Philippe Cousteau Drops Anchor in Miami
by bill kearney
Philippe Cousteau, grandson of icon Jacques Cousteau, takes up the call of saving our seas with school programs based right here in Miami.
Philippe Cousteau diving with great white sharks off the coast of Isla Guadalupe, Mexico.
Why is Florida on your mind?
Florida uses more water per capita than any other state in the country. It’s hot. People like to water their lawns. We have all these invasive species that come in, big green lawns…. It’s the insanity of humanity—we see something we really like, we go there, and then we change it. But that is the case everywhere, all over the world. Florida is a microcosm for many of the challenges that we face.
Do you ever dive down here?
I’ve been diving off Jupiter, Fort Pierce, all through the Keys. I’ve done two different documentaries on the lionfish epidemic, one for the BBC and one for CNN.
How can a fish be a problem?
Worst-case scenario, lionfish finish off what was already a very degraded system. They are, of course, an invasive species that belongs in the Indian Ocean, where they have predators. They don’t have predators in the Caribbean. Lionfish are voracious eaters; they can eat something like a third of their body weight in one go. And they are very fertile. Nothing [here has] evolved to eat them. That’s a recipe for serious disaster. And candidly, I’ve talked to scientists and policy people, and they’re like, “We think this could be another nail in the coffin of the Caribbean.”
Cousteau on location in Iceland filming an episode of CNN International’s ecodocumentary Going Green.
What else should Miamians be aware of?
The pollution problems from Lake Okeechobee are making a big impact. We’ve done a lot of work with the folks doing the dolphin research up in the Indian River Lagoon, and all the toxins that are in these dolphins, the pollutants are floating around in the water that our kids are swimming in and playing in. These dolphins are so loaded with chemicals that their firstborns die oftentimes, which is a big warning for humans. The mother dumps a lot of chemicals and the heavy metal in her body into the fetus of a firstborn. The dolphins are so polluted that their firstborn baby doesn’t live past a year.
Are those toxins agriculturally based?
A lot of them are agriculturally based, but a lot of them are just storm-water runoff. They’re finding PCBs, brake fluid. You know it’s a bigger cautionary tale, but certainly the algae [related to agriculture near Lake Okeechobee] is a problem.
Tell us about your work with children.
Everything I do is designed to help people understand the power they have to change the world. That’s what EarthEcho is all about. We’re about helping young people connect and understand that what they’ve learned in the classroom—specifically related to STEM: science, technology, engineering, mathematics—is fundamentally about asking questions. It’s about adventure and excitement and exploring the world around them. We provide the resources to make learning exciting and relevant.
Examining oyster spat for one of the organization’s EarthEcho Expedition educational videos.
Why do schools need help?
In the United States, we have a very serious problem with our education system. We were just ranked 38th in the world in terms of science and math proficiency. That’s pretty bad. Whoever you are, whether you really care about the environment or you care about education—Republican, Democrat—those are problems that threaten our economy, threaten our security, our health, social justice. It’s a fundamental threat in this country. And you should care about it. Education needs to be relevant, it needs to be exciting, so we film documentaries designed specifically to align the standards, to go into the classrooms so teachers can use them to teach these fundamental concepts as opposed to teaching them out of a seven-year-old textbook.
How are you working with Miami schools specifically?
One of the most impactful experiences I had in education was visiting a school here in Miami.... There was a bunch of students in a pretty rough part of town. I asked them, “How many of you have been to the beach?” Nobody raised his or her hand. Nobody. And they’re a mile from the beach. I’m also friends with and a big fan of Alberto Carvalho, who’s the superintendent [of schools] here in Miami-Dade. He’s an awesome guy, and we want to start looking at how we can develop content that is culturally relevant and sensitive to and speaks to Hispanic communities. So Miami-Dade is our pilot community, our test bed. I understand you were out getting your hands dirty with a local school district before this interview.
I went to a school that is building these miniature pineland habitats in a cypress pond. We were planting a pine tree and an endangered flowering plant that is here in Florida. Some of them are doing restoration around Everglades issues. We were at a Title 1 school, so these kids are not affluent, and they are doing amazing work. One of the teachers really wants to take the kids down and do some coral reef restoration in the Key Largo and the Keys area—pretty remarkable!
Cousteau takes a hands-on approach to teaching kids about the environment and the importance of conservation.
How old are these kids?
This is middle school, so these are sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade kids. It’s a great age. The kids are so excited about it. And it makes sense—I mean, who wants to sit at a desk all day long when you can go outside and get dirty?
What is it like working in an underserved community and talking about science?
A notorious gang school was one of my best audiences because they don’t get to see this stuff. Over the course of 50 minutes, I saw a huge transformation. I started playing videos of diving with great white sharks and of being in the jungle and things like that. And the kids started leaning forward. They were like, “Hey, man, tell me about the great whites!” The energy changed in the whole room, and they ended up being one of the most dynamic groups, laughing and asking questions. It was a great audience; it was one of the best experiences I’ve had. For more information and to donate, visit earthecho.org
photography by courtesy of Earthecho; by michael muller (diving); courtesy of cnn (Going Green)
Cover shoot: Behind the scenes with Pitbull for the October 2014 issue of Ocean Drive magazine.