How to Be a Cousteau in the 21st Century

Jacques Cousteau’s grandson, who stars in an upcoming “Shark Week” special, talks about ocean exploration in the 21st century, carrying on his grandfather’s legacy, and what we can learn from nuclear sharks

Jun 29, 2016
Outside Magazine
How to Be a Cousteau in the 21st Century

Ashlan and Philippe Cousteau host a "Shark Week" episode about nuclear sharks in the Bikini atoll.    Photo: Courtesy of Discovery Channel

Philippe Cousteau, Jr. is heir to the most famous underwater explorer family on earth. His grandfather, Jacques, was the leading ocean explorer for much of the 20th century, a vociferous conservationist, deep-water documentarian, and an inventor of SCUBA tech. Philippe’s father, Philippe, Sr., was well on his way to carrying on the family legacy when he died in a seaplane accident in 1979, six months before Philippe was born. Now, the junior Cousteau, 36, is continuing the family business—albeit in a very new media sort of way.

Philippe and his wife, Ashlan Gorse Cousteau, a former entertainment reporter on the E! network, are trying to bring attention to the myriad environmental struggles plaguing the oceans today. Together, they’re hosting a show on Discovery Channel’s Shark Week on Thursday at 9 p.m. Eastern time about a mysterious school of sharks that have thrived in one of the most environmentally ravaged parts of the world—the Bikini Atolls, a part of the Marshall Islands the U.S. nearly obliterated in the late ‘40s and ‘50s with nuclear tests that vaporized several islands and left the archipelago severely irradiated. 

Outside caught up with Phillipe and Ashlan to talk nuclear sharks, tuna guts, and the challenge of getting millennials to care about the environment.

OUTSIDE: How did you get involved with this Nuclear Sharks business?
PHILIPPE:  I’d heard of the Bikini Atolls and the reef shark population there and we agreed it would be a great to investigate the rumors of these incredible shark congregations happening at the site of all these nuclear tests. It’s a very little understood part of the world.

ASHLAN: After those explosions, everything pretty much died in the area. We turned some of those islands into glass. We’d heard the rumors that these sharks had come back in huge numbers, but the interesting thing about these sharks is that they’re non-migratory. So how did they get there? 

Huh. What’d you learn? 
​ASHLAN: We went out and tagged 17 sharks and watched where they went. The data was amazing. These quote-un-quote “non-migratory” sharks, by the textbook, were actually migrating up to 200 miles in the open Pacific, which scientists never thought they’d do. We were really excited to see that. It was really fascinating to get real science out of the show— but we got some really bad news. 

PHILIPPE: The satellite data started to show some of the sharks moving in straight lines—just a tremendous distance out toward open oceans, toward the Philippines. It was really shocking. Fifty percent of our sharks were illegally fished, we realized. 

Well, damn.
PHILIPPE: One of the big solutions to declining biodiversity and battling climate change is to establish marine protection areas—and then to leave them alone. It works. Bikini was a de-facto marine reserve before, for fear of radioactivity. No one went there and you had this explosion of life—nature restoring itself, from nuclear Armageddon to paradise in 70 years. Now humans are threatening it again. 

That’s why the Marshallese government established this area as a marine park in 2011. But despite that legal designation, there is an incredible amount of illegal fishing and pirate fishing that we stumbled upon. 

It’s this hopeful message: here you have these bunkers of twisted cement that are a testament to this terrible, destructive past—the worst technology humans engineer—standing next to these thriving coral reefs. But then you see illegal fishing and it’s very frustrating, to say the least.

You guys have built an interesting career for yourselves—you seem to operate at the intersection of journalism and activism and advocacy. How’s that work? 
​ASHLAN: I saw this as a way to bring people on these adventures with us. I know that not many people can go to the Marshall Islands. It is really one of the most remote places on earth. And we found real science and uncovered illegal fishing, but another thing we want people to take away from this is just how incredibly beautiful the Bikini Atoll is. I want people to see that beauty and care about these sharks.

When you care about something, that’s when you want to save it. I want to bring that to storytelling—to make saving the world sexy.

Oh God, can saving the world ever really be sexy? 
PHILIPPE: I think after people watch this film, they will hopefully come away thinking that was a cool story—but also really important. 

At the end of the day, this is the legacy of my family. We want to be storytellers. How do we find the stories that matter? People relate to people. Not to data or information. As story tellers, its incumbent upon us to use these mediums. To go these places and be able to help share these stories with people.

Your parents spent a good deal out on the ocean filming expeditions. Is this where you two see yourselves headed? 
PHILIPPE: I didn’t know my father. He died six months before I was born. I grew up with stories from my mother about it all. She spent 13 years on Cousteau expeditions. She shared that and I knew that I would have grown up on expeditions had my father lived. It’s always been a dream for me. Hopefully we can use Ashlan’s knowledge of the journalism world—especially the pop culture world—to reach the millennial audience, because unfortunately it’s going to be up to them to solve this all.

The media landscape is very different than it was in your grandfather’s day. How do you get millennials—anyone, really—to care about the environment?  
​ASHLAN: We really wanted to set up this show up for young people. Also, we really wanted young girls to see this and think that being in science and technology can be fun. It’s cool. That it’s an option for them. If I can inspire a little girl by seeing me tag a shark, that’s amazing. 

PHILIPPE: Everybody aspires to Hollywood and the red carpet these days. And Ashlan does that. But she also goes on wacky adventures and dissects tuna and goes through its guts on camera and lives on a shrimp boat for two weeks with 15 men and one toilet. We’re trying to show that you can do this—that you can be glamorous and beautiful and have some substance and believe in science. It’s not just the Kardashians. There is another way. There are other other people to look up to aside from them.

Ashlan is the only female host of a shark week show this year!

What’s next for you two?
​ASHLAN: Actually, we’re leaving on Saturday to go to the arctic for a few nights. We’re going up to ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with our friend Kristen Davis, the actress. We’re going to be up there and camp and be with the caribou and we’re really hoping that this can be a place Obama can make one of his national monuments before he leaves office.

PHILIPPE: We’re going as part of a campaign to try to get ANWR finally protected and lay to rest whether we can drill there or not.

Also, I did a fun series online—The Aquatic World of Philippe Cousteau. It’s a spoof of The Life Aquatic, the movie. They’re viral, they’re fun, they’re short. It’s a really fun, tongue-in-cheek way to try and get science out there. It’s the first time I ever wore a red hat like my grandfather.

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