Clean Water: Alexandra Cousteau Keeps the Legacy Alive

Family Matters

Sure, her granddad's name is practically synonymous with the ocean, but that doesn’t mean Alexandra Cousteau had to follow in his flippers. She just wanted it that way.

Calling Alexandra Cousteau “grounded” wouldn’t be quite right. Yes, the 36-year-old granddaughter of the legendary French underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau has her priorities in place. As the founder of Blue Legacy, an initiative based at Washington, D.C.’s Ocean Foundation and dedicated to raising awareness about global water issues, she’s a leading expert on the subject. She and her husband, a German architect, are devoted parents to their infant daughter, Clementine, carting her along on business trips to the Middle East and South America with a suitcase of diapers in tow. But “fully submerged,” or maybe “lifting off,” would probably be more to the point. For Cousteau is constantly on the move, boarding one sea- or aircraft or another to reach some far-flung destination in order to learn more about the environment and the threats it faces.  

The Travels Ahead

In the eight months since Clementine came along, for example, Cousteau has completed a 140-day expedition–speaking tour of North America; embarked on a 10-day scouting trip to Belize; overseen a photo shoot in the Yucatan; and enjoyed a brief Thanksgiving break at home in D.C. That was before she jetted off to Paris, Qatar, Berlin, and down to the South of France, where we took the photos for this story. “Next, I’m going to Atlanta,” she says, her deliberate voice betraying just a hint of French. “Then, hopefully, home for a couple of weeks, preparing for World Water Day and Earth Day.” 

This summer, Cousteau will set off on a three-week trek through Belize to trace the country’s water system from its source deep in the Chiquibul forest to where it empties into the ocean, near a part of the Mesoamerican Reef that is so majestic it’s been named a UNESCO World Heritage site. “Belize is incredible,” she says. “It has virgin rain forests, rivers you can drink from, and amazing biodiversity. But the water system is fragile. We’re traveling across that watershed [the term used for an area drained by a river or other body of water] to show the threats people are facing -- in the wake of deforestation, pollution, and agricultural development -- for a television special and an interactive experience for the Blue Legacy website.”

The Blue Legacy

Alexandra is Cousteau 3.0, the third generation of the French family to devote her life to raising awareness about what she calls our “water planet.” Specifically, she wants to help people understand how our communities depend on the streams and rivers that eventually feed into our oceans. As a young graduate of Georgetown University with a degree in international relations, Cousteau spent her twenties traveling the world and learning about environmental issues, on occasion partnering with organizations to study, say, sustainable alternatives to fishing in Panama, or dolphins in the Bahamas. In 2008, when she returned to the States from her then-home in Central America, Cousteau founded Blue Legacy, with an aim toward focusing on the link between freshwater systems and the oceans. In the years since, she’s made numerous expeditions to study how our relationships to these systems are changing. Last year, she led a film crew to Mexico to document how the Colorado River has been diverted to the point where, at one particular stretch, all you’ll find of a once-vibrant agricultural community and wildlife habitat is a mucky, barren riverbed.

Explorations

"This is really, in a lot of ways, where my grandfather was headed with his work, and my father, Philippe, as well,” says Cousteau, whose dad died in a small-plane crash when she was just 3. It was her early explorations with her parents, she says, dad leading the crew and mom handling logistics, that set the stage for a lifelong passion for conservation and a hunger for new experiences. Throughout her childhood, she says, her mom and grandfather continued to show her (and her younger brother, Philippe Jr.) places that most people had never seen. “They inspired me to continue to make others care about a part of the world they’d given little thought to.” 

When Cousteau’s mother, Jan, a California native, met Philippe, she was a New York City model who had never heard the name Cousteau. It was the “quintessential story of a beautiful New York girl meeting a dashing adventurer,” says Alexandra, “and setting off on a life of exploration.” Jan moved to Paris and began embarking on treks to places like Uganda and Chile, eventually bringing Alexandra along for the ride.

"My job is to think and talk about how interconnected we are to these places that my father and grandfather explored,” says Cousteau, who in 2008 was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. She is also a young global leader with the Switzerland-based World Economic Forum, and a senior adviser to Oceana, an international organization working to protect the oceans. “We only now understand the impact of interrupting and degrading these fragile places that drive life on our planet. I’m trying to remind us all how those places are connected to our everyday lives.”

Jacques-Yves Cousteau

It was back in 1956 that an angular, charismatic young Frenchman named Jacques-Yves Cousteau began taking cameras down into the oceans to gather footage for what would eventually become "The Silent World," the groundbreaking film that introduced the land-based population to its underseas counterpart. With his ship, the "Calypso," as his base, Cousteau navigated nose-to-nose with seals, cavorted underwater with blowfish, and watched legions of dolphins jump in his wake. He would go on to win three Academy Awards, codevelop the AquaLung, and inspire a generation of SCUBA-suited amateur divers. By the time of his death, in 1997, Cousteau had become the world’s most recognized expert on marine life, his iconic pipe and red knit cap familiar to millions of eager viewers whom he’d encouraged repeatedly to become “stewards of the sea.”

Here, Jacques readies for a dive in 1970.

The Steward King

Though Alexandra spent much of her childhood in the United States, her summers were passed on the Mediterranean coast, and it is there that the senior Cousteau’s memory is most alive for her. She was only 3 months old when she began to swim, and by the time she was 7, she’d taken her first dive. “He’d made this little mask and fins and a little tank on these rubber suspenders,” she recalls of Jacques. “I was nervous about breathing underwater. I turned to ask if it would be OK, but before I could, he winked at me and sort of pushed me in. Before I knew it, I was enveloped in a school of small, silvery fish. They were shimmering in the sunlight and dancing around me in the clear blue water. I really fell in love that day.”

Generations at Sea

We had a responsibility to take care of all these subjects, her grandfather said, so that they could live and thrive. I used to ask him so many questions that eventually he would say 'Alexandra, one of these days, you’ll just have to go and see for yourself.'"

She took those words to heart, and today Alexandra Cousteau is bent on engendering a similar passion for exploration and discovery in the next generation. Clementine should feel exhilarated by, rather than afraid of new places. "The greatest gift I can give my child is showing her the world -- not just ecosystems and fragile places, but the people, and the wealth and diversity of cultures and perspectives."

Here, Alexandra and her mother, Jan, are with the Cousteau crew in the amphibian plane "Flying Calypso" during the filming of the "The Nile" in 1978.

The Underwater Kingdom

Among the positions Jacques Cousteau held over the years was director of the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco. “We’d play this wonderful game as we walked down the steps to the aquarium,” says Alexandra. “We’d pretend we were entering an underwater kingdom. He was the steward king, and I was a mermaid princess, of course. We’d go from one tank to the next, and he’d teach me about all the creatures -- the bonnethead sharks and the arrow crabs, the electric eels, the clown fish, and the sea slugs. He’d tell me about what each one needed to survive, about its habitat and ecosystem, and he would press upon me the importance of our role as stewards. 

The Girl's Got Blue Genes

At the moment, the new mother’s biggest challenge is figuring out how to keep her daughter on a decent nap schedule when every other day seems to begin in an airport. Fortunately, Alexandra’s mom or husband is usually along to help out with the parenting. “It’s certainly going to be challenging to get back up to speed with a baby, but I will not leave her behind. I’m committed to being a mom as much as I’m committed to fighting for all of these issues that matter to me. Blending these worlds is a challenge,” she concedes. “I’m not doing it perfectly, but I’m doing it.”

What You Can Do

Yes, it’s important to turn off the faucet when brushing your teeth, but there are other ways you can help protect your local water sources. Here are three easy steps to making a difference.

1. Identify your watershed. Where does your water come from and where does it go? Each watershed is different, and half the battle is knowing the specific threats and political issues facing your own. At epa.gov, you can enter your zip code to find your watershed and see a list of citizen-based groups you can join that are associated with protecting it. 

2. Visit one water source in the next six weeks. If you already do this regularly, start taking someone with you. Walk along the banks or go swimming, fishing, or kayaking. If people don’t have experiences or memories linked to these places, they have no connection and less reason to care. Explore it, know it, understand it, and show it to your children. 

3. Get involved. Whether it’s protecting our rivers or taking aim at climate change, we have to be both local actors and global citizens. Contact your local chapter of the Waterkeeper Alliance and try to get involved. Giving money to build a well in Africa is important, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of water issues in your own backyard.