in the ocean. In the sense that, when my father co-invented the regulator, he immediately put a tank on my back, my mother’s back and my brother’s and we went diving every weekend. I started diving when I was seven, and I've never stopped. So I've always been fascinated [by diving], and when people ask me, ‘what is your best dive?’ I always tell them, ‘the next one!’

Every time I go diving, I see something I've never seen before, whether it's a plant or an animal or behaviour. I found out that we know much more about what's on land than what's in the ocean. There are probably thousands and thousands of species that we have yet to discover in the ocean. So how can we protect them if we don't know what's there? So I am very excited today to be connected to people who invented the equipment which allows me to see things that I've never been able to see underwater with my naked eyes.

Now, you know my father. He wanted to film because he was filming above water at the time when few cameras existed. Then he managed to put a camera to go and film underwater. He was with friends who were spearfishing and he wanted to film them, but he could never hold his breath as long as they could, so that's when he said, “I need to bring some air with me.” He was connected to an engineer who helped him co-invent the regulator, which is part of the equipment we still use today, to be disconnected from the surface and be able to explore. This has fascinated me because I've always wanted to [find] places or species that have never been seen before. And – thanks to my colleagues from France, the Mantello brothers and several other people – they invented the equipment which allows us to go under the water with the help of a scientist to identify species that we can observe in slow motion.  If it's fascinating, great! If it's not, we have to go back and do it again. Sometimes two or three times because when you push the button to film, you don't know what you’re collecting. That's why it has taken three and a half years to put Wonders of the Sea together. Going from different parts of the Pacific, to the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean to show to the public all over the world what we all depend upon and that we are all connected to the ocean one way or another. So, the behavior, the diversity is absolutely fascinating and that's why Wonders of the Sea is there to help people – not only to be entertaining, but to also realize the mission is that we are all connected to the ocean. Whether you’re drinking a glass of water, you're drinking the ocean, or whether you’re skiing on top of the mountain, you’re skiing on the ocean.

We know, thanks to education which is being passed on to the public, that much better decisions are being made to protect the environment, including the decisions made by the Government of Canada, which in October [2018] has started making some very important decisions on the West coast and other parts of the Canadian coastline in order to make sure that chemicals are being disposed of properly. We never talk about this because we don't see it! Noise pollution also affects marine mammals such as dolphins and whales, so educating the public about the protection of places where they reproduce and relax is very important. And finally, it's very important that we stop removing species, particularly Orcas, for example, from where they go to give birth. They need to feed themselves like we do, and the species that they traditionally feed on are disappearing from these locations and so it’s our responsibility to help them.

So, I'm very very respectful of the Canadian government having made these big decisions. The Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, the Canadian Coast Guard, the Parliamentary Secretary, the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change and the Honourable Marc Garneau. These people are very helpful, and I thank them.

Adam: One of the biggest challenges we are facing as a species right now, as you mentioned, is climate change. Much of the literature I’ve read suggests that the ocean is particularly vulnerable to climate change, but I was wondering what have been some of the most dramatic changes you've noticed in the ocean?

Jean-Michel: Well, the changes I've observed, since my primary sense is vision, is the loss of coral reefs, which is increasing non-stop for now. [Corals] are affected by climate change through our emissions of CO2, which increases and contributes to the increasing temperature of the ocean. It also creates acidification of places where you have coral reefs, which are very sensitive to acidification. There are places like in Florida and other parts of the world where the coral is dying. Corals are very complex. It's a relationship between creatures and plants and when a family of these are affected, the others die because they are connected. So when you go to Florida, you will see 20 to 50 per cent of coral reefs are dead. This affects thousands of species, and many species of fish that need to be there, such as crustaceans, crabs, lobsters and so on. They all require the presence of the coral reefs for their protection, food and reproduction.

So we are affecting the ocean in a very dramatic way. The temperature of the ocean has increased by 1C, 2C or 3C degrees, providing additional energy to the ocean. This contributes to the rising of the ocean because of [thermal] expansion. This is a huge [amount] of energy that is taken advantage of by storms and hurricanes. When you  consider that a category three becomes a category four or five, it can do a lot more damage. When you look at, for example, in the Pacific, there are many small countries with three hundred thousand people that are in a process of disappearing because some of them are no higher than three, four, five meters above sea level. What are we going to do with these people? We need to help them. We need to communicate that. We need to invite them to join us. It's not their fault. It's our fault.

So thanks to education and the Ocean Futures Society, which I created after my father passed away to honour his philosophy, we hope to do something about that. My father said, ‘it is you, Jean-Michel, who will carry on the flame of my faith.’ I have a mission and I will pass it on to my children who have adopted it.  We’re trying to do everything we can to help people realize that every one of us is connected to the ocean. That way, we can help ensure the next generations will have the same privilege that we have.

Céline Cousteau, Fabien Cousteau and Jean-Michel Cousteau.

Adam: I'm studying climate change and I think one of the things I struggle with is the role of communication and education. What I mean by that is, I find it difficult to find the balance between alarmism, positive messages about climate change and the state of the global environment. So my question to you is what do you think is the best way to reach people in a way that motivates them to take meaningful action?

Jean-Michel: Well, number one, you must never criticize – never point a finger. You only want to have a dialogue and reach their heart. Whether it is another human being, or people responsible in government or industry, I can tell you it works not 100 per cent of the time, but it works most of the time.

If you're comfortable, I personally invite you to join Ocean Futures Society. You can go on our website and you can ask questions. Membership is free because we didn't want children to ask for money from their parents. We are a not-for-profit company; we now have thousands and thousands of children and we have qualified people such as marine biologists to answer people’s questions. So there is an opportunity for anybody on the planet to learn and understand that we are all connected to the ocean, but we want to show that in an entertaining way, whether it's images or words or having conversations. It really works very well. And that's why we have a program which is called Ambassador of the Environment, which is in different hotels. We just opened one at the Ritz-Carlton in Santa Barbara, and we have some on the big island of Catalina Island of Los Angeles where we have thousands of kids coming from downtown Los Angeles who have never seen the ocean! They can spend five, six, seven, days there with our team to learn about the ocean. We also do this on cruise ships in many different parts of the world so we can share information with people to be connected to the ocean and understand how we depend upon it. If there’s no water, there’s no life, and the quality of that water is critical for every species, in addition to us, whether it's on land or in the ocean.

Whether it is the snow where you ski – you’re skiing on the ocean, or the water you drink – you're drinking the ocean. Each species reflects a certain amount of capital, whether plants or animals on land or in the ocean – they need to be preserved as capital. We should only collect the interest produced by that capital, but unfortunately, today, we are taking more and more natural capital and we are losing species because of it. As we lose more and more species, the whole system becomes weaker and the system can crash – we don't want to go there. We're the only species on the planet that has the capabilities and the knowledge to make sure we don't disappear. We have the privilege to decide not to disappear. No other species can do that. So we need people like you for example to communicate.

Adam: There's a point in the movie where you make an analogy between architecture and the ocean, and I understand you studied architecture. I think this is quite a fascinating analogy and I hear there are often comparisons made between coral reefs and our cities. Based on some of these ideas, do you think there's anything we can learn from the ocean which can be directly applied to our cities and to our society?

Jean-Michel: Absolutely, it takes a lot of understanding and specialists. I listen to a lot of scientists, researchers and observers, etcetera to understand, for example, how a coral reef community is like a village or a city. Everything is connected and the species all depend upon each other. The structures have been built by creatures similarly to us on land. There are creatures under the water that build structures but they all depend on each other because they are connected to those structures. They cannot move and go away except, for example, when they move once a year to release and fertilize their eggs. They all depend on food and in this case the other plants and algae which are growing right next to them to feed themselves. So growing the structures, or taking care of their environment, or being taken care of by other species that need to be, whether it is a structure like a hospital or house where you going to be and stay and so on – it’s all very fascinating!

Adam: As we study cities as more like living organisms I'm interested to see how some of that new knowledge that we gain can be applied to human systems and how we can become more sustainable in the future.

Jean-Michel: Well, that's a very good question. And that's what we're trying to do through education. It’s critical. And when you have too much of a species, you have a problem, when you don’t have enough of a species, we have another problem. So, we have to understand the whole connection which has allowed nature to be successful.

The Ocean Futures Society is an organization founded by Jean-Michel Cousteau which aims to educate the public on important issues related to the ocean.

Adam is a journalist in residence with Alternatives Journal, and Master of Climate Change student at the University of Waterloo. He is part of the TRANSFORM project based out of UW’s SPROUT lab which seeks to understand the role of small to medium size businesses in climate governance and how we can accelerate their transition to low-carbon.

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