The father-daughter duo share their thoughts on loving the ocean and teaching others about its wonders.

By Interview by Lauren Paige Kennedy; Produced by Lauren Phillips
October 11, 2017

Keeping a Family's Promise to the Sea
“He’s a salty dog,” says Céline Cousteau of her father, Jean-Michel, the ocean explorer, film producer, and son of legendary diver Jacques. “Put him on a boat and everything’s okay.”

Bonus: Read our Q&A with Jean-Michel and Céline

Whether he and his Ocean Futures Society are advocating for the Paris Climate Agreement or penning an open letter to the prime minister of Japan about unethical treatment of whales, protecting our precious waters is a forever agenda. “I will never retire,” he jokes. Still, the Cousteaus are hopeful. Although our oceans cannot support the demand of a world population projected to leap from today’s 7.6 billion to 11.2 billion by 2100, new research shows promise for the development of wholly sustainable fish farming, even in poor and land-locked regions.

“Feeding hungry populations is our first order of business,” says Jean-Michel.

Paired with that is what may be the Cousteau family’s greatest legacy: education. Which is why he and Céline, a documentary filmmaker and conservationist, teamed up with narrator Arnold Schwarzenegger to deliver the upcoming Wonders of the Sea 3D. The film is a literal deep dive into the underwater ecosystems between Fiji and the Bahamas, using new techniques to expose the ocean’s beauty as never before. “People protect what they love,” says Jean-Michel. “A little bit of urgency is good fuel,” Céline adds. When it comes to the oceans, they hope their film inspires both.

Take Action: Place phone calls to your senators and representatives. Let them know you support legislation to combat climate change and rising sea levels;

Capkin Van Alphen/Causecentric Productions; Carrie Vonderhaar/Ocean Futures Society 

Jean-Michel Cousteau and Céline Cousteau, ocean advocates/filmmakers/family

Son and granddaughter, respectively, of legendary diver and explorer Jacques Cousteau, the Cousteaus embody a generations-long effort to educate the human population on the wonders of the natural world, particularly the oceans. Most recently, they teamed up with narrator Arnold Schwarzenegger to deliver the upcoming Wonders of the Sea 3D. The film is a literal deep dive into the underwater ecosystems between Fiji and the Bahamas, using new techniques to expose the ocean's beauty as never before.

Coastal Living sat down with the father-daughter team to discuss what is most important in the fight to save the ocean, what it’s like being a part of such a legendary family, and more:

Coastal Living: What’s the most important thing people need to hear about the ocean?

Céline Cousteau: The message of protecting. We’ve been saying it for generations already but for some reason we have to keep saying it: People protect what they love. They love what they understand. But we have to educate. We have to tell people about this. So we are going to keep doing that. And that protection now is more dire than ever.

Jean-Michel Cousteau: People … do not understand how connected we are to the ocean or how dependent we are on the ocean and they have to realize. Everybody needs to understand how connected we are to that one water system, no matter where we live. And it’s fascinating as more and more people understand that, and as more and more people want to make decisions to avoid wasting some of the water, polluting that water, which we all depend upon.

CL: Are you optimistic when it comes to our ability to save the ocean before it’s too late?

JC: Yes, absolutely. And I think, unfortunately, what happened in the U.S. [with the withdrawal from the Paris Accords] has woken up a lot of people who realize that it’s time for more action, to stop just pointing fingers and sit down with decision-makers, whoever they are—industries, government. We have the ability to convince our decision-makers to change. If they care about their families, if they care about their children and their grandchildren, they need to take action very differently than what they’re doing now.

CC: I think to be too optimistic is to kind of sit back. I can’t remember who actually said this fantastic quote, but one of the greatest enemies of the environment is assuming everybody else is doing it for you. And I think in this case that’s not happening anymore. You are seeing people who are stepping up to the plate, and we do need a bit of adversity to wake up. That’s just how human beings work. It’s good to stand up and fight. It’s human to stand up and fight for what you believe in, and we need adversity sometimes to light the fire under our behinds.

CL: What’s one thing people can be doing right now to help protect the seas?

CC: Involving more, educating, creating more awareness with people about their connection with the ocean. And [that requires] education. But education—it’s not necessarily slow, but it’s a long-term goal. Creativity is necessary to integrate environmental education into the school system. On a practical level, if I had to pick something to implement today, it would be getting much larger marine protected areas, increasing the amount of ocean that is off-limits, completely off-limits. It might take time, some places longer than others, but the ocean can recuperate. If we look at how much land is protected, we need to do the same—and more—in the ocean.

JC: People want to help, but we have to sit down and reach their heart, not criticize. Having a dialogue with somebody works.

CL: How do you see this fight to change policy regarding using the oceans changing?

CC: Now, more than ever, what I’m seeing more these past four years is a greater momentum toward the collective effort to protect the ocean. … It gives me optimism to think, “Okay, it’s not just up to the grassroots organizations, the activists, the individuals, the nonprofits who are fighting battles with everything they have.” We can now look to economic power as an ally, to be able to implement these changes. That has given me optimism in the past years.

CL: What’s the key to managing the planet in a sustainable way?

JC: We’re talking about protecting the planet Earth. Every species on land or in the ocean, every plant or animal, is critical for the quality of life on our planet, the quality of life for every one of us. And we need to manage it like you manage a business, and only live off the interests produced by the capital. Everyone understands that. And if we do that, ultimately, we stabilize our earth and we keep going on.

CL: Where do you think politics play a role in all this?

JC: Let’s forget about politics. We’re not talking about politics. We’re talking about the quality of life of the environment, which we all depend upon, which happens to be the ocean. The quality of that water which everybody drinks all the time, whether you’re near the ocean or up on a mountain—[we’re all] totally dependent on the quality of that water.


Place phone calls to your senators and representatives. Let them know you support legislation to combat climate change and rising sea levels;

Responses edited for clarity and conciseness