Alexandra Cousteau, Photo by Bll Zelman
If Alexandra Cousteau could impart just one piece of wisdom, it would be this: Get to know your water source. Like her grandfather, Jacques, the legendary explorer whose 1956 film “The Silent World,” is still the most influential underwater documentary ever made, 35-year-old Cousteau is educating millions of viewers worldwide. But just 55 years after her grandfather filmed the pristine reefs of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, his granddaughter is forced to report an urgent reality: watersheds everywhere are becoming fractured and polluted, almost beyond repair. After founding the D.C.-based non-profit Blue Legacy in 2008 and being named a National Geographic “Emerging Explorer” the same year, in 2009 D.C.-based Cousteau embarked on Expedition Blue Planet, a 14,500-mile journey across North America to investigate global water issues in her own backyard. I recently met the soft-spoken Cousteau, who is having a baby girl in July, in Costa Rica. She told me how it feels to be part of an exploratory dynasty, what she’s learned since her grandfather taught her how to dive at age seven, and why you’ll want to pay attention to her latest mission: reconnecting people to the water in their own backyards.
Outside: Where do we start?
Cousteau: Get acquainted with water as it runs through your life. I believe that everyone lives on a waterfront. Your waterfront can be the storm drain on your street, the creek in your backyard or the ocean that borders your town – our relationship with water in all of its forms is critical to the health and wellbeing of our families, our communities and the planet.
Why is the Colorado River so important?
The Colorado River runs 1,450 miles from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California. It has carved the geography, history, and culture of the American Southwest and made the desert bloom. What most people don't know is that we have so over-allocated the river that it no longer reaches the sea. This has not only resulted in the loss of the Colorado River Delta which once was the size of Rhode Island, but it has created great hardship for the people who live there and depend on natural resources for their survival. The good news is that this is one of the systems we can work to restore.
What would your grandfather say about the state of our water issues if he were still alive?
He would be just as concerned as he was when he was here, but there are also tremendous challenges that weren’t clear in his time such as climate change and ocean acidification. He was also an explorer and communicator and I think he would be thrilled by the new technologies for engaging people to write themselves into the story of water. People all over the world are using social networks to implement meaningful solutions to the issues in their communities. Everybody is part of the problem and everybody needs to be part of the solution.
Is there an organization that is particularly impactful in solving water issues?
In the U.S., one that I love would be the Waterkeeper Alliance (waterkeeper.org). I met with a lot of Waterkeepers on my road trip and really support what they do and how they do it.
Where does water fit into the larger “Climate Change” conversation?
Water is a global issue and at the same time it’s deeply local. It’s the lens through which we will feel the impacts of climate change. Water is so intimately connected to every important aspect of our society and wellbeing—health, food, security, energy. As the system continues to break down we’re hurt in countless ways. The lower stem of the Mississippi has been described as a drainage ditch and the Gulf of Mexico is still reeling from the oil spill. We can work to restore it, but we’re running out of time.
As the granddaughter of Jacques and the daughter of Philippe, do you feel an added burden of responsibility?
I’ve thought about that a lot. I grew up watching the childhood places I loved so much, like the tide pools on Maui, disappear. When you see things disappear, your natural reaction is, ‘I’m going to jump into this, too.’ Now, with my first child due this summer, I want my daughter to have the same opportunities to experience nature's special places as I did when I was a child.