Swimming With Sea-Cows: Living a Dream and Honoring a Legacy

Helping Sam Champion live his dream while honoring a family legacy.

ByGuest Essay By Phillipe Cousteau via via logo
May 05, 2010, 12:25 PM

May 6, 2010— -- It was early, and the sun was just starting to peak over the pale horizon as we gathered the team at the rendezvous site. Dew hung on the Spanish moss, and I could tell the black flies were already marshaling their forces, preparing for their relentless daily onslaught.

As the crew quietly went about preparing the gear for the day's shoot, I closed my eyes. My mind drifted, imagining what this place must have looked like 40 years ago when my father and grandfather stood gazing out over the same water, pondering the plight of what they called "The Forgotten Mermaid."

It was 1970, and "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" had premiered on ABC only two years before. My father, mother and grandfather had traveled to the famed Crystal River in Florida to film manatees, a gentle giant that had been silently suffering at the hands of man since the days of Columbus and that was in dire need of protection. "The Forgotten Mermaid" was one of the first episodes of the television series that would go on to capture the world's imagination for decades to come and would transform the world by helping to usher in a whole new era of global environmental awareness.

Now it was my turn to explore the plight of a creature that is still very much in crisis, even 40 years on.

Wispy fog was gently wafting off the surface as we boarded a small boat and headed out, slowly gliding over the water in search of what early settlers called the "sea-cow." Beside me stood Buddy Powell, a world-renowned manatee researcher, who as a 17-year-old boy had accompanied my grandfather and father acting as a local guide to their original expedition.

Next to Buddy was Sam Champion, who like so many, had watched my grandfather's films as a boy and dreamed of sharing in his adventures. Now we were all headed out on the river to film manatees again; a creature whose plight, like that of the environment as a whole has changed little since the last time a Cousteau probed these waters.

Manatees (not unlike the environment as a whole) are still plagued by people who believe that the rivers and land "belong" to us and thus that they should be able build wherever they wish, go wherever they wish and take whatever they wish. Of course, if nature "belongs" to anyone it is the future and we are merely caretakers ... and poor ones at that.

Back on the River

Like my father and grandfather before me, my work is dedicated to telling the story of the environment and the responsibility we all have to care for it so that our children might enjoy the same gifts of life that we have known. Much of my work is focused on education through my non-profit EarthEcho International, and by the end of this year I will have traveled across the country speaking to over 100,000 young people.

Just this last Monday I was in Austin, Texas, visiting an elementary school and like so many time before, I was blown away by how engaged and concerned children were about the environment. This new generation, more than any that has preceded it, is focused on the need for solutions where the interests of the natural world are not eclipsed but instead find balance with the needs of humans.

Inspired by this kind of enthusiasm, my other company Azure Worldwide has partnered with the University of Virginia to pioneer new technology by developing a totally new kind of interactive video game, the "U.Va. Bay Game" -- which simulates any natural habitat where the players take on the roles of people who live and work in that particular environment.

For the first time we have the technology to create experiences where people can actually see the impact of collaboration as the game is played -- it's a groundbreaking approach to conservation that is part of the comprehensive strategy we must take to tackle these problems in the new environmental movement of the 21st century.

Being back on that river, so close to the spirit of my grandfather and father, who died just six months before I was born, was an experience that I will cherish forever. It has renewed my commitment to fighting for a world where we all understand that, as my grandfather once wrote, "We can find happiness in protecting the world around us not only because we cherish it for its awesome beauty, power, and mystery, but because we cherish our fellow humans, those who live today and those who will live tomorrow, living beings who like ourselves, will increasingly depend on the environment for happiness and even for life itself."

Philippe Cousteau is the son and grandson of famed ocean explorers and filmmakers Philippe Sr. and Jacques Cousteau. Learn more about his organizations at www.earthecho.org and www.azureworldwide.com.

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