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Passing On a Legacy of Love

Fabien Cousteau visit focuses on TCI youth

By Don Stark, Chairman, Turks & Caicos Reef Fund

“People protect what they love.” That’s a quote Fabien Cousteau heard frequently from his grandfather, the world-renowned conservationist, environmentalist, inventor, and filmmaker, Jacque Yves Cousteau. Fabien Cousteau visited Providenciales in March, 2014 to assist the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund in their efforts to educate local young people about the importance of a healthy ocean environment to both the physical and economic well-being of the Turks & Caicos Islands. The third-generation ocean explorer and filmmaker believes that young people are the key to the future health of our oceans. But, as he told the students, “How can you protect what you don’t understand?”

The six-day visit to Providenciales was arranged by David Stone and Don Stark of the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund (TCRF). While part of the reason for his visit was to assist with TCRF fundraising, both Cousteau and TCRF believed that there was great value in having Cousteau speak with TCI’s youth. This was accomplished in four different sessions—two formal presentations to groups of primary and secondary schoolchildren, an informal session with the Honors Biology students from British West Indies Collegiate, and a day of scuba diving with a small group of secondary school students who form the Reef Action Team organized by BWIC English teacher, Tessa Rankin.
Cousteau firmly believes that by stimulating the interest of young people about the wonders of the ocean realm—much as his grandfather did for many of an earlier generation—they will become better stewards for the oceans. To this end, his talks focused on three primary topics: sharks, his Mission 31 project, and his Plant a Fish foundation—all topics upon which he is intensely focused.

Sharks don't deserve the reputation they have in most people's minds.

Sharks don’t deserve the reputation they have in most people’s minds.

Sharks are poorly understood creatures and don’t deserve the reputation they have in many people’s minds. Cousteau began by debunking myths about sharks saying, “You only fear that which you don’t understand.” According to Cousteau, the word shark is the most feared word in any language and this fear has been fueled by the demonization of sharks by the media in TV shows and movies (think Shark Week and “Jaws”).
Experts agree, however, that sharks are a key indicator of a healthy reef system. To some extent, they are like the trash collectors of the sea, culling sick, wounded, and dying animals from the reefs. In fact, Cousteau noted, there are over 400 species of sharks in the earth’s oceans, but only a handful have ever bitten a human. There are less than eighty-five shark/human “incidents” each year worldwide. Most are cases of mistaken identity; mistaking a human on a surfboard for a seal is one example.
Cousteau told the students about an adventure he undertook recently. Again following in his grandfather’s footsteps, he had to invent something that would allow him to observe Great White sharks up close without disrupting their natural behavior. So, he worked with a group of experts to build a shark submersible (submarine) that looked and acted like a Great White. The submersible would hold one person—Cousteau—who would be able to swim amongst the Great White sharks near Guadeloupe Island, 150 miles off the coast of Mexico. As he explained to the students, the effort wasn’t without its challenges and scary moments. One of these happened during a night dive with the sharks. His submersible lost power and sank to the bottom of the ocean. Unable to communicate with his surface support team, he had only one choice and that was to exit the submersible and swim to shore unprotected through the sharks’ feeding ground while the Great Whites swam all around him. Not one shark paid him the slightest attention as he made his way safely to shore. The outcome of this work, “Mind of a Demon,” was the first prime-time underwater documentary aired on a major network (CBS) in over two decades. The simple message of this program was that you don’t have to fear these animals as mindless killing machines.
Cousteau also talked about his next big project, Mission 31 (www.mission-31.org), the longest running classroom in history. The mission will involve a team of six explorers and scientists spending thirty-one days in the SeaLab Aquarius, an underwater habitat situated in sixty-three feet of water nine miles off the Florida Keys. During their stay in the 43 x 20 x 16.5 foot, 81 ton science lab, Cousteau and his team will be broadcasting live across multiple communication channels, such as Skype in the Classroom, Twitter, and Facebook, during all parts of the mission. Schoolchildren will be able to see live presentations from the residents of the SeaLab Aquarius and interact with them. They will be able to direct a remote controlled underwater vehicle and listen to the scientists as they explore the nearby reef.
This mission will extend by one day and be thirty feet deeper than the record set by Fabien’s grandfather fifty years ago when he and his team spent thirty days in the Conshelf 2 habitat located in thirty feet of water in the Red Sea. The Mission 31 team will be able to spend up to nine hours a day scuba diving on the nearby reefs. This is possible because they will be living in a habitat that is at the same pressure as the surrounding waters, which is three times more than the pressure we live under on the surface of the earth. But the cost of this luxury of long dives is that the team will have to spend nineteen hours in decompression before they will be able to return to the surface after their thirty-one-day mission.
The overarching theme for Mission 31 is the human–ocean connection, with three main topics to be highlighted: climate change and the related challenges of ocean acidification; ocean pollution with an emphasis on the effects of plastics; and overconsumption of resources with specific focus on the decline of biodiversity. The goal is to increase environmental stewardship by increasing awareness among young people.
Plant a Fish Foundation (www.plantafish.org) is an organization Cousteau founded to empower and educate local communities through the action of “re-planting” aquatic species of plants and animals in environmentally stressed areas. Many Plant a Fish projects involve local young people as key players in the work being done. Several of the current projects include coral restoration in the Bahamas, Hawksbill turtle nest protection in El Salvador and replanting mangroves in important areas around South Florida. Plant a Fish is an active, hands-on outdoor education and restoration experience. The lessons participants learn about nature and sustainable living are relevant everywhere in the world.
Fabien Cousteau with Reef Action Team

Fabien Cousteau with Reef Action Team

At the end of each of his school presentations, Cousteau was inundated with questions from the students. “What’s the scariest thing you’ve seen in the ocean?” “What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen while diving?” “What’s your favorite animal in the ocean?” Cousteau was obviously delighted to have inspired so many questions, all of which he deftly answered. The TCRF intends to make a video of this presentation available to schools throughout the TCI.
Cousteau’s favorite part of his TCI visit, however, was the day he spent scuba diving with a small group of marine biology/ecology enthusiasts from British West Indies Collegiate, all certified scuba divers and members of the Reef Action Team (RAT) organized by English teacher Tessa Rankin, with which the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund assisted. The two dives were on the Dive Provo boat Provo Challenger, which was donated for the day. The dives were a great opportunity for Cousteau to see the wonderful reefs of the Turks & Caicos Islands and also to explain to his seven dive buddies that these reefs are some of healthiest he has seen in the Caribbean and tropical Atlantic.
After each dive, the students gathered around Cousteau and peppered him with questions about marine creatures they saw, best schools to attend for marine biology, and many others. One could tell by his constant smile and frequent laughs that Cousteau was having a great time! By the end of the day, all seven students had a greater understanding of the importance of healthy reefs to the TCI and will become even better and more enthusiastic stewards for the marine environment. Several have already expressed an interest in becoming marine biologists or ecologists.
At the end of his TCI visit, Cousteau was very enthusiastic about the potential of the young people of these islands to become strong advocates for the marine environment. Their enthusiasm and interest is something that must continue to be cultivated and nurtured to ensure that TCI’s reefs remain healthy. This is one of the goals that the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund is pursuing and we are pleased to have been able to bring Fabien Cousteau to the TCI. When asked if he will come back, Cousteau replied, “Most definitely. I look forward to it.”



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