DEMA was busy this year, or to use a phrase I heard in the press room, "It is an absolute mad house!" Walking from one side of the giant exhibition center to the other was challenging at times. When I arrived at the booth of Ocean Futures Society, the non-profit organization lead by well-known sea explorer and environmentalist, Jean-Michel Cousteau, a line of people was waiting to get autographs or a pictures.
Looking around me, I could also see some journalists from other publications waiting for an interview. Luckily, having lived in Santa Barbara for a few years (where Ocean futures headquarters is located) and working in the dive industry, I had some contacts with Ocean Futures team members: Don Santee, the expedition leader, and my friend, Blair Mott, the chief diver. They helped me to get the attention of Jean-Michel, who was constantly taken by the line of visitors at the booth. After a few more pictures and autographs, we finally sat down. Before even starting the interview, Jean-Michel asked who DeeperBlue.net was. Once I explained who we are, emphasizing the fact that all the writers and contributors of the online publication were volunteers, Jean-Michel graciously granted me some of his time.
We started with the latest news about Keiko, the world famous orca whale who starred in the motion picture "Free Willy". According to Jean-Michel, Keiko was where he belonged – in the wild, cruising the waters off the coast of Norway. For those of you who didn’t follow the full story in the media, you can log onto www.oceanfutures.org and go to "Keiko’s corner". The full adventure is meticulously recounted and beautifully portrayed in photos by the Ocean Futures team.
(A few weeks after the interview Keiko died of a natural death in the wild. For more information)
Although Keiko has been the center of Ocean Futures work for several years, I really wanted to talk about their latest expedition "Voyage to Kure", a six-week filming project that brought Jean-Michel Cousteau‘s team to the Antipodes, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a 1,200-mile chain of islands and atolls that form one of the most remote places on Earth. Asked if he had fulfilled his expectations, Jean-Michel answered, "We found wildlife that we did not anticipate to find there." The Ocean Futures team was amazed by the quantity of Galapagos sharks and giant jacks that they encountered on every dive. I could see in Jean-Michel’s eyes that he was now back on his boat, far away from civilization and the booth at DEMA. "Interesting enough, while filming during the day, the schools of giant jacks would interpose themselves in between the team of divers and the sharks. The sharks would not even dare approaching the impressive wall. On the other hand, at night when the Jacks retired, the sharks would flood in, as many as 200 of them. The cameramen and the whole team got a chance to get close and personal with these amazing creatures!"
I was now in turn transported by Cousteau’s descriptions. His world of underwater details was probably inherited from his father. "Commandant Jacques Cousteau" was making me feel farther and farther away from the air conditioned artificially-lit DEMA floor. "Many of the world’s endangered species have made this last haven, far away from civilization, their home: green sea turtles, monk seals; and many different species of seabirds like the Laysan, the black-footed albatross, and sooty terns."
Although the Ocean Futures team found signs of a healthy coral reef ecosystem, numerous pods of spinner dolphins, the rare masked angelfish, and Hawaiian groupers, the amount of trash they found in and above the water was quite alarming. "Underwater it was quite a surprise to find fishing nets on the reef!" A few times the divers had to put down the cameras to spend several hours removing the deadly nets entangled on the fragile coral. "The trash transported by the currents and washing on the pristine shores was of all sorts, from plastic bags to lighters and plastic toys." Cousteau explained that all the different languages on the trash led them to understand that it was coming from all around the world – Europe, America, and Asia. More dramatically they discovered a multitude of dead seabirds, especially young albatross, washed on the shore. An autopsy on one of the many bodies brought Ocean Futures to the sad conclusion that this paradise was at risk, even though it wasn’t in direct contact with the Human world.
"We found all sorts of plastic debris in this bird’s stomach. Flying fish lay their eggs on anything afloat the ocean and seabirds like the albatross feed their young with these eggs. Unfortunately they feed them the debris along with the eggs. "The young, being unable to digest plastic, finally die of starvation". Then Jean-Michel paused. I didn’t know what to say since I felt that we were all responsible for this tragedy. I remembered reading years ago about the adventures of the late Jacques Cousteau, Jean-Michel’s father "Diving For Sunken Treasures". A few decades later, here we were with Jean-Michel diving for sunken trash. We can make a difference by supporting non-profit organizations like Ocean Futures Society, and many others that are here, not only to defend the environment, but also to educate the world on how to live in harmony with nature. You can support them financially or by getting an online membership, "for free" as Jean-Michel insists. If you feel so compelled, log on to www.oceanfutures.org to give them a more powerful voice in this highly politically and economically driven world.
The conversation was now turning to the more technical aspect of Oceans Futures projects. I couldn’t figure out what the rebreather displayed on the table right by us was, when Blair Mott, the chief diver for Ocean Futures, pointed out it was their version of the famous Inspiration. It was blue instead of the usual bright yellow. "Most of our team dives with it. It is a fantastic tool. When I used to work with my father on the Calypso or later on the Halcyon, such a tool would have been so useful! Utilizing the new Inspiration Rebreathers, along with our high definition video cameras, cuts our expedition time and cost in half as compared to when we were shooting film and using scuba. We can average three-hour dives. That way we were able to shoot some 85 hours of film in only 6 weeks!"
"We would have needed some 3 or 4 months to achieve the same quantity of film, back in the Calypso days." Blair added that the safety factor was also a lot better considering the risks of decompression sickness the cameramen faced when using regular SCUBA. People were once again crowding the Ocean’s Futures booth. As Jean-Michel had to go do more P.R.; it was time for me to wrap up the interview. "Now that you have the technology and the right team," I asked, "What is next?" Jean-Michel smiled and asked himself aloud if he should unveil what was to come for the next filming project. "Well, we are looking at sailing from Alaska to Baja California to follow the grey whale migration. It used to be a natural process, but it has become more of an obstacle course! We are looking at making a six-hour documentary that will air on PBS."
Although I decided to focus more on the Voyage to Kure expedition on this interview, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Blair, and I had a lot of short conversations talking about all the different projects that Oceans Futures works on. I decided to tie it all up on the next part of this article.
I would like to take a line to thank my good friend, Denise Naguib from Ocean Futures, who helped me to make this exciting interview possible.