Explorer Jacques Cousteau was a magical man, says granddaughter Alexandra


For decades until his death in 1997, Jacques Cousteau brought the oceans to our living rooms, taking us with him in his mission to save the seas. In his explorations he expanded mankind's knowledge of the undersea world, and in his films he shared this knowledge with us, children in the '70s and '80s watching rapt as he and his crew traveled the sea in his famous boat, Calypso.

He was also an innovator, helping to develop an open-circuit type of self-contained underwater breathing apparatus called the Aqua-Lung in 1943 that soon became better known by its acronym, scuba.

He was a man whose greatness was recognized in his lifetime: He rubbed shoulders with presidents and kings and was made a Commander of the Legion of Honor by his homeland France.

To Alexandra Cousteau, however, he was more than that: He was a doting grandfather who introduced her to the oceans and the cause of marine conservation in a way that a small child could understand and appreciate.

"I would visit him at the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco and we would have games where I would be the mermaid princess and he would be the steward king of this underwater universe and he'd talk about how we had to take care of them," she said.

"We had these moments together. He was a magical man."

Alexandra, 40, is the third generation of Cousteaus to explore the seas and lead the charge in saving them, along with her brother Philippe Jr. and cousins Fabien and Celine. In 2011 she joined international marine conservation organization Oceana as a senior adviser. Last week, she arrived in the country to assist Oceana Philippines in campaigning for the protection of two of the country's biodiversity hotspots, the Tañon Strait Protected Seascape in the Visayas and the vast Benham Rise off Luzon.

A special trip to Palawan

In the five years she has been with Oceana, Alexandra has traveled the world, making documentaries and advocating the conservation of the world's waters.

Last December she was in Belize, where a campaign was underway to stop oil drilling in one of the world's largest coral reef systems. "The government had carved it up into different sections that could be leased through oil exploration and drilling, and obviously that would have been a disaster," she told reporters in Makati City on Tuesday. "Imagine an oil rig over the [Great] Blue Hole, this iconic place. So there was this campaign that included community involvement, political advocacy and it included the press...[and it was] a huge victory that Oceana was able to get. So I got to be part of that; it was very exciting."

But the Philippines is rather a special trip for her. In the early '90s, just a few years before his death, Jacques Cousteau explored El Nido in Palawan in his boat, Calypso. Now Alexandra is bringing her five-year-old daughter there to snorkel for the first time.

"My family's here with me—I have a five-year-old daughter and an 11-month-old-son—and I'll be able to take my daughter snorkeling for the first time in Palawan, which will be extremely special for her and for me as well," she said. "There are so few places [like that] left in the world, and to be able to share a place like that with my child is extraordinarily meaningful. Because part of her history, her legacy, are the oceans, love for the oceans and conservation of the oceans.

"I want her as a child to experience them the way my grandfather experienced them and my father experienced them, and how I experienced them as a child. Places like El Nido are increasingly museums; they remind us of how the oceans used to be everywhere, and are now still existing in just a handful of places."

Filmmaking is as much a part of the Cousteau legacy as exploration and conservation, and in Palawan, Alexandra and Oceana will be filming for a documentary on the oceans. "It will be the first place we will film in," she said. "I can't wait!"

The next generation of Cousteaus

Alexandra and her brother Philippe are the children of Jacques' younger son Philippe, who was killed in a plane mishap in 1979. Fabien and Celine are the children of Jacques' eldest son Jean-Michel. Like Jacques, they are all explorers and filmmakers.

Alexandra said there was never any question about her joining the family business. Indeed, she is a practiced speaker, sharing her vision and plans with ease. "I never felt pressured to do this," she said. "It was as much a way of life as a career choice. I just grew up with this."

Alexandra also enjoys the traveling aspect of her job. "My favorite moment is when I step off a plane in a place I've never been before and I can see the faces and hear the voices and smell the air and hear the sounds of that new place," she said. "I know there's an adventure that awaits and I don't know what's going to happen, but I know it's going to be great. I love being on an expedition with my crew and telling a story together, having a common purpose. These are the things that matter to me in terms of why I do what I do. I like working on things that I believe in. I like feeling like my values and my choices are aligned with how I spend my time and the choices I make for myself and my family."

It's an attitude that her daughter seems to have inherited along with the family love for the oceans. Alexandra says that when she was trying to explain to her five-year-old that she would be meeting with reporters here, her child instructed her to pass on a message.

"She said, 'You tell all those people that you'll see tomorrow that the oceans are wonderful and they're great and they're special and so important for all of us.' So I've passed on my message," she laughed.

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