Philippe and Ashlan Cousteau Make Waves
By Tori Phelps
If you look, you’d undoubtedly find saltwater, rather than blood, flowing through the veins of the Cousteau family. The late Jacques Cousteau practically invented oceanic exploration and conservation, and every generation since has taken up that baton. Today, his grandson, Philippe, and Philippe’s wife, Ashlan, bring fresh ideas to a family business that includes engaging the world in a fight that’s literally life or death.
Born into a family still mourning the passing of his father, Philippe Sr., six months earlier in a plane crash, Philippe was raised in France and the US by his American mother, Jan. Though the elder Philippe was gone, Jan had spent thirteen years on explorations with her husband and gave Philippe and his sister, Alexandra, the ocean-centric life they had always planned. Jacques, who lived into Philippe’s late teens, was part of that upbringing, and his grandson remembers him as a man of great humor, generosity, and kindness.
Never pushed into conservation, Philippe came to the decision on his own at age sixteen when he joined Dr. Eugenie Clark, a pioneering oceanographer and friend of both his father and grandfather, on an expedition to Papua New Guinea. While researching and filming from their little dive boat, what Philippe experienced—things like trading with the indigenous peoples and hiking remote areas that likely hadn’t been seen by outsiders in centuries—thoroughly captured his teenage imagination. “I felt like Indiana Jones,” he laughs. “Why would I want to do anything else?”
Rather than marine science, he studied history at St. Andrews in Scotland, reasoning that if he was going to change the world, he first needed to know a bit about it. Besides, on-the-job training had worked well for Cousteaus in the past. Jacques Cousteau, despite common misperception, wasn’t a formally trained scientist. He was a captain in the French navy, a filmmaker, an author, an explorer, a researcher, and a problem solver. A free diver who wanted to spend more time underwater, Jacques famously coinvented the Aqua-Lung with French engineer Émile Gagnan in the mid-1940s, an invention whose technology is still used in modern scuba gear.
Perhaps most importantly to Philippe, Jacques was a storyteller. And that was the role Philippe hoped to fill.
He was already a well-known ocean advocate when he met Ashlan Gorse at an event for which Philippe was speaking. A native of North Carolina, Ashlan had studied journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After years of hard work, she had landed her dream job as an entertainment reporter for the E! network. But seven years in, a desire for more purpose in her life collided with the new man in her life. “I spent my days talking about the Kardashians and Justin Bieber, and then I would come home and have these amazing conversations with Philippe about ocean politics,” she says. “I started to think about how I could use my background in pop culture to appeal to audiences, specifically in terms of ocean conservation.”
Pop culture and science may sound like odd bedfellows until you consider The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, among the most awarded, most popular television programs in history—and also a reality show, Ashlan maintains. Sure, the audience learned about walruses and fish and amazing places, but it was about following this family around the world and seeing them interact, she says.
Together, the California-based couple embarked on a journey to make the message of conservation cool, fun, exciting, and accessible. They had a good start, thanks to EarthEcho International, an organization Philippe founded right out of college. Its mission is to build a global youth movement to restore and protect the ocean and planet, offering resources to educators all over the world that empower kids to become ocean advocates in their communities.
The results have been staggering. Children as young as grade-schoolers are helping to pass laws, making towns plastic-free, and starting businesses around conservation. Philippe’s instinct to focus on youth was a smart one. “It’s amazing what kids can do in their families, with their friends—all the way up to world leaders,” marvels Ashlan. “The power they have and the way they’re using it is really inspiring.” Philippe adds, “That optimism drives us forward, frankly. Seeing them do these extraordinary things, it gives you hope.”
Hope can be in short supply sometimes. Even with the Cousteau family’s work over the last half century, many people still don’t understand that destroying oceans will destroy humanity. Oceans control everything from weather to national security, provide over 50 percent of the available oxygen, and deliver every drop of precipitation that falls on land, Ashlan explains. Far more than just providing seafood, oceans are ultimately responsible for all of our food. And there are likely other connections of which scientists aren’t yet aware. “We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the bottom of our oceans,” she says. “People are excited about exploring Mars, but I’m much more excited about exploring what’s on our planet.”
That was the premise behind their Travel Channel series, Caribbean Pirate Treasure, wherein Ashlan and Philippe brought attention to issues like plastic pollution and invasive species through undersea exploration and, yes, treasure hunts. The show, which ran for three seasons, was scrubbed when Ashlan became pregnant with their daughter, Vivienne, as expectant mothers can’t scuba dive. However, fans will be thrilled to know that the Cousteaus plan to pursue TV options again after their second child is born later this summer.
In the more immediate future, they’ll mark World Oceans Day on June 8 with COVID-appropriate festivities, such as smaller EarthEcho youth events. The Cousteaus also will tie in the launch of Philippe’s new children’s book, Ocean Champs, as well as the recent publication of their joint effort, Oceans for Dummies. Part of the famed For Dummies series, the book fills a gap between simple children’s books about the ocean and academic sources. There really was nothing in between, Ashlan says of their decision to write an easily accessible, enjoyable guide.
It’s needed now more than ever, they believe. Even as environmental issues become more important in our collective minds, the oceans are not. In a recent survey, global leaders listed climate change near the top of their concerns, while ocean conservation fell somewhere near the bottom, Philippe says. “There’s still a lack of awareness about their importance,” he states. “We need to elevate the ocean to the center of the conservation conversation; we can’t solve anything until we do.”
At the individual level, they say that saving the oceans can start with something as easy as reducing consumption of single-use plastics (like water bottles and straws), 8 million metric tons of which enter the oceans every year. The political candidates we support also have a massive impact, they say, though they hope environmental issues will again become nonpartisan, as they were when Republican President Richard Nixon started the EPA and implemented everything from the Clean Water Act to the Endangered Species Act.
While the need for advocacy is still strong, the Cousteau family’s commitment is just as strong. And with a new generation of Cousteaus being raised with the same reverence for and commitment to the oceanic world, it’s safe to say that their activism—and exploration—will live on. “My father said that adventure is where you lead a full life,” says Philippe. “And this is the best adventure you could ever have.”
— V —
Tori Phelps has been a journalist and writer for twenty-five years. A longtime VIE collaborator, Tori is committed to storytelling that honors the subject matter and inspires the reader. She lives, reads, and bakes vegan biscuits with her family in Charleston, South Carolina.