Living Classrooms in the Undersea World
Amid laughter and squeals of delight, twenty families splash into the chilly waters off Catalina Island, California. It certainly doesn’t look like serious education, but it is. These students, along with their parents, traveled from all over the country, many of them diving into 68 degree ocean water for the very first time, participating in the annual Jean-Michel Cousteau Family Camp at Howlands Landing. I watch as each of them marvel and relish in the rich diversity of life found within the giant kelp forests off the southern California coast. In this enchanting place where nature teaches by example, offering living lessons in a classroom of the sea. I am not a teacher but a guide, sharing my passion of our interdependence on a healthy, thriving marine ecosystem; letting the families share in this bonding experience as they take a peak into the undersea realm that covers over seventy percent of our water planet. It is experiences like these that give me the greatest hope of inspiring the next generation to become stewards of the planet they will inherit.
The oceans of our blue planet provide so much to us – a large part of our life-sustaining oxygen protein as a major source of food, life-saving compounds used in medicines, and life-giving rains that form as a result of the interaction between the ocean and the atmosphere. However, we have yet to scratch more than the surface of the sea. Experts estimate that we have explored only less than ten percent of the ocean. An oft-quoted fact is that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about our own planet. Since the vast majority of the surface of our planet lies beneath the sea, we must inspire family and friends to feel a connection with the driving life force that the ocean provides to us. Whether that be through encouraging others to dive beneath the surface of the sea as divers like us, or at least realize that every two out of three breaths comes from phytoplankton in the sea, we must remind everyone that we are all connected to the sea. It is these children, with their parents’ support, who will make critical decisions as adults that will better protect our fragile world.
In order to protect the ocean, we must first strive to understand it. Along with my late father, Jacques Cousteau, I have spent my life exploring the ocean. Since first being thrown overboard by my father at the age of 7, I have been compelled to explore, to discover, to understand the secrets of the sea. In an effort to help our society become more ocean literate; I have devoted much of my time and energy working with my talented team to develop marine educational programs through Ocean Futures Society including our annual Family Camp and nine different Ambassadors of the Environment programs found around the world. Through conducting hands-on, inquiry based and really fun outdoor education programs focused on ocean ecology and sustainability, I have witnessed first hand that it is the people with a solid understanding of how the ocean works who then better understand how it is connected to their lives. In order to sustainably manage our ocean resources, we need an informed public who understands the value of the sea and who is willing to support responsible governance and ocean ethics.
Over-exploitation of fish and shellfish, pollution, the loss of species and habitats, and mismanagement of on-land resources are undermining the ability of the sea to continue to provide these goods and services. I believe having people, particularly young people, who understand fundamental connections among ecological systems and principles is essential to protecting and managing these ocean resources wisely. We need to show that everything is connected, all components of the biosphere--land to the sea, the ocean to people, people to people and the present to the future. These connections should be both intellectual and emotional – the head and the heart. I mention the heart because, ultimately, it is our emotions that usually drive our decisions.
We all know that we are in an age of information overload. We have enough research on most ecological topics to make sound, common sense decisions that are pretty much on target to protect the ocean and ourselves. But we don’t act on this information. Why? I believe it is because we’re not emotionally inspired and that is because more and more children are becoming disconnected from nature. Recent studies have begun to link the lack of outdoor activity in American children to higher instances of depression, obesity, and attention deficit disorder. As more and more time is spent indoors watching television, playing computer games and video games, less time is being spent exploring and engaging the minds of our young children. My team and I have struggled with this for the past 30 years and here’s what we do. We take people to the sea. Plain and simple. We get kids wet! The tide is now rising, and with it comes a whole new set of stories for the students waiting with masks and snorkels in hand.
As a society, we need exactly that--to turn again to the ocean and its profound principles of life to inspire a new generation of young people, who better understand how the world works, who know that the sea runs in their veins, who love it and will protect it.
For the past fourteen years, I have been enjoying this unique family experience on Catalina Island every August. And every year I have the same sense of hope as together we depart on the Catalina Express boat and head back to the mainland. I think back to how rewarding it was for us all to see parents and kids sharing dives, meals, fun times, hikes and all of the natural wonders of Howlands Landing on Catalina Island. There were no electronic games, telephones and all of the other distractions that separate us from each other and from the beautiful natural environment. The spirit of family engagement and sharing is what keeps us, the staff, going and coming back each year. This is our inspiration. It serves as a reminder that there is hope and that the next generation is getting the love and support from their parents and a deeper appreciation for the connection we share with all life on our water planet. When the kids come back from a hike or snorkel adventure all lit up with enthusiasm about whatever they saw, we know those are the moments that will remain forever. And it is those special moments in nature that touch the heart and can affect the directions of lives.
We applaud the parents who appreciate the value of these programs and take time from their busy lives to give their children some of the best experiences they will ever have, connecting each member of the family and connecting the entire family with the natural wonders of this magnificent planet we call home.
To learn more about Jean-Michel Cousteau Family Camp on Catalina Island, visit:
First Photograph: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught." - Baba Dioum © Tom Ordway, Ocean Futures Society
Second Photograph: "OFS expedition member Holly Lohuis with her son Gavin enjoy a peaceful encounter with the West Indian manatee along the west coast of Florida." Photo By: M. Gilbert/SUB-IMAGES
Third Photograph: “People protect what they love.” Jacques Cousteau. Giving children the intimate connection to the undersea world at a young age will prepare them for being responsible stewards of our water planet in the future. © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society
Fourth Photograph: Céline Cousteau and Dr. Richard Murphy share their knowledge and passion of the corals reefs with local students in America Samoa while on expedition for Ocean Futures Society’s PBS special, “America’s Underwater Treasures.” © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society
Fifth Photograph: For five days every August, Jean-Michel Cousteau recharges his batteries by snorkeling with kids from all over the world, sharing his love for the kelp forest found in the shallow waters around the Channel Islands in Southern California. © Holly Lohuis, Ocean Futures Society