April 19, 2009 — -- For a certain generation, the name Cousteau conjures up the mystery and majesty of the deep sea. From the late 1960s through the mid-'70s, millions of Americans tuned in every Sunday night to watch "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau."
He was the original undersea explorer, the fearless adventurer who virtually created scuba diving by inventing the aqualung. He was the first to take cameras leagues beneath the sea and among the first to sound alarms about the deterioration he was witnessing firsthand undersea.
But a new Cousteau has taken the mantle, Jacques' 29-year-old grandson, Philippe, is now leading the charge to save our oceans.
"My grandfather, just in 30 to 40 years, saw such changes in the world that so alarmed him and yet the world was slow to catch up. I think we finally are," he said. "The good news is that we're having this discussion right now."
Philippe has dedicated his life to making the Cousteau mission of education and conservation irresistible for the newest generation.
"The door is definitely open with a name like Cousteau. It gives you great opportunities but if you walk through that door and you don't perform, because there are high expectations, it's very quick to slam in your face," Cousteau said.
Doors don't slam for Philippe. He has hosted documentaries, testified on Capitol Hill and he speaks regularly to schoolchildren across the country as chief ocean correspondent for Animal Planet.
"It's never too late for us as a society, certainly as individuals, to make choices that can help to lessen the degree of damage," Cousteau said.
In 2004 with the help of his mother, Jan, and older sister Alexandra, he started Earth Echo International. The nonprofit's mission is to educate and inspire youth to protect and restore the ocean.
"Kids go home and say, 'Mommy and Daddy, what are you doing to make the world a better place?' So we like to think we're affecting adults by affecting kids," Cousteau said.
The difference of the Cousteau message today is the urgency required to save some of the ocean's most vital ecosystems. Coral reefs, home to one-fourth of all marine life, a major source of food for the planet and a natural barrier that protects coastline from hurricanes, are virtually disappearing from the map. Scientists predict they may be extinct by 2050.
The Florida Keys is the third largest barrier reef in the entire world, spanning 200 miles, and it is believed 80 percent has been destroyed.
"The Florida Keys is classified as a dead zone by the United Nations environmental program and it's just in our own backyard," Cousteau said.
To an untrained eye, the reefs are obviously brown and dead in spots, but still appear majestic with schools of yellowtail, parrotfish and barracuda swimming through them. When looking at video footage of the reef compared to that shot in the late 1980s, the devastation revealed is shocking.
"You kind of go down there, you see some fish and you think maybe it's not so bad. But then I look at this footage where there are huge schools of fish and healthy coral everywhere," he said.
Cousteau explains that the many countries aren't giving nature enough of a chance.
"Nature is resilient. It can turn around and come back if you give it a chance. We just don't give it much of a chance these days; there's' work afoot to try and change that," he said.
In the United States, great swaths of the Pacific Ocean, more than 100 times larger than Yosemite National Park, were named marine protected areas in 2006 by the Bush administration.
The Australian government has experimented to protect nearly one-third of the Great Barrier Reef. They use shade to cover the reefs, which keeps them cool. Even in the tiny island of Palau, they have begun regulating fishing on its reefs.
Cousteau's Earth Echo organization has joined forces with Mote Marine Laboratory in Big Pine Key to create a reef farm, a home to nearly all of the species found in the Florida Keys.
Every new movement needs a charismatic leader and Philippe Cousteau seems to be this leader in the fight to save the oceans. But the younger Cousteau is very humble about his role.
"I think it must be a chorus of voices and I'd like to think that I am a contributor to that chorus and that I can do my best to leave the world a little better than when I found it," he said.