Why underwater explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau believes it's not too late to save our oceans

The world-renowned oceanographer, who saved 'Free Willy', came to Dubai to teach us a thing or two about conservation

Jean-Michel Cousteau swims with a Hawksbill turtle in Papua New Guinea
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Time hasn't run out yet for the world's oceans. That's the message Jean-Michel Cousteau, the oldest son of the French explorer Jacques, left us with after his visit to Dubai's shores.

Jean-Michel Cousteau is a renowned oceanographer, filmmaker, explorer, author and environmentalist. He has received several awards, such as an Emmy, a Peabody and an Environmental Hero. He's also in the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame and is a member of the advisory council of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, president of Green Cross France et Territoires and the founder of the Ocean Futures Society.

Cruising with Cousteau in the Arabian Gulf

He's also 81, but after spending an hour cruising along in a yacht on the Arabian Gulf with the Frenchman, it's clear that neither his age nor his already impressive list of accolades is making him complacent in his mission to protect our oceans. Cousteau attributes this passion to something that happened when he was 17. "Back then, I was very good friends with some fishermen," he recalls, speaking over the sounds of the ocean all around us, while dressed in a brightly coloured, marine-themed Hawaiian shirt. "Those men really loved sardines – eating them, catching them; they made their living from them and would fish them every day. It was their life. Then, one day, they simply could not catch sardines any more. There were none left."

Flick through the gallery to see Cousteau in Dubai:

The stark realisation that the ocean is not limitless struck a chord with Cousteau, who had spent his childhood snorkelling and swimming. He even learnt to scuba dive at the age of seven. As a son of one of the world's most famous undersea explorers he had practically grown up in the water, but until that moment, he had not realised that conservation was a problem that had to be addressed. "We would go exploring and we'd be taking advantage of nature, often taking much more than nature could provide. But we didn't know there was anything wrong with that," he says.

After the sardines ran out, Cousteau started to focus on helping to restore and protect the waters that cover 71 per cent of the Earth's surface. This ambition sees him travel the world, and it's why he came to Dubai, in partnership with The Ritz-Carlton's Ambassadors of the Environment conservation programme, which is designed to educate hotel guests and local communities about environmental responsibility.

The importance of education in Dubai

The day before our outing, Cousteau spent hours meeting children from various schools in the emirate, teaching them about the ocean. He says he believes you can never be too young to learn about conservation. "The younger the better," he says. "I can remember what I was doing when I was four or five years old, but now I can't even remember what I was doing last week.

These kids are the decision-makers of tomorrow who are going to make much, much better decisions than I did at their age

“Conservation is all about education. Any child, even a one-year-old or two-year-old, can absorb information. There is a lot that can be shared. And as they get a little older, they begin to teach their parents.

It’s amazing, because these kids are the decision-makers of tomorrow who are going to make much, much better decisions than I did at their age.”

He's certainly not one to preach perfection, as he was not aware of his environmental responsibilities when he was younger. "As a child, I loved to eat sea urchins and I'd spend so many weekends with my friends catching them and eating them with a big piece of baguette. But we were taking more than nature could produce," he says. "Thankfully, there are now regulations in place to stop people doing that – there's a season when you can catch them but the rest of the year it's not allowed."  

The story of 'Free Willy'

Cousteau now helps to construct regulations such as this. But perhaps one of his most memorable achievements came in 1999, when he was part of the effort to return a captive orca to the wild for the first time, working alongside other scientists and conservation experts. That whale was Keiko, star of the 1993 movie Free Willy. After being captured in Icelandic waters when he was only two years old, Keiko was sold to a theme park in Mexico where he performed stunts in an oversized swimming pool. During his time in captivity, Keiko lost weight and suffered from skin lesions. Free Willy became a box-office hit, and there were calls for Keiko's release in response. After receiving donations and funding from various sources, Cousteau merged three non-profit societies to form the Ocean Futures Society, an organisation that would play an important role in returning the whale to the wild.

Straight on medium shot of Keiko the killer whale and star of the film "Free Willy" as he swims around in his tank prior to being moved from Newport, Oregon to Westman Islands, Iceland.

After 20 years in captivity, Keiko was released back into the waters off the coast of Iceland so that he could once again swim where he chose. Although he never fully reintegrated with wild whales, Keiko had five years of freedom before he died of a pneumonia-like virus.

Today, Cousteau is still fighting for creatures like Keiko. He has turned his attention to Russia, where he has been involved in a series of talks to try and free about 100 beluga whales and orcas being held in captivity in what's being referred to as a "whale jail". The marine mammals are located off the coast of the Russian Far East enclosures, where the water often freezes over. The whales were to be sold to theme parks across China, but millions of people, including Oscar-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio, have signed petitions calling for the release of the mammals. Cousteau visited the site with a team of scientists before he flew to Dubai and secured signatures on a policy preventing the animals from being exported.

We are going in the right direction, but it's going to take time

While this was a huge step in the right direction, Cousteau says it's still not enough. "The government has decided not to allow people to capture or sell the creatures … this year. We were able to sign a document with the governor of the region with the support of the president of the country, to do everything we can to protect them, but they are still there. "We need to reach an understanding with the owners and figure out which whales can be released soon, which need more attention and what happens to the ones that may take a lot more than we think for them to be able to be released."

Experts in Russia say the animals will be released from their holding pens into the Sea of Japan, rather than being returned to where they were captured. Cousteau says he does not agree with that course of action because it would "put the well-being of these orcas at undue risk and compromise their long-term survival". Cousteau also urges people not to go to aquariums and theme parks that use marine animals as entertainment. "It's an insult to the species that are some of the most sophisticated creatures in the ocean," he says. "We need to stop doing that. That, to me, is critical. We are going in the right direction, but it's going to take time."

We still have time

But when it comes to global conservation, time is not something we have an endless supply of. A UN Global Assessment Report published this month shows that only three per cent of marine areas are free from human pressure, while industrial fishing takes place in more than 50 per cent of our oceans, leaving about 33 per cent of fish species overexploited. When it comes to climate change and rising sea temperatures, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we have only 12 years in which to reverse the damage we've already done to our planet. Last week, the IPCC warned sea temperatures could rise by more than two metres by 2100, resulting in "catastrophic" consequences for humans and marine life. But Cousteau says there is still time to save the oceans. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe we had time. But we need to work faster and faster and with more people; it's why education is critical," he says.

Despite being 81 years old, Jean-Michel Cousteau is not giving up on his plight to save the world's oceans any time soon. Jean-Michel Cousteau

"I spent time in Dubai with many young people, so many of whom are keen to help change things and improve the environment in this country. They all want to make a difference, they are young and I'm excited about it."

It's not Cousteau's first time in the UAE, but on this trip he expressed surprise at how much Dubai has changed and the speed of development here. "There's been so much change in this part of the world, but it is also inspiring as some people really do care," he says. He has also been encouraged by the range of environmental initiatives he's seen across the UAE.

“I love this part of the world because it’s wonderfully diverse. People dress differently, they act differently and they do it because they made the decision to be the way they are – I have a lot of respect for that. It’s such a pleasure to meet new people, see new cultures and religions. Diversity is synonymous with stability.”

While Cousteau spends most of his time rallying for marine critters, he says the diversity of humanity is what makes life interesting. He recalls his father telling him that people would always protect what they love. In response, Jean-­Michel always asked: 'How can they protect what they don't understand?' And he's still trying to solve this riddle decades later, as he travels the world to help people understand the ocean, its inhabitants and how we are all connected by it. "We must protect the ocean if we want to protect ourselves" he says. "If I didn't believe that we had time to change things, I'd be off somewhere hiding and simply trying to catch the last fish in the ocean."