Passion Points: Green/Eco
At age nine, Céline Cousteau was introduced to the big blue sea by her grandfather, legendary adventurer and ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau. “He explained the scuba gear for about five minutes, and then into the water I went, says the thirty-six-year-old Cousteau, a filmmaker, engaged environmental spokesperson and “oceanaut” (a title invented by her grandfather). She still spends a fair amount of her time in the water, frequently traveling with teams of scientists and cameramen to capture the wonders under the sea, whether it’s by tagging tiger sharks in Australia, swimming with an anaconda in the Amazon or tracking the humpback whale migration in Hawaii.
A voracious traveler—she’s spends at least six months out of the year away from her New York City base—Cousteau is also an outspoken advocate of environmental issues and the importance of protecting our ecological, social and cultural heritage. Cousteau talked to Indagare about her work and travels, and why everyone should be doing their part in safe-guarding our collective future on this planet.
What are some of the projects you’re most excited about that you’re currently working on?
I’m in the midst of creating a company that will be producing a series of video shorts called “Into the World with Céline Cousteau,” which I plan on streaming on the web in three languages (as well as finding a television outlet). The first series will be take place in the Peruvian Amazon, where I have traveled extensively in the past years. The film will explore the relationship of humans and the environment there, looking at indigenous cultures and the challenges they are up against, like the loss of languages and habitat for medicinal plants. When I tell these stories, it’s important to me not only to expose others to far-away places but to have them really connect with them, by making them relevant to their lives.
When did you first travel to the Amazon?
When I was nine, I spent two weeks on the Calypso [her grandfather’s legendary explorer boat] with my grandparents. My mom, who was a photographer, was traveling with a land team, and my father and brother were off somewhere as well, so the whole family was spread throughout the Amazon. The memories I have of this trip are visual rather than intellectual ones. It wasn’t until 2006 that I returned with my brother and father to make the documentary Return to the Amazon, which aired on PBS.
How do you prepare for these trips?
It’s a bit like making a rough outline for your thesis and then realizing, once you start writing, that it will play out a bit differently. There was one place in the Amazon, for instance, where we were supposed to stay for a couple of days and ended up for about three weeks, because the bio-diversity was amazing, both on land and underwater.
What were some of your most memorable diving expeditions?
There are so many. One was diving during the humpback whale migration in Hawaii. We were working with scientists, so were able to get quite close to the animals. I was swimming with a mother and her calf and it was just breathtaking. They are such massive, gentle creatures. It was truly a spiritual experience for me.
Also, diving with sharks in Australia. I’m not a specialist in any one species, so I always do a huge amount of research and speak to the experts before going on these dives. This team was tagging and tracking a variety of different sharks. During one dive around Raine Island, a remote, protected reserve, something was wrong with the film equipment, but some of us were already in the water and at one point, I looked down and saw that there were maybe two dozen sharks circling underneath us. So I said to the guys, I’m going down there. It seemed like a better idea to be amongst them than to be bobbing up and down above, like in a bad movie.
You’re an engaged speaker when it comes to the environment. What are some of the things people can do to make a change?
Educating yourself is obviously huge, and with the internet you have access to so much information. My main advice is not to feel overwhelmed. It’s important to stay abreast of the bigger challenges, like climate change, but it’s even more important to zoom in on small issues where you can have an impact. Figure out what moves you about the world around you—your community, species, people—and choose to get involved. It doesn’t have to be in far-flung places, either; often there’s a ton to be done right in your neighborhood, whether its donating funds, volunteering your time, or writing to your senators about the issues. There’s just no excuse not to do anything.
What are the major issues threatening the Amazon?
The number one issue is de-forestation and, again, it’s a question of education. Because it’s not just about the loss of trees. When you cut down trees, it might be to build a road, and once you build one road, there will be side streets. Building a road in a place like the Amazon impacts the bio-diversity of a place as well as the global eco-system. Plus, you’re seriously effecting the indigenous communities living in the area. So you’re not just cutting down trees. It’s more complicated than that.
Do you ever feel hopeless with all that you’re up against?
I do get frustrated, but for every bit of negative news, I see someone doing something amazing. Recently, I traveled with the medical non-profit Amazon Promise (www.amazonpromise.org) and after days of going through these remote villages and assisting the people there, I asked the director, Patty Webster, how she keeps up the hope. And she said, ‘Whether I help one person or a hundred, at least I’m doing something.’ It helps to remember that when all the work that needs to be done feels overwhelming.
What would you advise parents who want to educate their children about environmental issues during their travels?
First of all, I don’t understand why environmentalism isn’t part of every curriculum in schools. You teach biology, so why not make that connection for the kids? In terms of travel planning, I would really pay attention to where you choose to go and teach the kids why you decided to bring them to a particular place: because they compost, because they have solar panels, because they have educational eco programs, etc. The consumer demand has to be the driving force for places to go green.
What are some eco-focused kid’s programs you would recommend?
Not just to plug my father’s non-profit, but I really do think the Jean-Michel Cousteau “Ambassadors of the Environment” (www.aote.org) programs are really great for kids. And they’ve been really successful in promoting awareness and educating. At the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, for instance, they launched the kid’s program but soon the parents started coming along, so they had to expand the program. Another place I have heard about is a program called Green Chimneys (www.greenchimneys.org), based in Brewster, NY, where city-kids learn about nature and the environment. Clean up the World (www.cleanuptheworld.com) is another program I am involved in as ambassador; they have tangible programs with partners around the world and anyone can get involved.
Are there any companies you admire for their environmentally conscious approach?
I feel like I can best speak of the companies I’ve chosen to be affiliated with. La Prairie is a luxury company that is not claiming that all their products are organic or one hundred percent eco-friendly. What they are saying is that they’re doing their part. For the Advanced Marine Biology cream, they are not using marine plants from the ocean but land-harvesting them; the packaging is recyclable and they donated one euro of every cream sold to the Ocean Futures Society.
What are some of your favorite eco lodges around the world?
I’m dying to go to Misool Eco Resort (www.misoolecoresort.com) in Indonesia. It opened last October and is a fantastic project. They worked with the local communities, training the people and teaching them tangible skills, building the resort, as well as English so that they could work as staff. The resort is built entirely out of sustainable wood, they have solar power and compost, and they got the waters around the island protected, so there is no fishing allowed. And of course, it’s in one of the most amazing dive spots in the world, so it’s my kind of place.
What do you hope to accomplish with your work?
I think above all it’s about showcasing people and making connections. Conservationist, scientists, researchers, doctors: they are all out there every day, working and fighting, and we need to support them. I’m fortunate to have access to places and experiences that may not be available to everyone, so I think my role is to find those amazing people, working above and below the water, and to come back to tell their stories in a way that is meaningful. I think of myself as part communicator, translator and storyteller.
Have you always felt a sense of responsibility, since you’ve had access to places that some people will never experience firsthand?
As an adult, I understand that I am part of a larger puzzle. I have these experiences, whether on land or under water, and I do feel the need to spread the word; not because it makes me feel important but because the subjects are important.
If you could take your grandfather on one more trip to a place you discovered and love, where would it be and why?
Where has he not been? He even has one place on me, since he’s been to whatever comes next. And I know he’s still exploring out there! But seriously, I would probably go back to the Mediterranean, where he first started all his crazy schemes, and where I took my first dive with him at age nine. I would go back to where it all began.
For more information on Céline Cousteau and to learn about the projects she is working on and how you can get involved, go to: www.celinecousteau.com.
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