Real Leaders

Fabien Cousteau: Leading Like Our Lives Depend on it

By the time Fabien Cousteau had assumed the self-bestowed title of guardian of the oceans, from his father Jean-Michel and grandfather Jacques, he felt no pressure to continue the family legacy – it was already something he wanted to do.

Growing up in a somewhat unusual family and experiencing firsthand the thrill of discovery and adventure in unexplored parts of the ocean, the young Cousteau followed the teaching of his parents – do what makes you passionate in life. “The ocean just happened to be it,” says Cousteau, blissfully unaware of the sea salt that has been running through his veins since birth.

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Diving since the age of four and accompanying his family on ocean-going expeditions since age seven, he recalls being confused by the movie Jaws that he once saw on a cruise ship as a young boy. “The shark was nothing like the real ones with which I had swum. I was intrigued by the disconnect between what I knew sharks to be and this murderous monster on the screen.” Cousteau would prefer to watch a thriller called ‘The Life and Death Struggle of a Mantis Shrimp and Octopus,’ but agrees that it might not perform very well at the box office. 

Since 2014, he’s been leading a unique project called Mission 31 – taking people to the world’s last remaining undersea marine laboratory, Aquarius, (now defunct) situated 65 feet down and nine nautical miles off the Florida Keys. Like astronauts in space, the goal was to spend 31 days living and working underwater. Jacques Cousteau had already built the first underwater habitats in the Red Sea, back in 1963. He dubbed the inhabitants ‘oceanauts’ and wanted to see if humans could live underwater for extended periods.

Mission 31 was in honor of his grandfather and lasted one symbolic day longer than the 1960s missions. “I wanted to see if the general public was still interested in ocean exploration, decades after my grandfather first ignited a fascination with life underwater,” he explains.

The answer was a resounding ‘yes.’ The mission garnered 34 billion media impressions, and more than 100,000 students spoke to the mission crew from a live feed in their classrooms. It wasn’t just the social media frenzy that worked; three years of scientific research was squeezed into 31 days with Cousteau and his crew each racking up 10-12 hours of diving each day. The month-long event attracted attention to the destruction of marine populations and put a spotlight on conservation efforts. With some fish populations at 10% of what they were 50 years ago, the 21st Century Cousteau knows that change will only happen if you appeal to people’s emotions and by raising awareness through impressive stunts.

When scientists give me the stark facts on the damage we’ve done to our planet and what we stand to lose by 2050, it bothers me that the general public has no idea of the severity. If they did, it would cause wide-scale, global panic.

With two generations of self-motivated, conservationists behind him, Cousteau is not happy to sit back and wait for someone else to fix a problem. Seeing the concern and urgency in his father and grandfather’s work for our life support system – the oceans – and seeing the adverse effects of humanity on this fragile ecosystem, he has become proactive. “I firmly believe that you lead by example. How can you not take decisive action when you see firsthand what may happen to ourselves and our children in the future?”

“‘People protect what they love,’ my grandfather always told me. ‘They love what they understand, and they understand what they’re taught.’” It’s a philosophy Cousteau has adopted for the Fabien Cousteau Ocean Learning Centre, which aims to build a sustainable business model around sponsorship, global fishing communities, student education and filmmaking; keeping the plight of our oceans firmly in the news.

Fabien Cousteau (center) with his father, Jean-Michel and sister, Céline. Jean-Michel founded the Ocean Futures Society in 1999, a marine conservation and education organization. He also advocates for a world free of nuclear weapons. Céline is a documentary film producer, explorer and designer, who founded CauseCentric Productions. She also started a non-profit organization: The Céline Cousteau Film Fellowship. Photo: Ocean Futures Society

“Everyone’s getting excited about a future Mars mission, but 95% of our oceans remain unexplored. The ocean is the perfect place to prepare for space missions – how the body reacts to extreme environments, isolation and weightlessness. Before we head off to colonize alien planets, we should cherish the ecosystems and life we have here first. I love the possibilities of space exploration, but why try and recreate a habitable environment on Mars when we still have 99% of Earth’s surface to be explored?”

Other frustrations he hears are commonly-held beliefs that “Greenpeace will take care of it,” or “There must be an NGO for that?” After all, why should business care, especially if you work in a bank in Nebraska or construction in Texas, 1,000 miles from any ocean? “Every business has been living on credit,” explains Cousteau. “We’ve been taking, taking, taking from our natural resources bank account, without realizing that we’re going bankrupt. Many executives may be surprised to discover just how reliant their company is on the oceans – weather patterns, rainfall and disruptions to ocean-faring supply chains.

The spreadsheet a CEO stares at doesn’t include the impact business is having on our planet. The real cost of goods and services can only be calculated when you add the cost to our aquatic ecosystem or the environment in general. “The companies who start down this road early, will be the ones who reap the biggest benefits in the future,” predicts Cousteau.

It can be disheartening to realize the scale of an environmental problem, and exhausting to hear the many arguments for and against change. Cousteau reckons our current bucket of problems is made up of individual drops, and we should confront them as such – one drop at a time. “Our ancestors sometimes had it right in the first place,” he laughs, “We should revisit our history books for answers to some of our current problems, instead of repeating our mistakes. Near the end of his life, in 1997, my grandfather said he wished he had three more lifetimes to continue his work on ocean advocacy and education. Two generations later, I hope to help fulfill this wish in some way.”

“There’s a certain degree of anxiety that gets me out of bed in the morning. When scientists give me the stark facts on the damage we’ve done to our planet and what we stand to lose by 2050, it bothers me that the general public has no idea of the severity. If they did, it would cause wide-scale, global panic. Staring into my five-year-old’s eyes each day is my antidote – each generation has a choice and hope begins anew.

Cousteau is dismissive of climate change deniers and wonders why we should still be entertaining the 2% viewpoint that thinks it’s worth debating. “Even if deniers were eventually proven right, what have we to lose by acting now? If we don’t act, we stand to lose a lot; if we do act, the worst case scenario is gaining from those actions – innovation, scientific knowledge and a sense of wellbeing that we all came together for a common cause.

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