It’s a well-known story: Jean-Michel Cousteau’s lifelong mission of education, conservation and exploration began in 1945, when, at seven years old, he was “thrown overboard” and into the ocean by his famous father. Now 80, Cousteau is still diving. Moreover, he is continuing to share his immense concern and adoration for the Earth’s oceans—through film, workshops, and educational initiatives such as the new Ambassadors of the Environment program at the Ritz-Carlton. From kayaking through mangroves and trips on glass-bottomed boats in Grand Cayman to organic gardening in Dorado Beach, and snorkeling in Maui, the programs are designed to teach kids and adults alike about the fragility and significance of the ocean environment—and the intrinsic connection between the sea and every single human on the planet.
On a recent visit to Grand Cayman, we spent time with Cousteau—whether snorkeling or watching his recent documentary—and he was quick to discuss his findings, fears and hopes with us. “People laugh when I tell them that when you go in the ocean, you’ll be protected. But it’s true: salt preserves,” he says.
“Keep in mind, we are all connected to the ocean—even when you’re not near it. Whether you drink a glass of water or go skiing or it’s raining; you’re drinking the ocean, you’re skiing on the ocean. We are always connected, and people need to know that so we can make better decisions than we have made. We’re making a lot of mistakes. A lot.”
Those mistakes, while perhaps obvious and logical to many, aren’t immediately visible to most of us. Cousteau, however, sees the effects of our decisions every time he’s on, or under, the water. “I’ve seen a lot of changes. Not only in the quality of the environment, but also the absence of the species that I used to see on a regular basis. There are a lot of fish that are staples—you know they will be there at certain times. I keep going to the same locations to see my friends. For example, my Grouper friends. In Fiji there was one, I used to go and see her—I have been going there for 20-something years—and she disappeared. She never came back. It was very sad. I can tell you, we’re losing many species and the environment is being affected in devastating ways.” The more species that are protected, the more stable the entire ocean environment—and, in turn, the more stable the Earth will be for human habitation. “Diversity is synonymous with stability,” he explains. “Every time we lose another species, we’re weakening the whole system. And this needs to change.”
Staunchly opposed to single-use plastic (which becomes more evident almost every moment we spend with him), Cousteau refuses to make villains of anybody—be it politicians, CEOs or regular civilians—saying, “My job is to be underwater. I’m not here to criticize, I’m here to help.” Empowerment without shaming seems to be is moda operandi, explaining “It’s our life-support system. We can all make that happen, every one of us. We can help with programs like the Ambassadors of the Environment. We can help.”
And, of course, the recent focus on plastic straws is reductive. “I have been totally fascinated, and totally devastated,” he says. “I have seen—in the middle of the Pacific—hundreds of thousands of tons of fishing nets, plastic debris; bottle tops, toothbrushes, mascara tubes, cigarette lighters—thousands of them, with the name of every country printed on the side.”
Between the loss of his Grouper friend, to the overall devastation of coral reefs, and floating garbage dumps, it wouldn’t be surprising for Cousteau—who has now been diving for well over 70 years—to feel overwhelmingly pessimistic about the future of our planet. No matter which devastating scenario he explains to us‚ he ultimately remains hopeful. His answer to that concept is simple: “I’ve been diving ever since I was seven. I never stopped and never will stop… And, when I look into the eyes of young people—I will never, ever give up.”
Hero image courtesy of Ritz-Carlton