How Jacques Cousteau's Family Is Carrying on His Legacy
With a new show on the Travel Channel, Ashlan and Philippe Cousteau are exceeding high expectations.
Grandson of famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, Philippe grew up with a strong desire to protect the oceans and tell captivating stories about the natural world.
Philippe embarked on his first expedition at age 16, and went on to host documentaries across the planet, traveling everywhere from Indonesia to East Africa.
Ashlan, for her part, has long been a master storyteller. She got her start in entertainment reporting, but has covered caribou migrations in the Arctic, tiger conservation in Nepal, and a wide array of underwater animal stories.
Now the pair have their own show on the Travel Channel, "Caribbean Pirate Treasure," where they explore some of the best-known legends and myths of shipwrecks and buried treasure in the Caribbean. They even follow in the "fin prints" of Jacques Cousteau to search for a missing Danish ship.
The adventurous duo paused their world travels to talk with Travel + Leisure about their new show, the legacy of the Cousteau family, and the two items they won't leave home without.
Travel + Leisure: What were some of your favorite moments while filming the series?
Ashlan: “One of the coolest was an island off of Tortola called Norman Island, and it’s actually the island that [inspired] Robert Louis Stephenson's famous book, Treasure Island. Allegedly, it’s the real life Treasure Island, so the fact that Philippe and I got to look for treasure on Treasure Island and find some really cool stuff was absolutely amazing. I think that’s every little kid’s dream.”
Philippe: “For me, it was a place called the Silver Bank — an area about 80 miles north of the Dominican Republic. What was really special about that was, it’s a place my grandfather went to about 50 years ago to search for a wreck called the ‘Conception,’ which is one of the most storied treasure wrecks in history.”
"...Though he didn’t find the 'Conception,' he did find another wreck…We went back to the same place to search for that wreck, and after two and a half days of some pretty harrowing adventures we found it. That was pretty amazing.”
T+L: You have this foundation that you lead, EarthEcho. Tell us about the importance of preserving our reefs and oceans.
P: “In general, the importance of those systems cannot be overstated. Coral reefs, ocean systems in general are — no surprise — critical to the survival of humanity on this planet. [They’re] sources of protein, [and] healthy coastal ecosystems help to protect against storms.”
“We have major issues around the world with respect to decline in fisheries, from overfishing. We live in a world today where poverty in the Philippines or in Africa affects us directly. Sixty years ago I think there was a sense that, this doesn’t affect us directly, but now we know that’s not the case."
"…Our approach, at EarthEcho, is one that I believe the conservation community for too long has not focused enough on, which is education. How do we start to engage and empower the next generation and grow the constituency of people that really understand [and] care about these issues? And that’s very much inspired by my grandfather and his work toward the end of his life, which was really focused on education.”
T+L: What kind of responsibility do you feel to uphold your grandfather’s legacy?
P: "Thanks to my mother — who raised my sister and me, because my father died six months before I was born — thanks to her inspiration and her work in keeping that legacy alive, [we] have always felt a responsibility. I think that it manifests itself in our work, both in education but also in the media space. Because my grandfather, first and foremost was a storyteller, and he believed in the power of stories."
T+L: Is there a destination that you’ve been to where you’ve felt like — if everyone could see this, they would be just as excited about the natural world or about conservation as you are?
A: “We went off the coast of Mexico to Guadalupe Island, and it was just absolutely incredible to be in the water with these huge, huge females. (Female great whites are actually larger than the males.) So one of the ladies that was swimming around with us was 18 feet long!"
"...They are just thick, giant submarines. But just seeing how, once you get under the water and can look them in the eye, you can see how gracefully they move, and how they’re not in there to come eat us; they’re just doing their own thing. I wish I could have taken everyone down with me in that shark cage to see these majestic beauties, because I think people would [see] sharks in a different way.”
T+L: Your show really focuses on diving. Do you have a favorite diving spot?
A: “The best diving I did was in the Marshall Islands. [But] it’s very hard to get there. Where I learned to dive — and one of Philippe’s favorite places — is the island of Bonaire. It’s part of the Alphabet Islands (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao). What’s so beautiful is [that] pretty much the entire island is for diving and kite surfing. It’s spectacular: the whole reef around the island is protected. Nobody is allowed to anchor on the reef."
P: "It was pretty spectacular. I would add though we were both really impressed while filming “Caribbean Pirate Treasure” with Belize and the Blue Hole...There’s no fishing; it’s a protected area. They call it the aquarium dive just by the Blue Hole, and it was incredible. It’s what the Caribbean would have been like 50 or 60 years ago: big schools of fish, and the coral looked terrific.”
A: “There was even a giant Nassau grouper who literally wanted scratches under his chin and then took me on a little tour of the reef.”
T+L: Do you have one thing that you always pack with you in your carry-on?
P: “I have a little kit of stuff that I like to bring with me. Depends on where I’m going, but the standard is a little camping container of truffle salt that I sprinkle on just about anything and it makes it better. And then depending on where I’m going, I’ll maybe bring a tiny vial of soy sauce. Eating coconut and rice pretty much non-stop for four weeks gets old really fast. Wasabi powder is another favorite of mine because it doesn’t go bad...And you can mix it with water to make wasabi paste.”
A: “Even in the Caribbean, I always pack a lightweight, cashmere sweater. Because even if it’s tropical, airplanes are always so flippin’ cold. Or, let’s say you’re out on a boat all day and you accidentally get a little sunburnt, that thin, cashmere sweater will save your butt."
P: “I think it’s those little pieces of comfort, you know, one or two little things amid the chaos and the craziness”
T+L: What’s your dream destination?
A: “For me, my one continent I’m missing — which normally most people say is Antarctica — I have not been to Africa, and I really want to go on safari. Really, really, really want to go on safari.”
P: “I’ve always wanted to go to Bhutan — that, I think, is at the top of my list — and just visit the Buddhist monasteries and hike through the jungle. They’ve done such a good job from a conservation perspective, from a social perspective; it’s just supposed to be stunningly spectacular.”
This interview has been edited for length.