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Person to Know: The Ocean Explorer and Environmentalist Who Is Continuing His Family’s Legacy

By Renée Batchelor

Philippe Cousteau.
La Mer
Philippe Cousteau.

For most of us, our paths in life lie ahead… yet to be discovered. For others, like Philippe Cousteau, destiny seems almost predetermined. The grandson of legendary explorer Jacques Cousteau, and son of the elder Philippe Cousteau, an explorer and filmmaker, acknowledges the role his family played when it came to him developing an affinity to the ocean. While he initially harboured intentions of being a firefighter as a young child, he has since followed in the wake of his family. “My grandfather, and then my father, went on to be pioneers for the conservation of the ocean and passed on that passion to me,” says Cousteau. Although he has never met his father, who passed away tragically in an accident six months before he was born, Cousteau, grew up having a love for exploration thanks to his grandfather and his mother Janice (who also spent 13 years on expeditions). He was sent on his first trip at age 16 to Papua New Guinea, and has travelled extensively since.

Today, he shares this passion with his wife, US television journalist and adventurer Ashlan Gorse, and together the duo has hosted shows like “Caribbean Pirate Treasure” on the Travel Channel where they explore legends of lost treasure in the Caribbean. Cousteau has also worked in all areas of ocean conservation through various mediums, from co-writing books like “Going Blue”, a guide for teens on how to transform their conservation ideas into action, to giving TED talks on environmental action. “Now, there are so many different media outlets we must find ways to be in as many of them as possible. From books to animated TV shows, to documentaries, to education programmes in schools, all of our programmes are connected and reinforce a simple message — the crisis facing our oceans is dire and there are catastrophic consequences if we do not act, but there are terrific solutions and a whole new generation of people taking action,” says Cousteau. 

ShutterstockPhilippe Cousteau and his wife Ashlan Gorse at the Daytime Emmy Creative Arts Awards 2015.
Philippe Cousteau and his wife Ashlan Gorse at the Daytime Emmy Creative Arts Awards 2015.

Still, his message remains one of hope rather than despair. He co-founded EarthEcho, a non-profit organisation that targets youth, with his mother and sister 15 years ago, and strongly believes that the youth have the power to change our planet. Him and Gorse recently celebrated the birth of their first child, and this, along with his own firsthand observations of how has the ocean has regenerated in the Marshall Islands following atomic tests in the 1960, has strengthened his resolve to spread the message that it is not too late. “We can solve the environmental crisis if we want to — there is hope,” says Cousteau Jr. 

You write books, present television shows and also represent conservation issues among other pursuits and business. Which is your favourite thing to do and why?

My favourite thing to do is working with my wife Ashlan [Gorse]. Together we have hosted and produced several TV series, most recently two seasons of a show for the Travel Channel. Her background is in journalism and she is fearless. We are so fortunate to be able to work long hours filming a show and then still want to go to dinner together and talk and laugh the whole time. A lot of couples have a hard time working together, especially in showbiz, but we are better and stronger together and have a great time.

What value do you get from each of your projects and what do you enjoy most or find most fulfilling about each of them?

In many ways, each of our projects are equally fulfilling because they are all designed to complement each other. They all focus on conservation and exploration and are designed to reach different audiences with a consistent message. When my grandfather was creating content, there were six channels on television, and it was easy to reach large audiences.  

La MerThe limited edition Blue Heart Crème de la Mer, S$780.
The limited edition Blue Heart Crème de la Mer, S$780.

Tell us about your work with La Mer’s Blue Heart Oceans Fund? What have been some of your biggest and proudest achievements since you have started collaborating with the brand?

This is the second time we have partnered with La Mer because they realise that in order to build healthy thriving oceans, we need the companies to be a part of the solution. Healthy oceans are of particular concern to La Mer because their special ingredient, sea kelp, comes from the ocean. To me, La Mer’s Blue Heart Campaign is especially exciting because it recognises that young people are key to solving this problem and their philosophy of hope and optimism aligns with ours.  

While there are very serious problems we face in the ocean, both Ashlan and I believe that there is hope, we share La Mer’s commitment to embracing solutions and the belief that protecting and restoring the ocean is an exciting opportunity that can bring us all together.

What are the best life lessons you’ve learned from your father and grandfather? How do you think they have fostered your interest in exploration and environmental conservation?

75 years ago my grandfather Jacques Cousteau co-invented scuba diving. It was the first time that humans could swim freely underwater and explore the ocean. He also took cameras underwater and captured the first images of coral reefs, sharks, and so many of the inhabitants of the ocean that we all know so well today. One must understand that before his documentaries and work, the public knew nothing about what was in the ocean. My grandfather and then my father went on to be pioneers for the conservation of the ocean and passed on that passion to me.  

Our family was the first to explore the ocean, the first to document the ocean, and the first to campaign for the protection of the ocean. That legacy had a huge impact on me, tragically my father passed away before I was born but I grew up with a passion for conservation and exploration that was fostered by my grandfather and my mother (who also spent 13 years on expedition). They taught me that we are all connected to each other and to the ocean and that we each have a responsibility to act in our own way to help repair the damage that humanity has wrought on the ocean.

What’s the hardest part about appearing on television and travelling to exotic locations that the audience doesn’t necessarily see?

The long hours and the jetlag take a toll on your body. Waking up in a different hotel every few days and having to be on television whether you feel like it or not is difficult at times, so is being away from home for weeks or months, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

La MerLa Mer's Blue Heart Oceans Fund was founded in 2017 to to support the protection of marine habitats for future generations.
La Mer's Blue Heart Oceans Fund was founded in 2017 to to support the protection of marine habitats for future generations.

What is the one message you want to spread about the importance of conserving the oceans and the planet, and why do you think it’s especially urgent today?

The ocean is the life support system of this planet and yet we often take it for granted. The ocean provides 65 per cent of the oxygen we breathe, food for billions of people, regulates our climate and contributes trillions of dollars to the global economy each year. Despite its critical role in our survival, humans continue to wreak havoc on the ocean. For example, 40 per cent of the world’s coral reefs have disappeared in the last 50 years, fisheries are collapsing, the ocean is more acidic (due to carbon emissions) than it has been for millions of years and it is warming and altering our climate in catastrophic ways.  

That is the bad news, but there is good news too. The ocean is resilient if we give it a chance. I saw this with my own eyes a few years ago when my wife Ashlan and I went to the Marshall Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to film a documentary for Discovery Channel Shark Week. The Marshall Islands are famous because during the Cold War, the US detonated the largest hydrogen bomb ever there, on an island called Bikini Atoll. That bomb, named Castle Bravo, was equal to 1,000 Hiroshima bombs, vaporising islands, destroying everything for miles and killing an entire ecosystem. We had heard rumours that 60 years after the devastation wrought by those bombs, nature had recovered and the place we destroyed not so long ago was flourishing. And it is true, the coral, the sharks, the fish, all of it had recovered and was thriving. That was an incredibly special moment for Ashlan and I. For all the bad things we have seen all over the world, we saw that the ocean could come back if we give it a chance.

Since you’ve started working with La Mer, what products have you started using and how have they changed your skin?

We bring the Crème de la Mer with us wherever we go. Both Ashlan and I are seasoned travellers and we travel light, but we spend a lot of time outdoors. The wind can wreak havoc on your skin leaving cracked painful skin not to mention sunburn being a constant challenge. While it may not seem like something that rugged adventurers would take with them, Crème de la Mer is the best thing we have found to help soothe the damage our skin endures on expedition and at home.