The Cousteau Effect


By Sarah Sekula, Published in Breathe Magazine

The summer Alexandra Cousteau turned 7 was pivotal. It was the year she learned to scuba dive, and her eyes were opened to a world that would dominate her childhood and, in fact, direct the rest of her life.

The year was 1983, and her family was spending the summer on the Mediterranean Coast. Her favorite thing to do was wander over to the Monaco Oceanographic Museum where her grandfather, Jacques Cousteau, was the director. They’d always make a beeline to the aquarium on the basement level. “When you walk down the steps it’s like you are coming down into this underwater world,” she recalls.

The game went something like this: Jacques was the steward king and Alexandra the mermaid princess. “We’d go from one tank the next,” she explains. “And he’d tell me about the arrow crab, the electric eels and the bonnet head sharks; he’d tell me about their life cycle and how they live.”

Instinctively, she’d pepper the conversation with a million questions, and he would always answer as many as he could. Eventually, though, he said to Alexandra, “‘I can’t answer all of your questions; you’ll just have to go and see for yourself.’”

She was game.

Soon after, young Alexandra was on a boat, putting on a miniature tank held up by small, red suspenders. As she pulled on her flippers and mask, she started getting a bit nervous; how did this regulator thing work? Would she really be able to breathe underwater? She had her doubts.

Before she had the chance to renege on the whole thing, Jacques nudged her in and jumped in behind her. “When I realized that the regulator did work, I started swimming down, and I found myself surrounded by a school of tiny silver fish,” she says. “The sunlight was shining down on the surface onto their little bodies. They were all swimming in unison.”

It was magical. In other words, the Cousteau effect was in full effect. Jacques had a way of making people passionate about marine life, and Alexandra took immediately to that. In fact, he’s credited for introducing the general public to the undersea world with his pioneering documentaries. He singlehandedly harnessed the hearts of millions.

Steward of the Sea
Fast forward to today, and Alexandra, 36, fluent in English, French and Spanish, is forming a global audience of her own. Her allure is partly because of her ancestry, of course, but the fact that she knows her stuff just adds to the appeal.

She began by studying political science at Georgetown in Washington, D.C., with a focus on environmental justice. Next, she spent many years learning the ins and outs of the marine world — studying dolphin behavior in the Bahamas, filming sharks in French Polynesia and learning about whales in Maui. Later she lived in Central America where she worked tirelessly on an anti-shark-finning campaign.

It only seems natural that in 2008 her philosophical underpinnings led her to create Blue Legacy. Through this organization, a non-profit that inspires people to take action on water issues, she expertly combines the enchantment of adventure and discovery into a modern call for action.

“Part of Blue Legacy is strong storytelling,” she says. “Our goal is to shape conversations about the global water crisis and how it’s reached our backyards. It’s about protecting our watershed and the quality and quantity of water we depend on for the prosperity of our communities.”

Through public awareness events, traditional media tours and film, she helps people re-experience their watershed. “That’s an incredibly empowering and exciting thing for people to all of the sudden experience their water in a new way,” she says. “We need to look at fresh water and our oceans as one system connected to the water cycle that nourishes our health and our communities.”

Global Trailblazer
This adrenaline-filled lifelong mission has taken her clear across the globe, which is certainly OK with Alexandra. In 2009, she spent 100 days traveling across five continents with her film crew to tell eight critical water stories. In 2010, she tackled a 140-day, 17,100-mile journey across North America to investigate global water issues. After that, she took a 3-week trek through Belize to trace the country’s water system from its source.

That said, it comes as no surprise that she is on the elite list of National Geographic Emerging Explorers, known for pushing the boundaries of discovery and global problem solving. And the sterling list of credentials goes on and on. Alexandra serves as a senior advisor for Oceana, an international organization working to protect the oceans, is on the prestigious Young Global Leaders Council and is a young global leader with the Switzerland-based World Economic Forum.

“It’s a way of life,” she says.”A system of beliefs rather than a career. What i believe, and how I’ve always lived lends itself to doing this. Being the granddaughter of my grandfather means that I am able to do this. That’s a huge gift.”

Indeed it is. It’s also leads to a varied an unpredictable lifestyle. Sure, the photo shoots are glamorous. The travel to foreign lands is intoxicating. “It’s constant discovery and exploration, and I love it,” she says. “It is incredibly fun and really rewarding to be out in field with my crew.”

But there’s a flip side. ”Oftentimes I’m traveling to do appearances and give speeches. I’m by myself either on a plane, in a cab, in a hotel or in an office.”

It can be very lonely, no doubt, but she steadfastly sticks to the mission and keeps up the frenetic pace. This is how she propels Blue Legacy forward, after all, through continually communicating on a grand scale.

The Next Generation
Luckily, sometimes her husband, Fritz Neumeyer, a German architect, accompanies her on her travels. Plus, their 1-year-old daughter, Clémentine, is becoming quite the explorer herself; she began traveling at two months old. So far, she’s been on a 10-day scouting trip to Belize, off to Mexico for a photo shoot, to Qatar for meetings, Germany to visit family and the south of France for a photo shoot for Martha Stewart’s Whole Living.

In a way, it’s very similar to Alexandra’s childhood. Born into the family business, Alexandra joined her parents, Jan Cousteau and filmmaker Philippe Cousteau, on an expedition in Easter Island at just four months old. By 3, she had toured Africa, Egypt, Tunisia, Uganda and Kenya.

“My hope is that Clémentine will be able to grow up and continue traveling all over the world meeting extraordinary people and seeing amazing places,” Alexandra says.

Chances are, the Cousteau legacy will continue for generations to come.