The Ocean is Awakening Us: Talking with Jean-Michel Cousteau

“The best dive is the next one.”
-Jean-Michel Cousteau

Jean-Michel Cousteau
Image courtesy of Ocean Futures Society

At the tender age of seven, Jean-Michel Cousteau’s father, Jacques, put a tank on young Cousteu’s back and threw him into the water.

Since his first dunking, Jean-Michel has shared his father’s love and intense curiosity of the ocean. Jean-Michel extended the family legacy, founding the Ocean Futures Society in 1999, where he is currently president.

Despite our landlubber ways, Earth is an ocean planet. Even those fortunate enough to live near the ocean (and grateful for it) can’t fully perceive the complex global currents, the deep-abiding biodiversity, and the changes happening unseen beneath the waves—a shifting baseline we don’t see.

That is, we don’t see it if we don’t look.

The Cousteau family, including Jacques, Jean-Michel, and his late brother Philippe, were steadfast in discovery – and sharing what they found. I remember watching Cousteau documentaries as a kid in the American Midwest of the 1960s. Those films were my first glimpse into the life of the oceans.

Making the Connection

Cousteau talks with an inflection of sensitivity and empathy toward the living community, much of which lives in the ocean and much of which remains a mystery to us. Ever since his dad put that tank on his back as a young boy, Cousteau has plumbed that mystery. His decades of ocean exploring bestows upon him an abiding sense of the connecting tissue of the living planet.

“Ultimately, I became connected to marine mammals, whales, and dolphins,” he says. “They give birth like we do. They communicate with each other, and they occupy 70% of the planet.”

Every plant, every animal in the ocean or on land is Essential for the stability of the ocean.”

Ocean Awakening

The oceans are “awakening the human species to realize that we have mistreated 70% of the planet,” Cousteau says, “by our ignorance, mistakes, and abusing what is available.”

The natural world balances on give and take, with nothing wasted. “We can no longer abuse nature,” says Cousteau. For decades, we have overdrawn natural resources and pushed species and ecosystems into insolvency, unable to meet the demands placed upon them.

“We are heading towards bankruptcy,” he says. Sustainability means taking only “the interest produced by the capital.” The concepts of Planetary Boundaries and Earth Overshoot share a similar idea, suggesting that human demand for natural resources outstrips its capacity to supply, and if ignored for much longer, a day of reckoning is coming.

“But the good news is that we are aware of it,” says Cousteau, “there is progress, and it’s going to change soon because we are the only species who has the privilege to decide not to disappear.”

Claiming good news in the sea of challenges we face (pardon the pun) may sound to some as naive or quixotic. Harassed by our daily news feeds, it often seems we are the only species trying its damndest to disappear.

But Cousteau has a unique gift of persistent optimism and—in my opinion, more importantly—authenticity. “If I were selfish, I would take advantage of what is left and ignore the rest,” he says.

“But I can’t look in the eyes of a child and not do everything I can to make sure they will have the same privilege that I had when I was their age.”

Cast No Blame

Cousteau is not interested in “pointing fingers” of blame at anyone. Let others do that. Indeed, holding those accountable for systemic public obfuscation and environmental abuse is critical. This is not Cousteau’s calling.

While he does not shy away from discussing the complex ocean conservation challenges and engaging leaders to address them, he is more interested in informing and empowering change.

Where many see the communications revolution of the past few decades as an opportunity to sow division, doubt, and distrust, Cousteau recognizes it as an avenue to unite and educate. With the ability to connect across time zones and cultures, there is “no excuse” not to inform and inspire positive change, he says.

Strength in Diversity

In human society, as in nature, diversity is a strength. It is the source of vitality and life. Cousteau believes that diversity is where we find our core connection. The better we can communicate this connection, the better our ability to imagine solutions. “We need to help people understand how we are connected.”

“There are ways to do it,” Cousteau says. “Everyone has a heart. You never want to criticize or point fingers,” but we have the “chance and privilege” of sitting down with family, friends, and neighbors to “bridge our commitments and obligations with the future.”

It doesn’t always work, of course, but “sometimes it works very well,” he says. That is what keeps Cousteau going. “I’m happy to say that this recharges my batteries—to continue what I’m doing with my team.”

While Jean-Michel Cousteau’s career has focused on ocean exploration, conservation, and education, his legacy embodies an abiding bond with the web of life to which we all belong.

Celebrate the Career of Jean-Michel Cousteau

This coming November 10-12, 2023, The Ritz-Carlton Bacara in Santa Barbara is hosting the 78 Years of Diving & Discovery Gala and Weekend Festivities. Proceeds from the event will support the ongoing work of the Ocean Futures Society, helping keep Cousteus’s legacy alive for future generations.

On Friday evening, November 10, participants will have the opportunity to talk with Cousteau in an informal setting. Saturday evening is a gala celebrating Jean-Michel Cousteau’s lifetime achievements and premiering a new multimedia presentation that featured acclaimed historic and never before publicly shown film footage.

The event is an opportunity to experience the man and his work while supporting the future of ocean conservation, outreach, and education.

Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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