Cousteau Speaks for Sweetwater Seas
by Marie Zhuikov
Jean-Michel Cousteau. Photo courtesy of Keppler Associates, Inc.
Jean-Michel Cousteau, eldest son of the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, and ocean conservationist in his own right, had a sinking introduction to the freshwater world of the Great Lakes.
It happened in the early 1980s when the Cousteau crew lowered a submersible into the St. Lawrence River to film beluga whales. Their ballast was calibrated for a saltwater environment, which is more buoyant.
After passing through the upper saltwater layer in the river and reaching the less buoyant freshwater layer below, "we dropped like a stone," said Cousteau. Fish perched along the rocky ledges of the river witnessed the drop. "We watched them watching us with their heads all moving downwards, it was pretty funny," said Cousteau.
Despite this precipitous introduction, Cousteau and his crew soon adjusted their equipment and themselves to the ways of the Great Lakes' sweetwater seas. During a speech at the annual "Gales of November" diving and shipwreck event in Duluth, MN, this past fall, Cousteau showed he is as passionate a spokesperson for freshwater environments as he is for saltwater.
"Just because Lake Superior is clean, doesn't mean we can take it for granted and use it as a dumping ground," said Cousteau. "It will backfire. It will affect us negatively some way down the line." However, he was complimentary about changes to Duluth's waterfront--from industrial to more hospitality-based development. "What you've done with your waterfront since 1981 when I was last here, is incredible," he said.
During his speech, he pointed out that nature works for free, and that we need to understand nature's ways so that it can work for us, not against us. He used harbor dredging as an example. Cousteau lives in Santa Barbara, CA, where the harbor is kept open for ship traffic by dredging, as are harbors in many freshwater ports.
"It costs $500,000 to $600,000 every year. Nature puts the sand back for free, and then every year we have to dredge it out again," he said. He emphasized the need to take time to understand natural processes before structures like breakwaters are built so that such situations don't arise.
Jean-Michel Cousteau has made more than 60 television specials and is president of the nonprofit Ocean Futures Society. Yes, the 63-year old still dives. "I have less and less time left, so I have to dive more and more," he said.
"Our responsibility as divers…is to bring back the message that people protect what they love." Cousteau stressed the importance of aquatic education and public aquariums so that people who don't dive can also see and appreciate what is under the water.
The Gales of November event was sponsored by the Lake Superior Marine Museum, Lake Superior Magazine, Duluth Seaway Port Authority, the Minnesota and Wisconsin Sea Grant Programs, Marine Tech Supply, Vista Fleet, Duluth News Tribune, KDLH-TV, the Great Lakes Aquarium, and the Greater Downtown Council.