Water boy

Philippe Cousteau

Photo By Megan Downs

Philippe Cousteau, grandson of the renowned oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and president of the Philippe Cousteau Foundation named after his father, visited Reno last weekend as part of Truckee Meadows Community College’s Distinguished Lecture Series. He talked about the waters of the world and their correlation to our local waters at a lecture Friday and also met with local residents and elementary school students Saturday during a Truckee River cleanup. Cousteau met TMCC instructor Diane Cheseldine two years ago when he was diving off the coast of Bonaire Island. Cousteau, 22, has visited Papua New Guinea to study sand diver fish and the customs of the indigenous Huli people and hosted his own TV series called Dive and Explore with Philippe Cousteau.

Seems like you have accomplished a lot for a 22-year-old.

Growing up with such a wonderful heritage has afforded me some great opportunities. People ask me if the name Cousteau is a burden, but it is an honor. It is a privilege and a responsibility to carry on the work of my father. My father died in 1979, just a few months before I was born, and since then it has been my connection to carry on his work and name. I have seen a lot of places and done more than most people have at my age.

What is your most memorable diving experience?

One of my most memorable, but also my saddest experience, was last summer in West Palm Beach Florida. There was a gray mass in the distance. It was a lemon shark without fins. Its fins had been sliced off, which is hugely illegal, and it was still bleeding. One hundred million sharks have been killed for the shark fin soup trade. This is responsible for the world’s decline in the apex predator of the ocean. This trade is responsible for the decline in the ocean food chain. Here is this beautiful, majestic animal that has been around for 200 million years, tossed into the ocean like trash. The experience was memorable but heartbreaking. These are the things that spur us on to battle myths and misconceptions.

Any happier diving stories?

I was in Papua New Guinea and dove into the coral reef. Twenty feet below the reef was a shark that fell into line underneath me. I was not freaked out or scared but rather amazed by the beauty of this perfect animal that was harmless. The shark followed my motions and even turned around as I turned around, all the while staying 20 feet below me. We had a connection, a mutual curiosity and inquisitiveness.

What was it like to observe an indigenous tribe in New Guinea?

In the highlands of Papua New Guinea is a relatively original culture that was not discovered until the 1960s. Despite a bad ear infection, I had to investigate the people out of pure personal passion. We got a guide and got to look back in time to see a culture without the encroachment of modern society. They were barefoot, with feathers and boar tusks in their noses, but some were wearing Lakers T-shirts. It was an interesting dichotomy. Some were afraid that the camera would capture their spirit. But it was an interesting glimpse at a different society.

Taoists believe that water is the softest substance in the world in that it sustains life, makes plants grow and keeps you alive, but it is also the hardest substance because it erodes mountains. How does this correlate to your experiences with water?

I have done quite a lot of reading in Taoism and it’s like Bruce Lee says: "Be like the water." I think to truly understand this statement would be enlightenment. It’s like telling people in the short run we can truly affect and change the environment, but in the long run we are only here for a short while. Water cannot be created or destroyed; there is a finite amount. Water and nature will always be here, but we won’t.