Like her grandfather and father before her, Céline Cousteau is fighting for the environment and sustainability; threatened peoples and clean oceans.
Céline Cousteau climbs gingerly up the steep wooden staircase into the second floor of the tower where there’s a small, round room with stone walls. She apologizes for the dust on the furniture. A wooden dolphin stands on the narrow desk, looking like it’s been stranded there. Next to it there’s a pile of film scripts by her father Jean-Michel.
Cousteau pushes open the metal window shutters and looks into the distance, over the Mediterranean Sea. “I can work with absolute concentration here,” she says. From underneath the desk, she pulls out an old diving regulator once used by her famous grandfather, the marine explorer Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau. She puts the antique device to one side and points to two black hard disks. They contain the films of three expeditions to the Vale do Javari indigenous territory in the Brazilian state of Amazonas.
Although Céline is used to travelling extensively, in this year of the Covid-19 pandemic, much like anyone else, Céline is staying home. "This is a good time to reflect on our relationship with the planet," she reflects, especially about how connected we are to nature across the planet. "What happens to other people at the other end of the world suddenly happens to us too," she explains. "We still often think that we stand apart from nature, but the pandemic reminds us that we're part of it."
Now her goal is to take some long, deep breaths in Sanary-sur-Mer. Céline used to spend six months of the year – her winters and summers – in an idyllic little town of 16,000 souls, situated on the French Mediterranean between Marseille and Toulon. The other half of the year she spent north of New York in the Hudson Valley. In 2019, however, Cousteau decided to leave the US and came back to her first home and to her family roots; back to France. This is where she has been staying ever since the beginning of the pandemic.
Back in the living room, she sinks into the brown sofa that stands in front of the wide windows. Photos are framed on the walls, most of them of her grandmother. “This one’s my favorite picture of my grandparents,” she says. It shows Jacques-Yves Cousteau in his navy uniform alongside his wife Simone in a swimsuit. Both of them are smoking cigarettes and look like they’re posing for a magazine cover though they’re simply being themselves. Besides them are their sons Jean-Michel and Philippe-Pierre, and a cousin of theirs. Philippe-Pierre died in an accident in 1979. “They often used to hold parties here in the living room, because there was a great sense of joy after the war was over,” says Céline. The house has hardly changed since then. There’s a map of Africa on the wall, behind which you can still find the recess where her grandfather always placed his projector when showing his guests the documentary films that made him so famous.
Céline's grandmother named the house after an African tree. It is now home to a third generation of Cousteaus; a name that even today seems to echo with the sound of the sea, conjuring up images of ocean adventures and environmental activism. Céline’s grandfather Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910–1997), the marine explorer and TV star, fulfilled a dream of his with this house in Sanary. His trademark was his red woolen cap, the one he wore in the 1960s and 70s in the legendary TV series “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” as captain of the Calypso, a decommissioned British minesweeper that he had converted into a research station.
The former corvette captain and co-inventor of the diving regulator CG 45, patented in 1945 and called the “aqua lung,” introduced an audience of millions to the underwater world. He made over 100 films and published dozens of books. And he fought against pollution and the plundering of the seas. Céline’s father Jean-Michel is carrying on this work as a marine explorer, environmental campaigner and film producer. He has also founded the Ocean Futures Society, whose aim is to sensitize people to the importance of the oceans. He lives in Santa Barbara in California. Céline’s brother Fabien is also an ocean activist and lives in New York, where he campaigns to protect marine life. And Céline’s mother Anne-Marie worked as a photographer and often went along on their research travels.
So they’re a real family business in the service of the oceans. But Céline’s biography suggests she had initially wanted to set herself free of her family inheritance. She was born in California in 1972 and grew up in France and the USA. She initially studied psychology, holds a Master’s in International and Intercultural Management, trained as a goldsmith, then visited Costa Rica as an intern and ended up working there as a travel guide. “My parents let me do what took my fancy,” she says.
But years later she began working with her father – such as on his TV documentary series “Ocean Adventures” (2006–2009). That’s when she reconnected with the sea. Cousteau created CauseCentric Productions, which has the goal of amplifying the voices of great causes through storytelling. She campaigns for indigenous people and protecting the Amazon rainforest, for sustainable fishing and clean oceans, and for greater protection for coral reefs and threatened peoples. In her publicity photos you see her in scuba fins, hiking boots and even business suits. “I want to inspire people so that they can feel a connection to what’s happening on the planet and storytelling is key to this.” CauseCentric also supports smaller environmental organizations and their causes with films and photos.
At the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Paris a few years ago, one of the many podia featured members of indigenous tribes from the USA and Canada. They criticized the destruction of their living environments, the pollution of their rivers and glacier shrinkage. Politicians talked about smog in Beijing and China’s environmental policies. Then the moderator announced that Céline Cousteau would give the closing statement.
Cousteau took the stage and picked up the microphone. She offered a commentary to the photos on the screen behind her – shots of her taking photos while diving, then photos of penguins in the Antarctic and of whales. She enthused about being able to dive near these creatures. You feel very small, she said, “but very much alive and full of respect.” And for her, whale songs are the most beautiful lullabies you can imagine.
Cousteau’s lecture appearances with her short films and photos whisk away her audiences to faraway places. Here in Paris, too, they were spellbound as they watched her nature shots. One film sequence showed a young humpback whale whose tail fin got caught in a 550-pound fishing net of a cutter (which was probably fishing illegally). It was severely injured. At the time, Cousteau and her team were in the Juan Fernández Archipelago, working on a twelve-part documentary series for Chilean TV. They heard a radio distress call sent out by a fisherman who’d discovered the entangled whale nearby. Cousteau’s team decided to help. A diver used a knife to cut through the net, one strand after another, while Céline filmed it all. After two hours the whale was free again. If the divers hadn’t been there, it would have perished.
“We human beings injure, damage and destroy our environment, over and again, but we are also capable of developing great courage and of changing things for the better,” said Cousteau, adding: “Change begins in our heart.” The audience was moved. Cousteau speaks fluent English, French and Spanish and feels as at home on stage. She’s a storyteller, she says; she uses her voice for others. “I want to get people to listen to those who fight for the environment every day, but who – unlike me – don’t have a stage to do it from.”
That boldness connects her not only to nature, but also to the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Five tribes in the Vale do Javari in the Amazonas state asked her to make a documentary film about them: about the threats to their land and livelihoods, their culture, their knowledge of the rainforest and their everyday life. The Javari Valley is believed to have the largest number of people anywhere who have had no contact with the outside world. Cousteau visited the Amazon back in the early 1980s when she was still a child, along with her grandfather. Now Céline wants to help the indigenous population by making people aware of their way of life and their challenges. Because illegal loggers, fishermen, gold hunters, oil prospectors and drug smugglers are threatening their existence – not least through bringing disease with them. This is all the more relevant now with the pandamic. “It’s about helping them to survive.”
Her independently produced documentary "Tribes on the Edge" is set for distribution next year and has served as a catalyst for The Javari Project which launches initiatives to help support the indigenous peoples of that territory. In this context, Céline initiated programs that will support the well-being and self-governance of the people as well as analyze the irreplaceable biodiversity of the Javari Valley.
Cousteau pulls out all the stops when it comes to the environment. She was a member of the Global Agenda Council on Oceans for the World Economic Forum for four years . And she also tries to champion her cause as a speaker and as a corporate ambassador. She was active as a guest designer for Swarovski – a company that uses sustainable hydraulic power for its energy-intensive production of precision-cut crystal glass at its site in the Tyrol. She also used to be an ambassador for the outdoor shoe company Keen Footwear, and today serves as Planet Ambassador for the TreadRight Foundation of The Travel Corporation, supporting conscious and sustainable tourism.
All this is connected to her environmental work. “We’re all consumers and buyers,” she says. She wants access to the customers and employees of such companies. She was a brand ambassador for the cosmetics company La Prairie for seven years because she wanted to support a particular collection – one for which the company was procuring its ingredients from marine plants that are cultivated on land in a controlled marine environment. That way, the sensitive ecosystem of the oceans isn’t endangered.
The sea is calm today. Cousteau laughs when it’s pointed out to her that the French word for water is also in her name – “eau.” Well, water is a part of her biography, she says. “But it’s part of everyone, regardless of your name. We’re all linked to it.”
This article was first published in LGT's client journal CREDO.