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Q&A: What Céline Cousteau and Jim Toomey Want You to Know About Coral Reefs

Ever wonder how coral reefs contribute to the economy and human health? Or how 60 percent of these "rainforests of the sea" came to be so threatened by local activities? Or what, exactly, a coral polyp is? WRI's Reefs at Risk team, along with two renowned ocean advocates, have the answers to these questions and many more in the new video, Coral Reefs: Polyps in Peril.

WRI worked with Céline Cousteau, founder of CauseCentric Productions and granddaughter of ocean explorer, Jacques Cousteau; and Jim Toomey, creator of the Sherman’s Lagoon comic strip, to create the video. Through Cousteau’s narration and Toomey’s colorful fish animations, viewers can learn about the vital role reefs play in the health of the planet and important economies, the threats these coastal and marine ecosystems face, and how people can help save invaluable corals.

[youtube Jn5-ARXmQlQ] I caught up with Cousteau and Toomey to talk about their passion for ocean conservation, the importance of coral reefs, and the challenges of having animated sea creatures as your co-stars.

What sparked your passion for protecting oceans?

CC: My grandfather had a little bit to do with it [laughs]. My interest in general is about the human connection to the environment. The oceans have this mystique to them because a lot of people don’t actually get to witness what’s below the surface first-hand. When I work with organizations and collaborate on projects, most want to throw me into the ocean because of the last name I have. So I happily dive overboard.

JT: My love of the ocean got me into drawing an underwater comic strip, but I wasn’t really active in conservation until I was contacted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help them with a public outreach piece. I was very flattered that a big government agency would consider “Sherman’s Lagoon” a vehicle for educating the public about the ocean.

Why are you interested in coral reefs specifically?

CC: A coral reef is an entire ecosystem we’re talking about—it’s not just one species. So it really speaks to a lot of different people and a lot of different industries. With coral reefs, we talk about tourism and people who are enjoying the coastlines. We can talk about the fishing industry. We can talk about pharmaceuticals, and we can talk about cosmetics. With coral reefs, you are able to reach out to a wide audience by appealing to their interests that all have their roots in one ecosystem.

<p>Jim Toomey, creator of the comic strip \Polyps in Peril.

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Jim Toomey, creator of the comic strip "Sherman's Lagoon," animated Polyps in Peril.

JT: The potential of coral reefs to help us is largely untapped.

What made you want to be involved in this video?

CC: I’ve been involved with WRI now for years, and in this video we were really seeking to do something original and different. I like to hear experts say that they want to reach a new audience or do something creative and fun because I think you’re able to reach different people than you would with a scientific report or a press release. This is something that’s really attractive for a wider audience. So it was fun to get creative and put our heads together to create this story out of a hundred-plus-page report. It was a big challenge, and I like that.

What do you hope people will take from this film?

JT: Ocean conservation issues are largely ignored by the public because I think most people see the ocean as boundless and indestructible and not directly connected to our fate. With outreach projects like Polyps in Peril, we hope to put a conservation message inside an entertaining package, cultivate a larger audience, and hopefully change hearts and minds about the ocean.

CC: I’m hoping people understand that complex issues can be understood when they’re broken down to their essential components, and that the issues we are facing as a human species are not insurmountable. I hope people walk away feeling inspired, that they understand more about what coral reefs are about, and that they actually do something about it so that they feel empowered.

<p>Céline Cousteau is passionate about ocean conservation, as well as the human connection to the environment. Photo credit: celinecousteau.com</p>

Céline Cousteau is passionate about ocean conservation, as well as the human connection to the environment. Photo credit: celinecousteau.com

What did you enjoy about working on the film?

CC: I loved watching us get from script to creation to the end and watching Jim’s cartoons come to life. I think the process inspired me to think more about creative ways of communicating a message. I think that WRI hit it right on the head doing this one.

JT: Working with the team was my favorite part. Everyone—from the folks at WRI; to Céline; to the animator, Bronson Hoover—had great ideas and really worked in concert to make this happen. Sometimes working with a team of very different, creative people can be challenging, but this really worked out well.

Céline, what was it like having animated fish as your co-stars?

CC: This is the first time I’ve been green-screened, and I realized I had to look at air and pretend there was a drawn fish next to me. It tested my acting skills! But I loved it.

Jim, what was the most challenging part about working on this video?

JT: Polyps are very hard to make cute and cuddly. So, in the end, we decided to go with something slightly easier to anthropomorphize – a fish. Keeping the whole video upbeat was challenging as well.

That’s a good point. The film reveals that more than 60 percent of the world’s coral reefs are currently threatened by local pressures, yet it ends on a hopeful note. Why did you choose to wrap up this way?

CC: We receive so much negative information about what’s happening to our environment. What happens is, people shut down and shut off. They don’t listen anymore because there’s only so much negative information we can take. To be able to bring this to a positive place is really about having people walk away feeling like they can do something. There is hope, and that hope is what carries us forward.

We also wanted to add in comedy because we all love to laugh, and comedy gets people’s attention. By bringing those elements together—the comedy aspect and the positive outlook at the end—it will keep people interested when the video stops. I hope this serves as an example to other organizations that communicating messages of great environmental importance can be done in many different ways.

Find out more about Coral Reefs: Polyps in Peril. And be sure to check out WRI’s newest report on the state of the world’s reefs, “Reefs at Risk Revisited in the Coral Triangle.”

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