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Ocean Inspiration: Carrying on the Legacy of Jacques-Yves Cousteau

A conversation with Céline Cousteau. On May 18, Céline Cousteau will host Ocean Inspiration, a cocktail reception and fundraiser to celebrate the 100th anniversary of her grandfather, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, in New York City at The Sea Grille. The World Resources Institute sat down with Céline to talk about her grandfather, his legacy and what inspired her to become an ocean advocate.

To purchase tickets visit www.wri.org/oceaninspiration

WRI: Tell us about Ocean Inspiration and why you’re hosting this event.

Céline Cousteau: My grandfather, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, would have turned 100 last June. As his 100th anniversary was coming up, people kept asking if the family was doing something to celebrate. Having traveled all around the world, I kept hearing people say “your grandfather inspired me to start diving” or “I got interested in ocean conservation because of him.” There’s this incredible uniting force that one person has the capacity to generate, and I want to give an opportunity to celebrate and reward those who care deeply about this cause and deserve recognition.

The goal of Ocean Inspiration is to honor Jacques Cousteau on his 100th anniversary by recognizing people who are ocean advocates in so many different forms – scientists, filmmakers, dancers, jewelers, designers, musicians and more.

I really enjoy meeting people who are problem solvers, everyday heroes who might not get public recognition because they are out there doing amazing work day in and day out without the means to get their stories told. It motivates me to help them get the attention they deserve and the resources they need to move their projects forward. People like Patty Webster of Amazon Promise, Peter Luswata of the Uganda Rural Community Support Foundation, Michael Kaufmann of Green Chimneys, and Amy Greeson of Healing Seekers. And there are so many more!

WRI: What makes your grandfather’s legacy so enduring today?

CC: A really incredible aspect of his legacy is that so many family members are still involved with environmental causes, most of us with oceans. My own work focuses on creating a bridge between humans and the environment, both above and below water, much like my relatives have in some way continued on with their own form of his work. I think that says a lot. You don’t often see the children and grandchildren of the world’s great minds all becoming scientists, or artists, or musicians. There is something special about that power of the environment and the power of inspiration that has created this incredible legacy that we’ve all followed through with in our own incredible ways.

I think on a very personal level, Jacques-Yves Cousteau was a very charismatic, engaged person who was so passionate about what he did that he spoke of it in a very powerful way. I believe a great attraction for all of us is the exploration and adventure, like it was for him, but more importantly we have a desire to protect those areas that we know are fragile. In my family, we have been taught that we are active participants in the whole system that is the planet, not just what happens in our homes and our backyards.

Aboard the Calypso

Here I am sitting on a Zodiac raft while it hangs on the Calypso docked in port somewhere. I’m about 5 or 6 years old and that’s my brother Fabien in the background. The Zodiac is an inflatable boat the crew would use for diving and making runs if you couldn’t bring the ship into port.


Simone, Céline, and Fabien

This is my grandmother Simone, my brother Fabien and me walking out of to the mess hall on the Calypso. You can barely see, but my grandmother’s dog Ulysses is coming to greet us on the dock.


Capturing the Sea

I love this picture of my mother photographing a dolphin on expedition with the Calypso crew. She’s standing on the Zodiac and could be just about anywhere in the world. She was an expedition photographer for 13 years and a lot of my inspiration came from seeing her photos when she would arrive home.


My Grandfather and Mother

This is a great picture of my mother and grandfather in France; the well known public figure and the one who often captured his face on film.


On the Amazon

When I was 9 I spent two weeks on an expedition with my grandfather and the crew in the Amazon. Each day they would take me on "child-approved adventures." Since that trip, the Amazon is a place I hold very dear to my heart. I worked on a documentary called “Return to the Amazon” with my father and brother about my grandfather’s expeditions there. I also returned to film my own project about a non-profit bringing medical attention to remote areas of the Peruvian Amazon.


Sanary, France

This picture of my grandfather and me was taken in the south of France at our home, in Sanary. My grandparents built that house in the early 1940s and it is still in our family. We spent some summers there when I was growing up, my family lived there for a year, and I’m actually moving back there this summer to work on various projects for a few months.


Céline and Albert Falco

Here I am with Albert Falco, my grandfather’s right hand man, at the Antibes film festival a few years ago. He is still diving today - we just went diving together on my grandfather’s 100th birthday in the South of France with Fabien, Jean-Michel and members of the original Calypso crew.


WRI: How did your grandfather inspire you?

CC: He didn’t necessarily push me to choose this path, but he opened up doors and my mind to the possibilities. It was really the whole family that inspired me – in addition to my grandfather, my father, Jean-Michel Cousteau, has continued ocean work since the 1970s. Less well known are my mother and grandmother, both of whom were a part of the family legacy – my grandmother was aboard Calypso more than any other crew member; my mother was an expedition photographer for over 13 years. I was inspired by a lot of the field stories they told, and as female figures they really influenced me to believe that I have an opportunity to carry on the legacy in whatever way I chose. I was never coerced into this…my family just allowed me to be whoever it is that I chose to be. I went off and studied psychology and intercultural relations (so again there’s the human angle) – but my experiential education was out in the field, in the river, in the jungle, and in the ocean. The experiences with my family came together with my formal education to define my part of this legacy.

WRI: Why are reefs and ocean conservancy issues so important to you?

CC: Oceans play a role in my life personally, in a very individual way. To be able to get into the ocean is an incredible feeling: it’s meditative, it’s an escape, it’s another world, it’s inspiring, it’s wondrous, and it’s surprising.

In a bigger way, the oceans are fundamental to the health of our planet. Coral reefs are particularly important because they are a foundation of many ocean ecosystems. If we don’t protect coral reefs, everything that depends on them will suffer. Our own health and our own well-being depend on it too. There’s not one person on this planet that’s not somehow connected to the ocean, no matter how far you live from it. And I hope to raise awareness through Ocean Inspiration as well as demonstrate concrete support for a great initiative, Reefs at Risk.

WRI: As an institute, we have a similar mandate to look at both the environment and how it affects people. Why did you choose to donate a portion of proceeds from Ocean Inspiration to WRI's Reefs at Risk?

CC: I first got to know WRI a few years ago when I donated two days of diving with me for an auction at their annual dinner in New York. Meeting the people who work there and learning about the different kinds of work they do was very powerful for me. Because instead of competing with conservation organizations, WRI focuses on creating the content and analysis by which we can actually move forward and implement solutions.

Specifically Reefs at Risk interested me because I was drawn to the 10-year assessment of threats and recommendations for protecting coral reefs. I liked the level of detail, the research, the fantastically clear and tangible maps that went into it, and I thought this is something I want to support and help move forward.

WRI: What can people expect from the May 18 Ocean Inspiration event at The Sea Grill in New York?

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After Ocean Inspiration, "I want people to walk away feeling empowered to use their talents to be proactive ocean advocates," says Céline Cousteau. Photo credit: Sara Stathas

CC: May 18 is the cocktail celebration and fundraiser in New York, emceed by Today Show anchor Amy Robach. We have put together an incredible program with many diverse elements during the evening. For example, there will be a sensory room where you can immerse yourself in ocean sounds. An incredible composer, Henri “Scars” Struck, is composing the piece for that room. And Derek Stratton of Pilobolus has choreographed a special dance performance just for this evening with Henri’s music, as well.

In terms of programming, there will be a presentation by WRI on Reefs at Risk Revisited. My father, Jean-Michel, will preview an excerpt from his new film “My Father the Captain” which hasn’t shown in the United States yet. He’s also going to speak about his life and his inspiration from his father. We will honor our award recipients, including Dr. David Guggenheim, who has done incredible work in educating others about the importance of healthy oceans.

The live auction includes a one-of-a-kind, ocean-inspired dress by CFDA award-winning designer Sophie Théallet. There will also be a one-week trip to an exclusive members-only property in Patagonia. It includes horseback riding, rafting, canoeing, helicopter rides, mountain biking, access to amazing chefs and great food, plus there is a research stations where you can see blue whales. It’s fabulous; I want to go!

We will also auction work by top photographers, including Ernie Brooks, Chuck Davis, David Doubilet, Brian Skerry, Scott Frier, Stephen Wilkes, Carrie Vonderhaar and more.

WRI: What would you like people to take away from Ocean Inspiration?

CC: Although the event is a tribute to my grandfather and his mission, it is not just about him, but about the power one person has to influence many. I want people to walk away feeling empowered to use their talents to be proactive ocean advocates. I want people to know that they can have an impact every day from the food they eat, to where they choose to spend their vacations, to supporting non-profit organizations, to volunteering their time. So I hope that people will walk away with something tangible to do and have the inspiration to move to action beyond that evening.

To purchase tickets to Ocean Inspiration, visit www.wri.org/oceaninspiration
(Note: the fee is waived for credentialed media, email lcole@wri.org to register)

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