The Cousteau Societys future

Sir Peter Blake:

The Cousteau Society looks to the future

Interviewed by Dave Moran

Sir Peter, the New Zealand Herald recently reported that the Cousteau Society was on the brink of bankruptcy, and that this will be a major challenge for you when you take up your role next year after the America’s Cup.

I really haven’t had an intimate working knowledge of what the finances are. I did a thorough study before I decided to become involved with the Cousteau Society in 1997, and I knew right at that time there wasn’t a lot of cash in the bank. But the Society’s role is not to have a lot of cash in the bank. I understand they’re in the final throes of doing a deal to sell two films.

One about Lake Baikul in Russia and the other about the Caspian Sea, which may cover the outstanding debt. It is the French arm of the Cousteau Society, L’Equippe Cousteau, that has the current problem. They have assets that could be sold to pay back the debt. So they’re actually OK. It’s only two years since Captain Cousteau died. It’s taken his wife a while to get to grips with everything, and I think it’s a huge credit to her that she’s bothering to carry on. She’s not doing this to make a lot of money, she’s carrying on because she really believed in her husband’s work. That’s also the only reason why I’m getting involved. I haven’t been paid for the work I’ve done to date, and I wouldn’t expect anything. I think the Society is so important in worldwide terms that it mustn’t be allowed to fail.

In the New Zealand Herald they also mentioned Cousteau’s anti-Semitic views. Have you got any

comment about that?

The Herald didn’t bother to research those claims. They didn’t bother to find out that he was a highly decorated war hero in France because of his work with the Resistance against the Nazis. Because of his spying activities, he had to keep a cover in place, which is the reason for some of these letters. The Herald just printed whatever had come out of France and decided it was a negative-type story which would sell a few papers, rather than taking a look and saying ‘This is not a French hero, this is a worldwide hero for many people.’ To try and put him down without doing your homework is very poor journalism, and they should really be taken to task for that in a huge way. The article didn’t outline the huge amount of good this man and people in the Society have done for the world.

Did you become involved with the Society because you have become concerned about the environment?

Yes, I’ve been concerned for some time now. Before the Society approached me I had already started to fit out my yacht to enable me to sail to South America once the America’s Cup racing is over. Using my yacht until the Society gets its new vessels will work well. We don’t need to have anything too fancy once we’re in the Chilean waterways. The planned expeditions are up into the Andes and wintering over in Patagonia and the canals of Chile. We also plan to go down onto the Antarctic peninsula.

For the next two to three years the Society’s plan is to endeavour to do a circumnavigation of the Arctic and a circumnavigation at a similar time, but taking into account the seasons, of the Antarctic. This is not just with my own boat or the Cousteau Society boats, it will be using whatever facilities are already available to us through various governments. I’ve spent some time with NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research) recently, and the New Zealand Antarctica people and they’re offering facilities as much as possible. So for little cost we provide the camera crews and they’ll provide the transport, be it ship or airplane and other facilities. We will get some great footage.

We have to try and encourage young people to be interested in what goes on in and around the sea, and not just tell them ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that.’ We’ve got to make people want to change for the right reason. So we have to produce more exciting films of good quality, that have great images, even if it means doing as Cousteau did in one of his movies which I watch very often, where they walk around inside an iceberg. You may say ‘How does that affect ecology?’ It gets people interested in that area of the world, and it’s just fantastic that they can see what you see.

I want to visit all of the subantarctic islands, and if it means using my own yacht because a Cousteau boat isn’t available, then I’ll do that. My boat is at their disposal. I became involved with the Cousteau Society because I had seen lots of things at sea that I hadn’t seen on television. I wanted to produce a series of documentaries and had already discussed the idea with some television companies before I was approached by Cousteau. So now I can show people what there is to see on this pretty exciting planet of ours, and under the Cousteau name, which makes it even more valuable.

Are there still plans to build bigger boats?

The plan is to build the Calypso II which was designed by the late Jacques Cousteau. It took him nine years to come up with what he thought was his ideal research vessel. It’s 66 metres long and 16.5 metres wide, weighing about 1,000 tons. I don’t want to build just one of those. I want to build three or four, because I feel the Cousteau Society is going to survive. I think it’s very important that the society grows in size because it can make a meaningful difference for the future of the planet.

Do you see the Society as an environmental pressure group?

No. There are many scientific organisations that do fantastic work, but no one knows about it unless you’re in the scientific community. I think it’s very important that a lot of that information gets into the public arena and contributes positive benefits for the future. These people have no way of doing that in the way that the Cousteau Society has.

The Cousteau Society is apolitical, they come unencumbered. Sure they have the odd money woes, but they’ve had them since they first started trying to buy Calypso when she was a ferry in Malta after the war. Like any of the campaigns I’ve been involved with, you never have enough money, we’ve got to get sponsors on board. If we can get the right sort of companies backing us, they can get a huge spin-off if they are clean and green. If they’re not clean and green, they won’t be with us. That will extend our membership range.

We must get into marketing and merchandising. Every expedition we do we will produce a different line of clothing that will encourage more people to become involved, more people to pay US$20 per year to be a member of the Society, and so it snowballs, and we’ve got to get that snowball effect working. If that doesn’t happen the world will be far worse off.

When the New Zealand Navy perhaps fronts up alongside a Japanese whaler, they can’t really do too much, and there may be political reasons why New Zealand won’t want to embarrass Japan. We don’t care about that. We won’t be using Greenpeace techniques, but I think through education, embarrassing people, and embarrassing countries by having a Cousteau vessel roll up alongside, we should eventually have quite an impact. Illegal fishing of the Patagonian toothfish must be stopped. These fishermen do not use methods that lessen the by-catch of albatross. These illegal fishermen don’t care. The albatross numbers are dropping. I think we’re going to have to wait to see the longer term effects, but when one species disappears out of the food chain it has potentially enormous effects.

I’m enthusiastic about what the society can achieve through education. My role is to raise money, raise the profile. The society has to get back in the movie theatres, back on television. We’ve got to get into classrooms, we need school projects.

Do you see the Society using the Internet to take children from the classroom to the outdoors so they’re mentally and visually there with you seeing some of the adventures and animals that the Society is filming?

I see us as having a few children/teenagers on board our vessel from time to time. That only gets to a few kids. Through the Internet we have the ability to involve tens of millions of children and adults everyday. We’ll have set time zones depending on where you are in the world. We’ll work in different languages, people can watch a video of what we’ve been doing, go under the ice if we happen to be in the ice at the time. The odd person will be able to speak to one of the scientists on board. I think it will encourage children and their teachers to have school projects about these subjects. If we get enough funding we will provide these projects for them and so it snowballs.

The aim is to provide the right sort of education where the kids get interested. If they find it boring they’re not going to be bothered to go any further. I took some kids out on my boat two weeks ago here in Auckland. They were seven teenagers from Canteen, which means they have cancer, or one of their brothers or sisters has cancer. Of those seven, only two had been on the Waitemata Harbour before. We take it for granted that lots of people, even close to home, have seen some of the fantastic things there are to see. Wrong – many have not been around their own backyard, let alone all over the world. If we get them interested then we’re away.

Are you optimistic about the Society’s future?

I’m optimistic about the Society’s future as long as we can build it. I would like to open up a Cousteau Society branch in New Zealand because I think New Zealanders would benefit a lot from it. I think the Cousteau Society is too important not to continue. It doesn’t matter what the present monetary position is. If necessary, governments are going to have to prop it up because it is a vital link in the education process for young people who can make a real difference as to what actually happens on, in and around the world’s waters. If the Cousteau Society is no longer, the world is going to be far worse off for it. Forget about having the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, you’d better build a hospital there, because that’s what is going to be needed if we do not work together now.

Thanks, Peter, for your time. We wish you every success with your America’s Cup campaign and the future challenges of bring the magic of our planet to the people of the world through the Cousteau Society.

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