Whether diving in the freezing waters of Antarctica or swimming with anacondas in the Amazon, Celine Cousteau’s mission is to reconnect people with their place in the natural world – just like her grandfather, the famed French explorer and filmmaker, Jacques Cousteau.
French-American Cousteau, who is in Abu Dhabi this week, will present a talk today as part of NYU Abu Dhabi’s Social Impact Leaders series. She will also visit local schools through the Jane Goodall Foundation’s Roots and Shoots movement.
Cousteau is the director of CauseCentric Productions, a non-profit organisation that produces and distributes multimedia projects focused on grass-roots organisations working on environmental issues. She has produced and presented television documentaries for PBS, CBS and the Discovery Channel, which involve regular stints out at sea, such as when she spent five months diving off the coast of Antarctica and Easter Island for a 12-part series.
“It was tough and my tolerance for the cold was a lot less than the men’s,” she says of diving in waters with a temperature of minus 2°C. “Before getting into the water you have all this fear, but you have to perform on camera and that creates performance anxiety. Your face goes numb straight away. As long as you’re holding your regulator in your mouth that doesn’t matter, but if you lose mobility in your hands, you really can’t do much. My equipment failed pretty much every single dive, so I conditioned myself for that scenario. I’d dive for about half an hour before my hands and feet went completely numb.”
But Cousteau found it a fascinating experience and compares diving to “swimming through a science fiction movie”. “I could even hear the music score of the film as I dived around this beautiful iceberg,” she says. “We saw penguins swimming underwater, sea stars and nudibranch sea slugs.
“Looking at subtle changes in the light and how it touches the snow makes you much more sensitive to beauty, as opposed to seeing something that is obviously pretty, such as a flower.”
Cousteau also glimpsed what she describes as “cemeteries of whale bones”, harking back to the days when commercial whaling was commonplace. “It’s like swimming through history in a very sad way,” she says. Her grandfather was instrumental in the campaign to restrict commercial whaling in the 1980s, and Cousteau holds fond memories of the man who inspired her life’s calling.
“My grandfather was above and beyond anyone else,” she says. “He was patient, thoughtful, a storyteller. I remember him always pacing and speaking – never ever sitting in front of the television on the couch. He was a bit like a child – he was happy that we believed in Santa Claus and enjoyed playing into that game.”
Like him, Celine is best-known for her work in oceanography, but it's her mission to protect the Amazon rainforest that is closest to her heart. She first travelled there when she was 9, accompanying her grandfather on one of his expeditions. Now she is about to complete a groundbreaking documentary filmed in the Brazilian Amazon, Tribes on the Edge, which she is planning to debut at the Brazilian Olympics in Rio de Janeiro next year.
“It was a request of the tribes for me to tell the world that they exist, so it’s been something that I have taken on with great respect and pride.”
Cousteau is also concerned about the drastic depletion of bluefin tuna in recent years.
“Try to also stay away from farmed shrimp, trawled shrimp and farmed salmon,” she says. “When you make one choice, you realise that its not that difficult, then you can make another good choice. Don’t do it all at once, it doesn’t work. And guilt doesn’t work either. Soon enough, populations will rebound.”
Cousteau also stresses the importance of investing in sustainable agriculture. “There is a growing number of people on the planet and we need to find a way to feed them. If we have sustainable practices in agriculture, we can actually create an incredible food system that is economically viable. But it takes forward thinking.”
Cousteau will be in Abu Dhabi next week as a member of the Council of Oceans for the World Economic Forum “to create the agenda for discussions for the world economic forum members.” She will also be speaking at Abu Dhabi’s schools through the Jane Goodall Foundation’s ‘Roots and Shoots’ movement, which is now launching a programme to find 18 to 21 year-olds ambassadors to spread their message of protecting our planet.
“Roots and shoots is about teaching young people that this is their world. They have every right to tell us adults that we need to treat it well”, she says. Cousteau believes children already have an innate understanding of the importance of the natural world. “We become unfamiliar with it because we grow up in cities with everything that is human-made with our wonderful creativity. If we start early on with children, we tap into something that already exists.”
• Celine Cousteau’s talk is on Sunday, October 18, at 5.30pm at NYU Abu Dhabi. For more information, visit nyuad.nyu.edu