Jean Michel Cousteau took his first dive at age seven, when his father — renowned ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau — strapped an air tank on his back. The ocean has been Cousteau’s “backyard and second home” ever since, leading him to found Ocean Futures Society. The international marine conservation organization reaches out to everyone from children in poor urban areas to top world leaders. Cousteau recently collaborated with Francois and Jean-Jacques Mantello and Daryl Hannah on a new IMAX film, “Dolphins and Whales 3D,” and he is currently working on a new PBS documentary on the health of the Amazon. Plenty caught up with him to talk about “Dolphins” and about the biggest challenges facing marine conservation today.

Q: What’s most valuable about the new film “Dolphins and Whales 3D”?

A: Short of being a scuba diver and being able to go to some very, very exotic places, this IMAX 3D is the second-best way really experience being in the presence of these incredible creatures. But we’re not trying to preach anything, we’re just trying to make accessible to the public to the beauty and the power of these animals. I think this close connection is going to be felt deeply. In 45 minutes, you’re going to get a concentrated experience taken from 600 hours spent underwater. It’s almost unnecessary to have words, it’s so powerful.

Q: What do we need to do to reclaim our oceans’ health?

A: We need to stop destroying coastal habitats. Coastal habitats are critical for the great majority of all forms of marine life — for them to reproduce, find food, find protection from predators, and for the protection of the coastline against hurricanes and whatnot. So we need to stop destroying coral reefs, marshland, mangroves.

And we need to capture runoffs with lead, heavy metals, PCB’s, DDT, before they go in the ocean. By eliminating all those toxins from reaching the ocean we’re protecting the quality of our lives as well as the marine environment.

But most of all, we also need better fishing management. We are emptying the ocean of its resources, which affects every one of us. Today, tens of thousands of fishermen are out of work because there were poor regulations, poor understanding, poor management. I’m not a hypocrite, I eat fish, but I’m very, very specific about what I believe I can eat today. Ten or 20 years ago we were eating everything. The resources of the ocean should be managed like you manage a business. We have a capital, and we need to live off the interests that are produced by that capital. If we go beyond that, we’re heading toward bankruptcy, and that’s exactly what’s happening right now.

Q: Is overfishing inevitable with population growth?

A: Well, let’s compare to what we’ve done on land. We’re no longer hunters and gatherers — we’ve become farmers. And we farm herbivores, like cows, not carnivores. We need to do the exact same thing with aquatic creatures. Whether fresh water or salt water, we have to farm herbivorous fish — it’s much less investment at the source for the return you get. The fact that we’re farming salmon is completely absurd — only rich countries can afford to do that that because you need 120 pounds of wild protein from the open ocean to make 1 pound of captive fish. On top of the resources it requires, we’re stuffing them with vitamins, antibiotics and sometimes even colorant. It’s economically absurd; that’s not how we’re going to feed Africa or Bangladesh. There are several herbivore fish species that can be farmed on land. As long as you’re going to make that investment, you might as well do it where the demand is. That way you eliminate transportation and offer your customers fresh fish.

Q: Less than one percent of people get to see the underwater world firsthand. Is it because we feel so distant from the ocean that we’re not doing a good job of protecting it?

A: We are distant. Look, when you take a bath or a long shower you start to wrinkle all over the place. We are not aquatic creatures, we’re temporary visitors. But we depend on the ocean, so we have no choice but to take care of it. We need to focus on environmental issues — and not just the ocean — in school systems at an early age. Kids are like sponges. They suck in all that information, and that’s the best investment we can make. Ocean Futures Society has education programs that take kids out of the classroom and immerse them in an aquatic environment for 3-5 days. Take a kid out of downtown Los Angeles who has never seen the ocean, and that child will never be the same. He or she goes back to school, shares that information, and becomes an ambassador, the voice of the ocean, the voice of the environment.

Q: How do you approach people at the other end of the spectrum, those in positions of financial and political power?

A: Decision makers in industry and government are human beings like any others, so our approach is the heart. If you sit down and speak from the heart, ultimately you will reach the brain, but not the other way around. We were invited to present a two-hour program we’d made on the northwestern Hawaiian island to the president and 50 guests at the White House. We were not preaching anything, we were just showing. And because of that, the president declared the northwestern Hawaiian island a marine national monument. It’s one of the largest protected pieces of ocean anywhere. It’s bigger than the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. You know why? Because it reached the heart. That’s all you have to do. Then good sense prevails.

Story by Tobin Hack. This article originally appeared in Plenty in February 2008.

Jacques Cousteau's son fights to save the oceans
Jean Michael Cousteau is building support for marine conservation by taking kids out of the classroom and into the sea.