Oceanographer, Emmy award winner, and 21st-century philanthropist Philippe Cousteau Jr. dives into the issues endangering South Florida’s coral reefs.
Off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Philippe Cousteau Jr. is going where he’s boldly gone many times before: underwater. The grandson of marine legend Jacques Cousteau, Philippe is here to join Florida water conservation groups Project Baseline and Miami Waterkeeper in bringing attention to what he says “is a crisis here in Fort Lauderdale,” namely the planned dredging project of the port. Today he is boarding an all-glass submersible orb in order to get a close-up of the devastation to South Florida’s coral reefs—80 percent of which have vanished since the 1970s.
Why are you turning your attention to the Florida coast?
I lived in Florida for several years and have an affinity for this area. There’s a chance that what few reefs are left in this region could be excessively damaged by the deepening and dredging of the port. It would be a tragedy and, considering that there are probably staghorn there, literally a federal crime to do so.
Why is the staghorn coral so important?
This coral used to be the dominant coral in the Caribbean; it lasted for miles and miles. Now, 98 percent is gone. In 2006 it became the first coral listed on the endangered species list. Florida has the only coral reef in the continental United States. It’s unbelievable to consider, when there are alternative options, that no one would take action to adjust the plan. With rising sea levels in Miami and Florida, coral reefs are critical buffers against storms. A gem and a jewel for South Florida, they are critical habitat for recreational fisheries.
What can people do?
Everyone has an underwater camera these days. If we empower the average diver to become a recreational scientist, maybe there will be some accountability. If you take a picture of a reef next time you dive, take a picture again. We can add that to the Project Baseline database. When I think about when my grandfather started exploring the oceans in the 1940s, he had to invent underwater cameras and develop them. Get involved. These are your reefs, Fort Lauderdale. Protect them.
What did you uncover on your dive?
Some signs of rejuvenation and a rare pillar coral (Dendrogyra). I’ve been all over the world and in [an] area that was devastated by nuclear bombs in the ’50s; after nearly 70 years of being left alone, it is rejuvenating and revitalizing itself incredibly. The message here is nature can recover; nature can bounce back. It’s never too late.
What other things cause damage to coral reefs?
Climate change, both sea-level rise and warming ocean temperatures. Coral has an ideal temperature—if it’s too high for too long, it has a negative impact. It might even kill the coral. Then there’s issues caused directly by humans on land, like pollution, overfishing, and nutrient loading. This is adding insult to injury.
What’s the most important lesson your grandfather taught you?
That we’re all connected. He always encouraged me to understand that we’re all in this together and not to stick our head in the sand and ignore these problems, but to stand up and do something about them as citizens and take action.