Jean-Michel Cousteau

"One of the greatest threats to the ocean is the plastic invasion"

Nature Interviews Biodiversity Water


January 2020.    Reading time: 4 minutes

Jean-Michel Cousteau has devoted his life to the sea, and he is watching how human beings are abusing it with a mixture of amazement and concern. One example is the ever-increasing amount of plastic in the water. However, the French explorer has not given up hope and is optimistic about the future, provided that each and every one of us commits to this maxim: "By protecting the ocean, you protect yourself".


"The future of our oceans is in danger, which has an impact on all species on land and sea alike", says Cousteau.

Jean-Michel Cousteau started diving when he was just seven years old. He and his mother, father and brother plunged into the ocean and, figuratively speaking, he has never come up. Almost 74 years later this child, whose silver hair now reflects the sun on the sea, has become one of the world's most highly-respected explorers and environmentalists. Just like his father: Jacques Cousteau.

Jean-Michel has lived his life in and for the big blue — and continues to do so through the Ocean Futures Society — which is why he is so concerned about the future of his best friend: the ocean. A future tied to our own. However, he still has hope because he believes that unlike other species, human beings can decide if we want to survive. One of the greatest threats to the ocean is the plastic invasion, which is why he urges us to join the Lord Plastik initiative in the following interview:

Tell us about your relationship with the ocean. How do you feel when you look at it and when you dive?

I started scuba diving when I was seven, using equipment designed by my father and his team. I went diving with my mother. We would dive as a family every weekend. When people ask me about the best dive I've ever done, I always say, "the next one". I'm excited about exploring and discovering new species. The deeper you dive, the more there is to discover, which is why I have been certified to use the Exosuit, which allows me to dive to 1,000 feet (approximately 300 metres) for ten hours and come back to the surface in five minutes. The device protects me from the pressure while I take samples.

Is the future of the oceans in danger?

The future of our oceans is in danger, which has an impact on all species on land and sea alike. I've found myself in the middle of the Pacific Ocean surrounded by hundreds of tonnes of plastic that has been dragged out by the current. Sometimes we forget this plastic can disintegrate, sink to the bottom of the ocean and affect marine plants, which are the basis of all life on the planet. These plants are eaten by zooplankton, which is how plastic enters the food chain. There is no such thing as waste in nature. Everything is a resource! People should be aware that when they discard plastic bottles, as well as wasting money, they are creating problems for plants, animals and finally, ourselves. We are abusing the environment. As well as the plastic in the oceans problem, there are other issues like chemicals and heavy metals being dumped in the ocean.

What about our future? To what extent does human survival depend on the oceans?

We must never forget that all life depends on water. We are all 60% ocean. Our stability is based on diversity and we have to protect as many species as possible so that we do not lose it. We have to look at each animal and say, "this is our capital". And you never touch your capital. That's how you manage a business and that's how we should manage the planet. We need to do much better because of the situation we are in today. The pressure is on!

What are the main solutions for reducing the amount of plastic in the sea? What can individuals do to turn the situation around?

I would not be doing this interview if I didn't think that there were solutions for changing what we are doing. We need to do away with the concept of rubbish. There's no such thing as rubbish. We need to recycle everything, and there are more ways of doing it every day. This is a very exciting time. We need to watch what we use and give up our bad habits. Smokers, for example, are killing themselves as well as throwing away hundreds of cigarette filters — made with cellulose acetate, a type of plastic — onto the pavements. People need to be made aware that when it rains, all this ends up in the oceans and even the stomachs of the fish we buy and serve to our children. This has to stop and we can do it!

How is Ocean Futures Society working to protect the oceans?

When my father passed away, I decided to found Ocean Futures Society to share the message that he and his team had shared with me during decades of expeditions. We contact industry and government leaders. I sit down with them and I never point the finger at them. I just want to touch their hearts. We also work with scientists who have ideas to help us protect something that we all depend on and try to spread those ideas. Now, more than ever, the time has come to focus on what is most important, and that's education. We have a website which is free to join. Particularly for kids. I didn't want them to have to ask their parents for money to join. Our members ask hundreds of questions every day, which are answered by marine biologists.

Jean-Michel Cousteau: "When people ask me about the best dive I've ever done, I always say: the next one."

How do you get sceptics to commit to protecting the oceans?

Whenever you drink a glass of water, you are drinking the ocean. When you go skiing in the winter, you're skiing on the ocean. We all need to realise that we are permanently connected to the ocean, even when we are in cities far from the sea, or on the top of a mountain.

Lord Plastik is an initiative that raises awareness of the plastic problem and gets the public involved to reduce consumption. What potential do these types of initiatives have to change things?

Because of the communication revolution, organisations like Iberdrola can tell people about initiatives like Lord Plastik. We must do everything we can to make sure we recycle everything. For example, we have the chance to clean up all the plastic in streams and rivers before it is dragged in to the ocean. Recycling creates opportunities for companies and also for people, by creating thousands of jobs all over the planet.

Humans are the only species that can decide whether to survive. Do you think we'll make the right decision?

I honestly think we can do it. By protecting the ocean, you protect yourself. The more people who understand the problem with the environment, the more we can use this skill to prevent our own demise. It's up to us. We are relative newcomers to this planet. If we disappear, the planet will still be here. That's why I am excited about working on our educational programs to make contact with the people who will take decisions tomorrow, which will be far better than those I made when I was a boy. We are on the right path, but time is running out.