Authors / Harvard Extension School / Harvard News Release / Harvard Public Affairs & Communications / Harvard Science / Jennifer Doody

In Troubled Waters, Cousteau Finds Resilience


 Despite environmental devastation across earth’s oceans, Philippe Cousteau – explorer, adventurer, and grandson of renowned ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau – firmly believes there is hope.

In the annual Lowell Lecture at Harvard University, Cousteau showed his audience of 250 people an image of pristine, turquoise waters before informing them it was the site of the worst destruction in U.S. history: the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall islands.

The Bikini Atoll suffered more than 60 US atomic weapon tests from 1946 to 1958. One of the bombs, Castle Bravo, was the largest thermonuclear device ever detonated by the United States. Its 15-megaton blast was 1,000 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leaving a crater more than 6,510 feet wide and 250 feet deep.

But Cousteau said in the almost seven decades since the tests, despite almost unfathomable damage and extreme radioactivity, man’s absence has allowed ocean life to not only return, but to flourish.

“When you get in the water here, in an area that suffered the worst fire and brimstone the world can throw at it … you jump in, and you’re surrounded by up to 100 reef sharks,” Cousteau said. “The coral is magnificent. Nature has recovered, and it’s because human beings weren’t there. When you give nature a chance, she has an incredible ability to renew herself.”

This pattern of stunning, flourishing rebirth, Cousteau added, could also be seen in protected marine zones such as Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park, located on the east coast of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula.

“It’s the last healthy hardcore reef in the Sea of Cortez, and it is a marvel,” he said.

Thirty years ago, overfishing caused a sharp decline in the marine population. Over time, the local fishing community learned of the role it could play in restoring the ecosystem. Locals advocated for the Mexican government to establish a 70-square kilometer “no take” preserve, one that prohibits fishing.

In just 25 years since the park was established, the biodiversity and the biomass of the reef has increased “up to a thousand times,” Cousteau said.

“It’s what the Sea of Cortez must have looked like 50 years ago, when my grandfather first dove in. He called it the aquarium of the Pacific, a corridor of marvels. And it’s the last one in the Sea of Cortez.”

Fishing in nearby areas is also flourishing, Cousteau added, because the preserve acts as a vibrant, natural fishery.

“It’s spectacular,” he said. “The fish are just spilling out over the [park’s] boundaries. It’s proof that marine protected areas work.

After his years of research and exploration, Cousteau said, he is convinced that nature can come back from devastation, but that each of us must do our part to help that happen.

“All it takes is us thinking about our roles in the world in a different way,” he said. “As students, as lifelong learners, we must constantly challenge ourselves to think differently about our role in the world.”

As a prominent leader in the environmental movement, Cousteau has focused his global conservation efforts on solving social and environmental problems. In 2004, he founded EarthEcho International, a leading environmental education organization dedicated to inspiring youth to take action for a sustainable planet.

“At EarthEcho, we have a saying: It’s not that you can make a difference, it’s that everything you do makes a difference,” he said. “All of your choices have consequences. I encourage you to think differently about the world around you. No matter what your passion is, there is a way to change the world.”

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2 thoughts on “In Troubled Waters, Cousteau Finds Resilience

  1. Amazing what nature can do if we just leave it alone and, ya know, don’t destroy it. So great for a glimmer of hope in these scary times of floating-trash islands and other ecological nightmares.

    • I was absolutely astonished at his stories – I thought the Bikini Atoll would be a wasteland for centuries. It really is amazing what happens when humans take themselves out of the equation, and leave nature to do her thing.

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