The TH Interview: Jean-Michel Cousteau



It took three years and 600 underwater hours to film, but Dolphins and Whales 3D: Tribes of the Ocean has reached its stunning, multi-dimensional completion. Here in our interview with the film’s ambassador, ocean explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau explains the painstaking search for these cetaceans, which include some of the world’s largest and most ancient dwellers. TreeHugger was also at the premier in Boston with narrator (and honorary mermaid) Daryl Hannah, as well as the Mantello brothers and Jean-Michel himself. Check out our TH Radio interview with Jean-Michel, one of the great explorers of planet Earth, or "planet ocean," as he would have named it. ::TreeHugger Radio

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download.

Full text belowTreeHugger: Jean-Michel, give us a picture of what we have to look forward to in this film.

Jean-Michel Cousteau: Well, one of the most exciting aspect is that we are going to put a very large audience in the presence of creatures which represent, perhaps, the group of animals that are closest to the human species.

We have a lot in common with them: we are warm blooded just like they are, we give birth the same way, we are both very social. Sound is their primary sense (versus ours, which is vision) so there is a little bit of difficulty in understanding each other. But their presence is something that is extremely exciting for the public because I don't believe there has ever been any fear on the part of the public towards those animals.

So we are going to have this extraordinary experience of basically being in their environment, having them surround us, and hopefully not be afraid and realizing that they never try to hurt us. They are not aggressive. They are sometime even curious about our presence when we are underwater.

The entire show is underwater. The audience is going to be submerged in the presence of these creatures. And I think everybody will come out with a much better appreciation of their kindness and the importance of their role in the marine environment. The fact is that we are dealing with large creatures such as the finbacks who are the largest creatures ever on the planet—bigger than any dinosaur, which we still admire today though none of them exist. But their past goes back 50, 60 million years, when ours is only three million years.

Part of our message is that we are affecting the quality of life of these animals by using the ocean as a garbage can, when in fact we have everything to benefit by not doing that anymore. So hopefully, the public will come out of there having had a fabulous experience, an adventure, and a desire to protect these animals by stopping the mismanagement of our resources, allowing our waste to end up in the ocean, which ultimately affects these extraordinary creatures.

TH: This film, Dolphins and Whales, is the third in a series: the first about coral reefs, the second about sharks, and now dealing with cetaceans. Since the release of the previous two, have you seen a change or positive impact in the way that people perceive their impact on these ecosystems?

JMC: I have been a lot closer to Sharks 3D and I can tell you that I keep running into people who have seen the show and they have a completely different opinion and a much better understanding of sharks. They understand the critical role sharks play in the environment, the fact that they keep the ocean healthy and free of dead and sick creatures. Like everything in nature they play a critical role. Everybody has a job to play. It is like music, like an orchestra; everyone has a role, and the sharks have a critical role in that ocean orchestra.

TH: Of course we know that as atmospheric temperatures go up as a result of climate change, so do the ocean surface temperatures. How is that impacting the habitats of large ocean mammals like the ones we see in the film?

JMC: Well, yes indeed it does, but one piece of good news is that because they are so close to us, particularly the ones with teeth like orcas and several species of dolphins, they can move, they can adapt, they can relocate. They can be eating fish and then they can start to eat other mammals like sea lions or harbor seals. Or they can go the other way. Who knows, maybe one day some of them will even start to be vegetarian and eat plants just like we do.

So I think they have a chance to survive in that environment much more than many other species, whether they are crustaceans like crabs and lobsters and shrimp, or many different species of fish. We find a lot of resilience on their part. I am not sure polar bears will make it. I am not sure the beluga whales will make it (because they need that cold environment and the ice and so on) but the majority of them I think ultimately will be able to, if need be, relocate.

The effect that it has on the human species on the other hand is completely different. We may have hundreds of millions of people—and who knows, maybe a billion people—who are going to be displaced because of the weather change, because of the sea level rise, because of the increase of hurricanes and storms. Where are they going to go and what kind of infrastructure is going to be made available to those people in such a short period of time? So we are at a disadvantage on land. I think marine mammals will probably have a better chance than those of us who will have to relocate.

TH: This project has been in the works since 2004, clocking some 600 hours underwater. Is there any way that you can describe what it's like being so close to these mysterious, intelligent animals?

JMC: First of all, you have to be patient because you can be underwater and spend a couple of hours and see nothing. You stick your head out of the water and, in the distance, a mile away, you see a whale blowing. You get frustrated. So patience is number one. And then finally these magic moments happen, when after all this patience you get rewarded by this usually very friendly presence.

Let's not forget that perhaps they are as curious to look at us as we are to look at them.

TH: You've been an advocate for laws that would help prevent oil spills from outdated tanker ships. Are the oceans any safer now from oil spills than they have been in the past?

JMC: You know the ocean has been punished many times, which ultimately means that we've been punished many times. I was at the Exxon Valdez spill two days after the accident took place up in Prince William Sound 19 years ago. The effect that this spill is still there, 19 years later, affecting everything.

So we need to grow out of this. We will always make mistakes. Only people who do nothing don't make mistakes. But in this particular case there are responsibilities, and there is a cost, and that cost should be paid. It happens to be an institution that has the ability to do that without going bankrupt. So let's be serious, let's take care of it, let's clean up the mess and go on with life and then try to not have that happen again.

TH: Our good friend Daryl Hannah has been chosen to narrate this film. Of course she's a perfect choice because, as we know, she is a mermaid. But incorporating celebrities into programs like this is not something new for you. You've worked on the special features on Finding Nemo, the SpongeBob movie and productions like that.

Incorporating the perspective of real life marine biology into popular culture, is this something you see yourself doing more of in the future?

JMC: Oh, more and more. They are very dedicated people. They are real sincere people; they are not actors trying to play a game. They really care, they really believe, and they really want to make a difference. That's what we look for. We've not always been successful. But, you know, it is part of the deal.

Sometimes, we have to rely on just a professional narrator who does a good job. But that additional name that is going to make the public relate to that person and trust that person, I think that's a good thing and very helpful.

TH: And it seems that these days it may be easier to find celebrities who are themselves aligned with environmental causes: people like Leonardo DiCaprio, Edward Norton, and of course, Daryl Hannah, who has been a longtime advocate and a real exemplar of sustainable living.

JMC: Yes, absolutely, and it's more and more the case. There are some old-timers and some younger people who are now really focusing on those issues and very much affected by what's happening with climate change, and with what's happening with poor fishing management, looking at the stocks disappearing very fast, putting thousands of people out of business.

So being able to reach young people like we've done with Finding Nemo and SpongeBob, to me is very important, very critical, because it allows us to provide young people with knowledge that otherwise they wouldn't have in a very fun and entertaining way. That's the way to reach people.

And then, of course, we go on with our television programs that we keep producing at Ocean Futures, which I had the privilege of leading. In one evening, in one of our PBS shows, we reach one to two million people. That's a big deal. That's a lot of people. Hopefully, a little message is passed on and some concern is being shared and appreciated. And eventually we'll help the public make better decisions.

We know it works. It's a matter of really trusting people and relying on their concern and existing knowledge to ultimately better manage the planet that makes us smile every day when we wake up. We don't want to be alone. It's not going to work. We like to smell the flowers and look at birds and fish and what not.

This is the reason why we're doing these shows; there's no other reason. It's to make people appreciate the privilege that we have to be in this extraordinary place which is called planet Earth. I wish it had been called planet ocean since 70% of the planet is covered with water, but I was not the one who called it Earth so I can't change that yet.

Tags: Animals | Documentaries | Ecology | Extinction | Fish | Oceans | Oil | Pollution | Preservation

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