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'No water, no life'
Conservation and conversation with Jean-Michel Cousteau

Not so long ago, Jean–Michel Cousteau came to Savannah to film at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, which is about 17 miles off the coast of Sapelo Island.

“We were unpacking our truck, our diving equipment and cinematography equipment,” says the legendary underwater documentary–maker, the eldest son of pioneering ecologist Jacques–Yves Cousteau. “And one gentleman walked by and asked my team, what are you doing? We told him, ‘We are doing a show on the marine sanctuary.’

“And the guy looked at us and said ‘I didn’t know that the Marines had a sanctuary.’”

At that moment, Cousteau says, it became crystal clear that education must be a major component of whatever it takes to get the hurting oceans saved. “That,” he explains, “was a kick in the butt.”

The native Frenchman, 74, is the special guest at this year’s Gray’s Reef Ocean Film Festival, Sept. 20–23. The four days include screenings, lectures and environmental panel discussions, all focused on the marine environment — what’s great about it, and what’s wrong with it (hint: Humans are responsible).

Cousteau, who was a co–producer of the Undersea World of Jacques–Yves Cousteau series more than 40 years ago, will talk and show a selection of his films, including a just–finished biography of his father.

If you had one minute to speak to the world right now, what would your message be?

Jean–Michel Cousteau: If you protect the ocean, you protect yourself. It’s very simple: No water, no life. Every human being, every animal, every plant, whether it’s above water or below water, is completely dependent on water. And the quality of that water is linked to the quality of life. Including our lives. And if you live anywhere along a coastline, people have a tendency to take it for granted. If you live away from the coastline, way inland, most people do not make the connection between the glass of water they drink, which comes from the ocean, or that when they go skiing, they’re skiing on the ocean. All that water is part of a one–water cycle. Ice and snow melts, it makes little streams, which go into rivers which go to the ocean. It evaporates, and creates clouds. Those clouds are being moved with weather, with the wind, and it goes right back on top of that mountain, perfectly clean.

And people?

Jean–Michel Cousteau: Where we come into the picture is in between. We use that water system as a universal sewer, and as a garbage can. And garbage is something we’re very sensitive to because we can see it. But what we don’t see, we don’t relate to. Which are chemicals and heavy metals, and those are now affecting a lot of the marine life, including the marine life that we capture and put on our plates, to feed ourselves. As a result of that, we’re finding out a lot of people are being affected. To the point where you have problems with attention spans in children, thyroid problems, cancer rates, the sperm count of males is going way down. Young mothers wanting to be pregnant having much difficult time. All of that comes from mis–management of the water system.

We didn’t know before. I didn’t know when I was a kid. Today, we know. So now we know what needs to be done, and we can do it, and that’s why I think this country and other countries have a very important role to play. And the fact that marine sanctuaries are being created is great, but it’s not enough. We’ve only protected maybe five percent of the ocean, which is 70 percent of the planet. We need to do better. And we are. And we will.

Is the process reversible?

Jean–Michel Cousteau: Well, if I didn’t believe that we can do something about it, I wouldn’t be speaking to you today. Sometimes I feel a little bit discouraged, but I look at it through the eyes of a 5–year–old, 10–year–old, and am I gonna let them down? No. Absolutely not. And that re–charges my batteries and I go back to work. We need to reach the young people, the future decision–makers. They will make better decisions.

I’m not talking about the climate change which has happened long before we showed up on the planet. Today, our responsibility is that we are accelerating the process, and that has dramatic consequences because many species cannot adapt to the fast change. But if we can slow our impact, we can go back to the natural process. And it’s a big job.

How do you do that through filmmaking? Are we just talking about education?

Jean–Michel Cousteau: Ocean Futures Society, which I created after my father passed away, to honor his philosophy, we are doing three things which are all having to do with communication. We continue doing television programs, which is now spreading gigantically over the Internet. That’s mass exposure, which is what my dad was doing — and in those days, the choices were pretty limited. You had five, 10 television channels. It is pretty superficial, but at least it shows you the beauty of the ocean. It shows you some of the problems, and how we are connected to it.

 The second thing is education. We have programs called Ambassador of the Environment, which are reaching younger people. We have it in more and more places, in hotels, on an island, on a cruise ship and so on. We also have, as part of the education program, sustainable coral reefs. In other words, we provide different countries with the educational material that can be put in the hands of teachers and children. All of French Polynesia, the British Virgin Islands, American Samoa, all of these places are now sharing that information.

The third communication system that we use in Ocean Futures Society is diplomacy. Never point a finger, always try to have a dialogue, whether it’s with industrial representatives or government representatives. Let’s not get into politics, it doesn’t matter. As long as you can sit down with those people and have a chance to express yourself and reach the heart. And when you reach the heart, all the defense mechanism goes away. I can tell you, I would have given up a long time ago if I didn’t believe it worked.

Gray's Reef Ocean Film Festival

All events are free, unless indicated


Thursday, Sept. 20 Opening Night

6:30 p.m.: Jepson Center, 207 W. York St.

Film: "Turtle, the Incredible Journey"

Following the film, publisher and author Frank Gromling, and Kris Williams, director of the Savannah-based Caretta Caretta Sea Turtle Research Project, discuss the fate of loggerhead turtles in the southeast and answer questions.

Friday, Sept. 21, 4-10 p.m. "National Geographic in Savannah"

4-6 p.m. at Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.: A selection of short films about marine sanctuaries, ocean life and conservation.

4- 6:30 p.m. at SCAD's Gutstein Gallery, 201 E. Broughton St.:

National Geographic film producer and SCAD professor Kevin McCarey will sign copies of his new book, "Islands Under Fire, The Improbable Quest to Save the Corals of Puerto Rico"

7-10 p.m. at Trustees Theater:

National Geographic producer and filmmaker Andy Mitchell screens his film "Wild Americas," about sealife along the coastlines of North and South America.

Saturday, Sept. 22 "The Cousteau Legacy"

4-6:30 p.m. at Trustees Theater:

A selection of short films produced about Gray's Reef and other National Marine Sanctuaries around the nation. Includes "Take Me to the Water, the Story of Pin Point"

4-6:30 p.m. at Gutstein Gallery

Jean-Michel Cousteau will sign copies of his book, "Explore the Southeast National Marine Sanctuaries"

7-10 p.m. at Trustees Theater

Cousteau will bring a wealth of stories, knowledge and film from his adventurous life to Savannah, and a selection of his films

Sunday, Sept. 23 "Our Ocean's Future"

Noon - 5 p.m. at SCAD Museum of Art, 601 Turner Blvd.

Local emerging film makers give us their view on the future for our oceans and coasts