When the Family Business is 'Saving the Planet'.
Updated: Aug 12
“Hope is the best motivator” says Philippe Cousteau Jr, the grandson of Jacques Cousteau,
the famed marine explorer and co-inventor of the Aqua Lung.
Philippe, a French/American dual citizen, lives in California where he and his wife Ashlan run their
numerous marine conservation campaigns, tv, broadcasting and publishing interests.
“We’re Storytellers” they say. “We’re journalists, broadcasters, explorers – but we’re
Ocean Advocates first.”
In fact, as I learn, no-one in this ‘first family of the ocean’ is or ever was a scientist or marine
biologist. “My grandfather Jacques wasn’t a scientist he was a captain in the French Navy, my uncle was an architect, and my father was a filmmaker. We are a family of storytellers and
advocates for marine conservation rather than actually doing the science.”
“That said,” the 40-year-old scion clarifies, “77 years ago when my grandfather first tested
his invention, the Aqua Lung, it opened the door to real scientific exploration because
prior to that little was known about what lay under the waves.”
Had being born with such a famous name made his choice of career a bit of a foregone conclusion?
“My grandfather told me towards the end of his life: ‘Conservation starts with Education’
and that really shaped my interest” said Philippe.
“It is also complicated because my father died 6 months before I was born - and I had this
desire to connect with his work and legacy. I always felt a calling and fascination with
what my father and grandfather did, and I’m grateful they had this remarkable catalogue
of work - the films, photographs, TV shows - for me to learn from.”
Having been raised by his mother, I wondered what influence the women in the Cousteau clan had
on the legacy.
“Pure Inspiration. My mother spent 13 years on expeditions with my father Philippe Sr.,
my grandmother spent more time on the Cousteau boat Calypso than my grandfather did -
but principally behind the scenes. My sister - also an environmental campaigner - and I are
a testament to their encouragement. My grandmother and mother are an important part
of the Cousteau story and now, my wife Ashlan is making her contribution too.”
Was it easy joining a family so steeped in marine conservation? I ask.
“Thank God I love to swim!” joked Ashlan. “I grew up In North Carolina and spent a lot of
time at the beach and out on the water.”
“We first met at a conference. I was working as an entertainment journalist – working on
stories about the Kardashians, Justin Bieber, pop culture - but I kind of had an “a-ha”
moment learning about Philippe’s work – I thought: Why can’t we make saving the world
cool too? Why can’t these issues be highlighted and be fun and sexy? – Not to lighten the
seriousness of the issues, but to make them more accessible so more people care” she
And that became the couple’s mission.
“People still don’t fully understand the way our oceans work” Ashlan continues “so,
during lockdown we wrote a book - part of the hugely successful ‘… For Dummies’ series
called ‘Oceans for Dummies!’
“It explains how weather patterns work, how the currents work, the different species of
Animals. It answers questions like: ‘Why are the oceans salty?’. We just want more people to
be ‘Ocean Literate’ - after all, we know more about the moon than the bottom of the sea.”
“Today’s generation get it” comments Philippe “They understand the importance of environmental conservation, it’s part of their curriculum and their school clubs. And there is a shift in the conversation: how can solving these problems be an opportunity to grow the economy, provide jobs, live healthier and more sustainable lives?
“I think my grandfather and father would be encouraged by that.” Philippe ponders.
“Ashlan and I continue to champion hope, the positive outcomes and the opportunities.”
And are we seeing success?
“In the 40 years I have been alive we have lost 50%
of our bio-diversity - 68% of wildlife is gone” says Philippe. “so ‘No’ we don’t have a good track
record over the last 40 years. But we are hopeful for the future, we know what works, the science is clear” he enthuses.
“Through our non-profit, Earth Echo International - a leading global environmental
education organization” explains Ashlan “we work with Ocean Conservancy, WWF and others, to campaign for ‘30x30’ – the need to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030.”
“These are areas where we advocate ‘No Take’ –no fishing, drilling or hunting” she explains “especially in areas of bio-diversity hotspots, like Antarctica.”
“We’re not saying we have to stop all fishing” says Philippe, “but we need to look at the
Ocean as our ally when it comes to having a healthy planet. Nature is extremely resilient –
it bounces back - if we give it a chance.”
“Philippe and I went to Bikini Atoll in the Pacific” recalls Ashlan. “The U.S. detonated 23 nuclear bombs there during the Cold War. Because of the radiation, no one had been there for 60 years – untouched by humans – but in what had been a dead zone, we now see some of the most amazing and diverse diving environments anywhere in the world.”
So, are the Cousteau’s hopeful for the future?
“The planet isn’t a partisan political issue” says Ashlan. “It isn’t just for liberals to care about the environment, after all, it was Richard Nixon’s administration who created the EPA and passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Now, politicians of all stripe are stepping up looking for solutions to environmental problems for the good of our economy, jobs and health” she continues.
“The new President has already taken positive steps on solving the climate crisis and he has backed ‘30x30’ which is great news. There is also a big push right now to protect three marine areas in Antarctica. If enacted, this will be the single largest act of conservation in history -so ‘yes we have hope’.” she beams.
And what about that legacy?
“We are proud to be continuing the spirit of my family’s legacy.” says Philippe. “My grandfather was one of the originators of a campaign to protect the landmass of Antarctica and now Ashlan and I get to carry that challenge forward through a campaign to protect the ocean around Antarctica”
“As you can imagine, this is really special from a personal point of view but shows the work is never done.
This article was first published in Beach Happy