Husband-and-wife environmental advocates, explorers, and filmmakers Ashlan Cousteau and Philippe Cousteau Jr. visited Antarctica and Chile in February to document the dire need for Southern Ocean conservation and the preservation of the intact and biodiverse Antarctic ecosystems for future generations.
Philippe’s advocacy is fueled by his passion for carrying on his family’s legacy. His late grandfather was Jacques Cousteau, the French marine biologist who co-developed scuba gear called the Aqua-Lung in the 1940s and dedicated his life to marine conservation and exploration. The pioneering scuba gear allowed Jacques Cousteau’s team to film underwater documentaries at depths of the ocean that the public had never seen before.
Philippe Cousteau’s late father, Philippe Cousteau Sr, followed in Jacques’ footsteps, becoming a renowned environmentalist, explorer, and cinematographer.
This interview with the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project marking World Penguin Day (April 25) has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What inspired your Southern Ocean trip?
Philippe: My grandfather Jacques and my father, Philippe, were an inspiration to hundreds of millions of people around the world for decades. They opened our eyes to the wonders of the ocean, but also to the crisis it faces. Today, the challenges we face are even more urgent, and we must respond responsibly. As ocean explorers and conservationists, we’re part of Antarctica2020 Champions, a global campaign working to protect Antarctica and its Southern Ocean for future generations.
Q: Tell us about your trip.
Ashlan: As Antarctic and Southern Ocean champions, we felt it was imperative for us to be able to speak truthfully about the state of the region. We traveled for five days around the Antarctic Peninsula, visiting penguin colonies and glaciers, filming whales and seals, and doing testing on phytoplankton populations.
We all have an incredible opportunity to protect Antarctica’s Southern Ocean and give our global ocean a chance to survive the climate crisis. In fact, we can’t solve the climate crisis and protect the health of the ocean if we don’t protect Antarctica’s Southern Ocean. It’s that important.
Q: How so?
Philippe: The Southern Ocean is by far the most important part of our planet's ocean system. It drives global ocean currents and is a primary regulator of our global climate. Its fertile waters spread nutrients throughout the global ocean—and, through phytoplankton, provide oxygen for all of us on Earth.
Q: How does the Southern Ocean fit into the fight against climate change?
Philippe: Climate change is an ocean problem. The poles are the main drivers of global ocean currents that distribute heat across the planet, and if they melt faster due to rising temperatures, then our weather patterns change, there is more drought in some places and more rain in others, and there’s an increase in storms and other phenomena that affect the survival not only of humans but of all creatures on the planet.
If Antarctica changes, the whole world changes.
Q: In your travels around the world, what changes have you seen that are a result of the changing climate?
Ashlan: No area of the world is safe from climate change. From wildfires in California to rising sea levels in Italy, extreme drought in India, and severe flooding in Guatemala, our climate is rapidly changing with disastrous consequences. Our health, safety, and future are changing right before our eyes.
Q: In fact, news broke recently that climate change is driving a species of penguins from more temperate zones to migrate to Antarctica.
Ashlan: Yes, but there’s hope. Stories like this, as well as stories of extreme storms, wildfires, famine, and more, are already helping to bring awareness to the world. We work with young people through our organization, EarthEcho International, and the good news is that the next generation is already aware, fired up, and taking action. They’re determined to forge a different future, a hopeful future. We see it every day, and it’s what gives us hope.
We know not only that nature can recover; it also can flourish if given the chance. We've seen this incredible power from the Mediterranean and Mexico to the Marshall Islands. We all have the power to make a better world, but we must give nature the opportunity to do so. That’s why protecting the Southern Ocean is so important and would bring us closer to the critical goal of achieving 30 by 30 — the protection of 30% of the oceans and 30% of the land by 2030.
Q: After your trip to the Antarctic Peninsula, you arrived in Chile. What role do you think Chile should play in the defense of the Southern Ocean?
Philippe: Chile is already a leader in Antarctic conservation as a co-sponsor for the proposed marine protected area (MPA) for the Antarctic Peninsula. Chile can continue to be a world leader by applying pressure to other countries so that they approve not only the establishment of the protection of the Antarctic Peninsula, but also the other two proposed Southern Ocean MPAs, in the Weddell Sea and in East Antarctica. We’re optimistic that the new Chilean administration will take ocean conservation seriously and make it the center of its Turquoise Foreign Policy [a combination of “green” and “blue” policies to combat climate change and protect the ocean].
Q: Do you think governments have done enough to protect the Southern Ocean?
Ashlan: Chile and Argentina are leading the way to protect the waters around the Antarctic Peninsula. Establishment of the three proposed MPAs in the Southern Ocean would be the greatest act of ocean conservation in history. We must demand and pressure governments to protect these areas through the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). It’s incredibly important that Chile and Argentina raise the issue to the highest level on the climate agenda.
Q: Why do you think we haven’t yet seen a greater commitment in defense of the Southern Ocean?
Philippe: There are many competing interests for the resources of the Southern Ocean, such as industrial fishing. We need all CCAMLR countries to support protections for the Southern Ocean—or, at the very least, agree not to block them. Governments around the world need to recognize the importance of this region for our very survival.
We must protect the Southern Ocean and the species that thrive in its icy waters; it’s one of the last remaining wilderness areas in the world. World leaders must have the diplomatic courage to act.