Students Ask Philippe
The following is a Q&A between Philippe Cousteau and the students at cogito.org:
1. I'm a junior in high school and I am interested in pursuing a career in oceanography. Since oceanography is a little more obscure than other areas of study, what can I do to become an oceanographer? How can I prepare myself and what schools/educational opportunities should I look for?
PC: First of all, good for you, oceanography is an amazing field and there are so many opportunities for discovery. Did you know that we have only explored around 5% of our oceans? Scientists discover new species almost every research trip they embark upon.
Oceanography is a science-heavy discipline and therefore, you should make sure that you are well grounded in the basic sciences and, to your best ability, the advanced and AP sciences as well. But don’t let classroom work dominate your life. Getting real world experience at local zoos, aquariums and research centers is also important. I would also stress the need to get outside. Whether you live on the ocean or not; never lose that sense of wonder and exploration. That curiosity that drives us to learn more about the world around us is nurtured by simple exploration of our backyards, our neighborhoods and our local natural resources. I was on an advisory council for the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and one of the scientists there has discovered several new species of insect in his own urban backyard!
As for formal education, I would suggest the University of Miami, Stanford, or Boston University and then consider doing graduate work at a place like Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. I can also recommend the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where I went to school; they have an outstanding program and it is a wonderful place. It can be a little scary to go to a school outside the US but it is well worth it and St. Andrews would be my first pick. 2. As the scion of an oceanographically-oriented family, you must have been exposed to the sea and the wonders it can contain early on in life. Your grandfather was also a pioneer in the study of the oceans. This being said, do you regard your work as a continuation of that of two previous generations of Cousteaus? How has this affected the specific focuses of your studies into oceanography and your overall interest in the subject? Basically, how has being part of a legend affected your willingness to participate in it?
PC: My grandfather’s first forays into the world at large were very different than the ones that we embark on today. When my grandfather explored the oceans for the first time; it was a journey of discovery. Many of the things that they saw, few if anyone had ever seen before and they were the first to capture those images on film and share them with the wider world. Imagine all the things we take for granted today, Nemo the clownfish for example or even Flipper the dolphin. All of them were total mysteries to the world.
If you ever get a chance, I encourage you to watch two films made by my grandfather many years ago. “Silent World” and “World Without Sun” both won academy awards and showcase not only Jacques Cousteau but also my father as they captured images of the reefs off the coast of Southern France and the Red Sea in the 1950s and 1960s.
I remember growing up with these tales about my father’s adventures, about how awestruck he was by what he glimpsed as a young boy. I was raised on stories of when he took his first breath underwater and descended onto those reefs. I also was told of how devastated he was by what has happened to those very same reefs, which are now mere shadows of what they once were. I spent many hours of my own youth there, as well, diving off the coast of France as a young boy and I can no longer stand to go back. I find the barren and desolate underwater landscape so terrible.
It can break your heart when you see the beauty that was once there – that was captured by my grandfather on film – and know that it's all gone now.
So at first it was about exploring our relationship with the environment for the first time. But as my father got engaged in the 60’s and 70’s it became more than just an exploration of nature and more an exploration of the world in the context of humanity’s relationship to it, as an integral and often powerful force for change.
As part of the third generation, both my sister and I see our role as a journey to understand not only the relationship between humans and nature, but our role in being stewards of this planet.
Continuing the legacy has always been part of our lives and something we have embraced wholeheartedly. But there is something else, and this is very important, we are not part of that legacy just because of our names. Of course I am proud to have the Cousteau name. But I'm not a Cousteau only because of my name.
The fact is that the Cousteau spirit of conservation and care for the environment was taught to me. It lives on through me because of my actions not my birth certificate.
I grew up hearing about how important the work was. Sitting with my grandfather and listening to his life’s stories – hearing the urgency in his voice – being inspired by the passion my own father had for taking action for a better future -- that was instrumental to my becoming the person I am today.
You could call it a family legacy or just good teaching. Regardless, I am a firm believer that if we are to build the sustainable future we all dream of, we must do it together. Each of us…all of us…making a positive difference; that is a legacy that we can all share in.
3. Out of all the environmental crises that are happening in the world, which one do you think requires the most attention?
PC: Without question, I think that the excessive output of carbon into the atmosphere is the most troubling. The reason I say that is because carbon is the leading cause of climate change, which is a global crisis unlike any we have ever faced. Climate change or global warming as it is also called is a crisis because it is changing our oceans which are the primary driver of our climate.
As climate or weather changes, the domino effects will be felt around the world. For example, water scarcity is likely going to be the defining cause of conflict and mass migration of people in the 21st century. In large part this will be caused by the changing weather patterns of the world which is being caused by changing currents and rising temperatures and sea levels in the ocean which is being caused by global warming. That is a bit of a simplification but you get the idea, everything is connected to everything else on this planet. But the excessive output of carbon into the atmosphere is also responsible for another very scary problem that has nothing to do with climate change…ocean acidification. OA as we call it, is caused not by rising temperatures but purely by the absorption of carbon by the oceans.
The absorption of carbon by the ocean causes the oceans get more acidic and the creatures in the ocean that build shells, such as coral, shellfish, mollusks, even smaller organisms such as pteropods (a small free swimming snail that form the basis of many ocean food chains) are unable to build their shells and thus survive. If this continues it could mean the wholesale collapse of many ocean eco-systems which would have disastrous effects on the planet. Imagine, two billion people rely on fish for their primary source of protein today. If fisheries collapse because they have no basic food source, those people would starve and many would go to war to try and feed themselves. That is just one example and the others are just as serious.
Don’t get depressed yet, there is hope and I believe that we have not passed the point of no return. We have a chance to change this world and it is up to us to do it. The last 50 years have seen the greatest amount of destruction of this planet and it is the next 50 years, OUR 50 years that will decide its fate. That means demanding of our politicians that they take these problems seriously and a willingness to make changes in our lives. Ask yourself, do we really need a bigger house, or a bigger car? A comfortable life is what we all aspire to, that is human nature, but a comfortable life should not be defined by excess and greed but by living in gracious and sustainable harmony with the planet. 4. What is the most exciting thing you have done during your expeditions?
PC: Without a doubt diving with Great Whites was the most exciting thing I have ever done. Despite the media hype, sharks aren’t mindless killers and being in a shark cage face to face with a 15-foot Great White is easily one of the most incredible experiences in the world and will change your perception of nature and humankind’s place in it. Contrary to popular belief divers almost never report coming out of the water in fear but rather with a sense of awe and sheer appreciation at the wonder, grace and beauty of these much maligned creatures. 5. What are the biggest issues facing the ocean today?
PC: I have to go with my answer to question 3. That is precisely why climate change is such a problem, because of how it is changing the oceans. The oceans are the life support system of this planet and as they regulate our climate, things such as rainfall are affected and thus food crops are affected and people go hungry which has huge consequences for global commerce, security etc. That is just one example but you get the idea.
Change in our oceans will cause drastic and very serious crisis around the world, not to mention ocean acidification which has the potential to collapse critical eco-systems and species populations; everything from coral reefs to shellfish by preventing them from building their shells. However, it is important to note that scientists have consistently found that the key to helping these creatures survive is to give them the healthiest and safest environments in which to live. For example, coral reefs in a pristine environment are much more likely to adapt to rising temperatures than those that are already stressed from pollution and overfishing. That is good news, and means that we must re-double our efforts to protect our environment. 6. Which of these issues have affected advocacy the most? Save the Whales gets a lot of attention, perhaps because it’s such a photographic cause. Where do you think the most effective advocacy is happening? The least?
PC: Wow, that is a tough question. I think that the most effective advocacy is that which happens in conjunction with industry. Yes, the big charismatic mega-fauna (as the whales and dolphins and elephants and panda bears are referred to) are very effective in grabbing the attention of the public but as the saying goes, money talks and no long term solution is effective unless it takes into consideration the needs of people. Thus some of the most effective solutions are those that don’t just prohibit people from exploiting natural resources but help them find alternatives to doing so.
A great example happening in Florida in the 90’s when gillnet fishing (a very destructive form of fishing) was banned along the coast. Scientists devised a way for these out of work fisherman to grow clams in baskets along the shore. This simple form of aquaculture was even more lucrative than gillnet fishing and not destructive to the environment. In a short period of time, the state of Florida went from being last in clam production in the US to being first.
7. What are the most exciting advances in oceanographic knowledge?
PC: I think it would be hard to name just one. We are learning so many every day. Unfortunately I would probably have to say that the advances I am most familiar with have to do with the dire news that we are hearing every day. How ocean acidification is a real problem and what it is doing, or how fish stocks are collapsing. These are scary things, but oceanographers are on the front lines of not only the discovery of these problems but many are also working hard on solving them. The first step to solving a problem…is knowing it exists. While we may face many challenges, the most exciting advances are those that are giving us the knowledge to tackle them.
8. Did you know from a young age that you would become an oceanographer?
PC: I have to be honest, I am not an oceanographer and contrary to popular belief, neither was my grandfather nor my father. First and foremost, they were communicators like me. I have the privilege of working with some of the best oceanographers in the world but I am not one. I am a communicator and an explorer and I have always had a fascination with story and how to share the importance of taking care of our world through media.
That is not to say that I do not enjoy science, I do and I have the utmost respect for those that pursue that field I just realized that my passion lay in sharing these stories with the world. But make no mistake, we need as many scientists as we can get and I encourage you to pursue your passion. That being said, I think it is increasingly important for every profession, scientist, doctor, oil tycoon, TV executive, teacher it doesn’t matter, to take an interest in the world around them realize that no matter what we do we can all be part of pursuing a better world.
P.S. When I was little I actually wanted to be a fireman.
9. Can you tell me what you do to prevent stings from the microscopic larvae of jellyfish particularly Thimble Jellyfish?
PC: Whenever I am diving in an area that I know has jellyfish, the most effective method to prevent getting stung is to wear some sort of full body suit, either a thin lycra one or a neoprene wetsuit. That being said, few things are offer 100% protection. If you do get stung, the best thing to do is to wash it with regular vinegar IMMEDIATELY. Do not wash it with fresh water! That will make matters worse, you can rinse with salt water, but never with fresh water as it will make the poison react even more strongly. There is an old wives tale that peeing on the sting will help…don’t believe it. Use vinegar or lemon or lime juice, any organic acid does the trick and if it is really bad, seek medical attention asap.