Fabien Cousteau

Posted on: 25 April 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

The ocean adventurer tells 50connect what drives him to explore our planet's final frontier.

Oceanographer and environmental spokesperson Fabien Cousteau is grandson of the most famous diver, Jacques Cousteau, who helped invent scuba diving. Fabien is the third generation, after his father Jean-Michel, to bring ocean life to TV screens all over the world.

He began diving on his fourth birthday, and at the age of 12 was part of the crew of Calypso and Alcyone, his grandfather's ships. Before taking up the family passion for exploring the ocean as an adult, his career encompassed business, working for the leading environmental products development company Seventh Generation, and he is also involved in mentoring and educational programmes. He recently co-launched Deep Blue Productions, which is working on projects related to exploration and environmental awareness through television and other media.

Fabien talked to 50connect about his famous family, his passion for the ocean, some highlights of filming at sea and the need to protect the environment.

As one of the Cousteaus you obviously have a famous surname, diving and ocean exploration seems almost to be a "family business" - do you feel this has been an entirely good thing or was it a hindrance at all?

I think it's good, I took it on voluntarily and I was never pressured into the "family business". My family has always encouraged all of us to do whatever makes us happy in life, and I did go out after university and explore various types of environment such as the business realm.

I've been given a gift and so have my father and sister [Céline], by virtue of the fact that my grandfather was able to be a pioneer in the ocean world. It's a gift in the sense that we have to do something good for our planet with it. Going off on expeditions, exploring, filming and bringing all those lovely pictures to people who can't do that, brings about a huge responsibility that we can't turn our backs on which is the state of our world and trying to relay that information and hopefully find solutions. I tend to not sleep well as long as things are not going the right way on our planet so the more we can do, and instil a sense of hope towards a better direction for earth, the more we can pay homage to that gift.

You say in your foreword to the book Ocean that "it would be much healthier for us to learn to dance nature's waltz than to try to change the music" and talk about taking simple steps to protect the planet, so what do you think people as individuals can do to make a difference?

On a grand scale it seems insurmountable, but that's only because it's a very complex problem with a complex set of solutions. We are all responsible for where we are today on this planet and we can all be part of the solution. It's basically about making sure that we are not wasting resources - some countries and some individuals are more adept at that than others. In our everyday lives, it's not so much about modifying our lifestyle but our behaviour, which in a lot of the developed world has been carefree in respect of consuming our natural resources and throwing our waste away.

So is one reason why you make programmes showing us the ocean to demonstrate why we should be doing all these things like recycling and conserving water?

Absolutely. The programmes show the wonders of our world and why we should care, and bring about a consciousness of what's going on right outside our doorstep, as well as at the far reaches of the globe. We as a family have been to some of the most remote locations on earth and seen signs of human impact where there are no humans, which is very alarming. The general public should be aware of what's around them, how we are affecting the planet and how it's affecting us. I hope to bring about a sense of empowerment at the same time, giving background information and ammunition to be able to find solutions and put them into effect in our everyday lives.

What makes you maintain such a positive attitude to solving these problems?

If I believed in doom and gloom I wouldn't bother doing what I'm doing! You have to keep an optimistic attitude regardless of what's happening. That said I don't believe everything will be OK 100 percent, but we can do the utmost to make sure that we save as much of this planet as possible. Over the last three decades we've been forewarned about the impact that we're having and yet it's not until we experience a serious event like a tsunami one too many times that everyone panics about what's happening. I think we will see some negative impact on this planet in the long run but at the same time I believe that if we act now we can minimise the repercussions. I'm a realist but I'm also an optimist - I guess I'm an optimistic realist!

Do you think that environmentally friendly businesses offering non-toxic household products, or eco-tourism, for example, are the way forward for conservation?

It's not an easy task, the problem is so complex that we have to address it on many levels, not only individually but also with business. I went to university to study environmental economics, which is the bridging of the gap between environmental problems and economically viable solutions for our everyday lives. The business and economic world that we've built over the last few centuries, especially since the industrial revolution, needs to be modified to take into account the environmental impact that we have in our every decision. Business has everything to do with the environment because businesses control what we do to this planet.

On a personal level, what makes you so passionate about the ocean and the environment?

I love being on land too, we're all land creatures, but first and foremost we as a family are known for exploring the last frontier on this planet which is the ocean. If you take into account the world of water, seas and rivers, in the last 100 years we've barely managed to scratch the surface, maybe 3 to 5 percent of our ocean has been explored, so there's a lot left to be done. That sense of vastness and final frontier is definitely a motivating factor for the attempt to journey and explore. Every time I go diving I learn something new and many times I see something new, which is a wonderful feeling.

There is also an enormous sense of wonder and awe in this unseen world that's so important and is what drives us into exploring the oceans. When we go diving and filming it's impossible to try to give only half the picture, you cannot tear away the environmental aspect from the water or land, everything's interconnected.

When you're filming is it important to you to observe without interfering with nature? For example when you built Troy, a shark-shaped submarine designed to mimic the behaviour of the creatures in order to observe them in their natural habitat.

On a scientific level it's extremely important not to interfere with the animal or plant that you're observing. From a filming standpoint and on a philosophical level when we're interacting with the subjects it's vital for us to be able to see them naturally - it sends the wrong message if you do interfere with those animals. There are plenty of moments where they come to us themselves and are very curious, and those are magical.

Have you had any memorable experiences when filming recently?

Underwater Treasures took us to 30 different locations in 10 months which is an excruciating schedule. We clocked up enough mileage to fly around the world 20 times, and we dove over 340 times. One fantastic and unique memory is swimming among humpback whales in Hawaii, free diving and being with them while they were sleeping underwater, singing or nursing their calves.

Also, being among the coral spawning, which is when the coral release their sperm and eggs, was like an underwater reverse snowstorm - it's fantastic swimming amongst it. I joke around and say I'm swimming in the midst of an underwater orgy! But it's one of those moments where you feel that this is where life is born. It gets carried off into the oceans to resettle in other parts of the Caribbean to bring about a new generation of life. Imagewise that is beautiful, and because we all know the problems of coral poaching - the UN for example has estimated over 30 percent of all coral reefs around the world have died - to be part of something so beautiful and see that nature is spawning new life definitely gives a sense of hope.

You must also have lots of memories from childhood?

I have really good memories going way back, my mind floods with wonderful moments that make me smile and laugh. When we were diving in Papua New Guinea there were a couple of orcas, killer whales, which was fantastic because up until that point no-one knew that they went into tropical waters. We were about 40 feet away from two adult killer whales, a male and a female, hovering under the surface of the water maybe 5 feet deep. They had just finished eating a manta ray and were resting so we got to approach them relatively close - without interfering of course - and the male decided to disappear into the deep blue and plunged into the abyss below, which puzzled us because the female was not following but just hovering under the surface. Shortly thereafter he came back up with a 7 foot shark in his mouth. They played cat and mouse with this shark, tossing it amongst each other until they got bored and within a half second tore it to bits and ate it. They were almost showing off, at the same time it was an image of such awe, beauty and respect as well, because they could have very easily done that with us but chose not to. That was a magical moment.

Fabien Cousteau has written a foreword to Ocean, published by Dorling Kindersley, a photographic celebration of the wonders of the world's last wilderness and the diversity of marine life. It is available from all good bookshops, RRP £30, or you can purchase it online from Amazon.

By Cherry Butler

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