A Conversation With Environmental Activist Céline Cousteau

Céline Cousteau, the granddaughter of the legendary undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, is a filmmaker, an environmental activist, a designer, and often speaks at the UN. She has traveled around the world to film natural ecosystems, and in her documentaries, she is surrounded by penguins and swims with whales. Despite all the human-made damage that she regularly encounters, she is still full of optimism. This is an interview with a happy end.

Your childhood was anything but normal. Early on, you got to explore extraordinary natural habitats across the globe. When you were nine, you accompanied your grandfather for the first time on an Amazon expedition. How did this experience influence you?

Back then, it wasn’t exactly easy to go on an expedition. We didn’t have the technology that there is today. There were no mobile phones, so you couldn’t always be reached or make a quick call home. Still, I was nine when I flew with my grandfather to Peru, and from there, we boarded his research ship, the Calypso. The journey through the Amazon had a lasting influence upon me and certainly contributed to who I am today.

What did you experience?

It was exciting to be a child on a ship in the middle of the Amazon. I helped the researchers catch piranhas, and we met with the indigenous peoples of the jungle. This voyage created a link between the Amazon and me and its inhabitants that continues to this day. As a child, I simply discovered this world – although in a rather extraordinary way. As an adult, I understand that this was the foundation for my love of nature with its diverse ecosystems.

The Amazon as seen from above with a little road going through the trees
The Amazonas

At around the same age, you did your first scuba dive. Do you still remember it? 

Oh, yes! I was with my grandfather on a boat off the coast of Monaco. He put the mouthpiece in my mouth and said, “OK, just breathe!” And then we jumped into the water. There was no detailed introduction, and it felt unbelievably natural to be underwater.

What has been your most moving moment underwater so far?

I once swam with humpback whales off of Hawaii. That was a very special moment. I was there together with a film team and researchers, and we were able to get very close to a mother whale and her calf.

Are they friendly animals?

They are very tolerant. The mother kept a watchful eye, but she wasn’t really disturbed by us. My time spent with the whales was almost like a spiritual experience. Besides the mother and her calf, there were also three male humpback whales present. One of the males sang the characteristic whale song the whole time.

Like on the CDs for sale in esoteric shops

When you are that close to the animals, you feel the song as vibrations through your whole body. It is indescribable.

Céline Cousteau on a scuba dive surrounded by a swarm of fish
© Çapkin van Alphen/Van Alphen Visuals: Céline Cousteau on a scuba dive

Are you somehow drawn to extreme natural environments?

I am attracted to intense natural surroundings. The Amazon region, for instance, is anything but comfortable. But I always feel a compulsion to return there. I was recently in the Amazon to film indigenous people from the Javari Valley for my documentary “Javari – Tribes on the Edge.”

What attracts you to these places?

The feeling that all your senses are working at full force because you no longer dominate the environment. The control of everyday life is gone. Suddenly, you see, smell, and hear much more clearly – because you have to. We should all have such experiences at regular intervals to remind us how small we actually are. Of course, I already know this at a purely intellectual level, but after a while back in everyday life, taking comfortable showers and without the possible presence of predators, it somehow slips into the background.

Do you ever feel fear on your expeditions?

Fear is not the right word. I am certainly well aware of the possible dangers. You have to treat these locations with the utmost respect. But no matter how careful you are, something can always happen. Recently, someone from our team was bitten by a snake. Fortunately, nothing terrible resulted.

The Antartica in summer time with a blue sky behind it
The Antarctica

Which natural environment has surprised you the most?

The Antarctic. I wasn’t so wild about going there because of the cold. I was then commissioned by Chilean television to shoot a 12-part documentary series, so I traveled there for the filming. I had thought that everything in the Antarctic was white. But that is simply not true. I was astounded by the constantly changing light. The magic of nature and the austerity of the surroundings were a huge surprise for me.

There is a great photo of you surrounded by penguins while filming.

Sometimes while working, I don’t even notice what is taking place around me. We were set up on a snowbank to shoot, and my head was full of all kinds of thoughts. Is the perspective right? Am I getting a close enough view of the penguins? Are we in the way of the animals? Only later, when I saw the photos, did I realize what kind of situation I had found myself in.

You must encounter human-made devastation on your voyages. Can you name any examples?

There are many such examples. While in the Antarctic, we came across a research station and found a whale cemetery. Bones lay everywhere. Whalers had used this site as their camp and hunted the animals for their oil, which they then shipped to Europe. At such moments, one sees and feels what humans are capable of. It is inappropriate to treat a species in this way, and such behavior is not sustainable. At the same time, it is gratifying to see to what extent humans are capable of evolving. Now, on a site where whales used to be hunted is a research station staffed by volunteers, and a penguin colony surrounds it.

Céline Coustau sourrounded by penguins in the Antarctica
© Çapkin van Alphen/Van Alphen Visuals: Céline Coustau sourrounded by penguins in the Antarctica

What mood predominates on your journeys – a sense of seriousness or one of expectation and hope?

To see the kind of transformation that I just mentioned is a source of great hope. There has been so much documentation about our planet’s state that tends to move us to hopelessness. I believe that we also have to be aware of human potential. My company, CauseCentric Productions, focuses on people and organizations that try to accomplish something good in the world. We concentrate on the transformation from egocentric to “causecentric” behavior, namely to serve a good cause.

The world can use more positive approaches!

This reminds me of when you throw a stone into the water, and concentric circles form on the surface. Often, you can’t even tell how far they extend and what effects they leave behind. I am firmly convinced that positive energy gives rise to more positive energy. We are frequently overwhelmed by negativity. I, on the other hand, need good stories. When I am in the middle of things and have to see the good, I think that the rest of the world needs to see it too.

You state your mission as “Connecting People with the Environment.” You do this in various ways – also in your role as a designer.

We all tell stories. People often say to me, “You are so lucky that you can go on expeditions and can report on the state of the planet.” But this is just a method. Everyone can use their own ways to tell stories. When I design jewelry, I tell the same story as in my films. There are a wide variety of possibilities in which to express oneself.

Emperer Penguins in the Antarctica
Emperer Penguins in the Antarctica

You have also spoken at the UN and gave a talk at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Were you able to connect the participants in Davos with nature?

What helped me there was my experience of finding my way in unfamiliar environments. It was almost like being in a jungle where I encountered an entirely different species of humans. My presentation was about the traceability of fish catches, which is particularly difficult on the open seas. I described the phenomenon of so-called ghost ships, where the working conditions are absolutely atrocious. Fish from these ships are loaded onto other ships and then transported to the harbor under a different flag. In this way, information about the catch and the working conditions of the fishermen is concealed. The public was very interested.

Such stories can lead to discouragement once again.

The important questions are why these things take place and what can be done to change things. How can we create alternatives? In many cases, people only want to feed their families, and who are we to point the finger at them?

Please, let’s finish on a happy note.

I can tell you about an illuminating positive example in Cabo Pulmo on the Mexican peninsula of Baja California. Due to overfishing, the population had been pleading for help for over 15 years. The ecosystem was devastated, and people no longer knew what to do. As a consequence, the government banned fishing and established a protected area. The natural ecosystem was allowed to recover. Now there is a wide variety of species in the waters, and fishing is once again allowed outside the protected zone. Besides, the region has become attractive for visitors, and tourism has become a new income source. Neighboring areas now want to follow suit. This example shows that although we destroy some things, we can learn and protect a great deal.

Photo Credit Header Image: © Çapkin van Alphen/Van Alphen Visuals