We caught up with Ashlan and Philippe Cousteau at their sunny home in Los Angeles to go deep on all things ocean — from issues and solutions to fun facts that’ll blow your mind. Together, they are a powerful (and delightful) force in the fight to protect our ocean. Their advocacy honors the past (Philippe’s grandfather is the legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau) and the future (their second child is due any day now). Our conversation only skims the surface, but we hope it inspires you to embark on a deeper learning journey.
Why should we ALL care about the ocean and make decisions to help protect it, no matter where we live?
The ocean impacts every single person on this planet, every moment of the day. For instance, the ocean controls our climate and weather, including the precipitation that falls on land and waters our crops. Microscopic phytoplankton that live in the sea produce over 50% of the available oxygen in our atmosphere. And the ocean is our biggest carbon sink (meaning it’s our biggest ally in the fight against climate change). So no matter where you live, the ocean makes life as you know it possible.
Tell us about the book you co-authored, Oceans for Dummies, and give us some fun facts!
We wanted to break down the ocean (like how it was formed, how it works, what lives in it, and so much more) in an easy-to-understand and fun way. Our ocean is vital to all life on this planet, but it’s almost always an afterthought. The book covers the seriousness and the complexity of the sea but also the cool and the downright weird stuff. Like if you are stung by a jellyfish, don’t pee on it! Instead, spray the sting with vinegar to neutralize the venom. And weird — the male deep-sea anglerfish (which is MUUUCH smaller than the female) physically attaches himself to one lucky lady, and after a while, his body fuses with hers, losing all his organs except for his testes. Then she continues to swim around with him permanently attached to her body, and she can do this with multiple males at a time throughout her life. Talk about a stage 4 clinger!
What is EarthEcho International all about?
EarthEcho International was founded 16 years ago. Inspired by my (Philippe) legacy of exploration and education. Our mission is to build a global youth movement to protect and restore our ocean planet because until we build that movement, we cannot expect to see the kind of social, economic, and political change we need in order to build a healthy, thriving planet. Our core programs are designed as a path of action for youth to become leaders and change the world.
How does ocean health play into the climate change conversation?
Covering roughly 140 million square miles and containing 1.3 sextillion (yes, you read that right) liters of water, the ocean covers over 70% of the Earth’s surface. It is home to 80% of all life on Earth, is the source of 20% of the animal protein that we eat, and more than 3 billion people depend on it for their livelihood. The ocean makes life as we know it possible. But, as Ashlan put it in our book Oceans for Dummies, “Unfortunately, the ocean is taking the brunt of humanity’s ecological abuses” and there is only so much abuse any ecosystem can withstand.
In particular, the climate crisis is essentially an ocean problem. The ocean regulates our climate through the interplay of cold water at the poles mixed with warm water in the tropics, which is what governs our climate. Unfortunately, the ocean is warming as it absorbs much of the excess heat we have trapped in the atmosphere through the greenhouse effect. This disruption of the ocean’s role in regulating our climate (think of it as the world’s HVAC system) is what is causing the climate to change. On top of all of that, it absorbs as much as half of the carbon emissions we’ve produced in the last century. By absorbing excess carbon, the ocean has done us a favor but at a cost. This extra carbon dioxide is causing the ocean to become more acidic, which is devastating to many marine ecosystems. But the ocean is not just a victim. The ocean continues to be overlooked as a source of solutions for climate change. For example, one square acre of mangrove absorbs more carbon than a square acre of rainforest. Restoring ocean habitats would go a long way to solving a lot of the problems we face.
How do you share your love for the ocean with your daughter? How can parents help connect their kids with the ocean?
We are lucky to live a short drive to the beach and be able to share it with our daughter, as we both grew up playing in the sea as kids. But you don’t have to live near the ocean to fall in love with it! Kids love funky, mysterious animals, and the ocean is chock-full of them. Get your kids some books about the ocean, show them videos, and most importantly, talk to them about why you love the ocean. Tell them about the first time you saw the ocean or your favorite undersea creature. The sea and nature as a whole is a source of wonder, awe, inspiration, and fun. Just get outside with your kids, listen to the birds, look for some bugs and enjoy the time together. It will help you create life-long nature lovers.
What are some sustainable choices you make in your daily lives? Any tips?
First and foremost, single-use plastic is horrible and easy to cut out of your life, and while plastic gets a lot of attention these days, there is a lot more to it. Every choice you make impacts the planet and the ocean, and while that can feel extremely daunting, it is also empowering because it means that we have power to make changes in our lives that are consistent with the world we want to live in. So, the next time you need something, like laundry detergent, a new kitchen sponge, a pair of shoes, water on the go, etc., just see if there is a better choice to make for that purchase (like a no plastic or at least low-plastic option, or cleaning products without phosphates and other harmful chemicals). And this can be applied to the big purchases too. For example, we live in a small home, have one electric car that we share, and we make sure that the food we buy is local whenever possible, any investments we make have a sustainable mandate, etc. Breaking it down into a single action, every time is easier to handle.
Also, food waste is a huge problem. Americans waste 40% of our food which is a shocking amount, and it's responsible for an incredible amount of carbon emissions and pollution. Most of that comes from consumers, not from restaurants. The good news is that we can all do something about it. We can plan better about what we eat and make sure we don’t buy or order more food than we are going to need. And we choose not to eat seafood as 90% of the fish stocks around the world are either overfished or fished to capacity. While no seafood might not be a viable option for everyone, eating less seafood and cutting out fish from industrial fishing can be.
Seems you're pretty thoughtful about the clothes you buy too?
100%! So many people don’t realize that the fashion and garment industry is one of the top polluting industries out there. Not only do people throw away a huge amount of clothes every year (it’s about 80lbs per American, every year!), but that much of the clothing made, especially for fast fashion, is made of virgin plastic! We always look for clothes that are not only made well and will last a long time but are made in a way that supports the garment workers and does the least damage to the planet. That’s why we love Outerknown and Kelly’s vision of a cleaner world and industry.
Any travels planned as we get back into our normal groove? Dream trip?
We are incredibly lucky to be able to travel to amazing places for work. I, Ashlan, spent a week in Antarctica giving a TEDx speech on Scott Base, and Philippe spent over a week up in the Arctic filming climate research for CNN. So collectively, we have explored many places around the globe. But we still have some epic spots left on our bucket list, like diving with the sperm whales in the Azores and silverback gorilla trekking in Congo. As soon as baby #2 is ready to travel, we can’t wait to pack up both girls and share this incredible world with them.
What gives you hope that we collectively can do better and that nature can rebound?
Every day at EarthEcho, we see young people who are fired up and determined to make change. A whole new generation around the world is taking extraordinary action. We see young people raising money, starting eco-friendly businesses, getting involved in politics, and much more. This new generation is what gives us hope because we know that when we give nature a chance, it is incredibly resilient, ecosystems can recover with time and support. In the same way humanity has the power to destroy, we also have the power to renew.