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 Americaâs Cup.
I really havenât 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 wasnât a lot of cash in the bank. But the Societyâs role is not to have a lot of cash in the bank. I understand theyâre 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, LâEquippe Cousteau, that has the current problem. They have assets that could be sold to pay back the debt. So theyâre actually OK. Itâs only two years since Captain Cousteau died. Itâs taken his wife a while to get to grips with everything, and I think itâs a huge credit to her that sheâs bothering to carry on. Sheâs not doing this to make a lot of money, sheâs carrying on because she really believed in her husbandâs work. Thatâs also the only reason why Iâm getting involved. I havenât been paid for the work Iâve done to date, and I wouldnât expect anything. I think the Society is so important in worldwide terms that it mustnât be allowed to fail.
In the New Zealand Herald they also mentioned Cousteauâs anti-Semitic views. Have you got any
comment about that?
The Herald didnât bother to research those claims. They didnât 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 âThis is not a French hero, this is a worldwide hero for many people.â 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 didnât 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, Iâve 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 Americaâs Cup racing is over. Using my yacht until the Society gets its new vessels will work well. We donât need to have anything too fancy once weâre 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 Societyâs 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. Iâve spent some time with NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research) recently, and the New Zealand Antarctica people and theyâre offering facilities as much as possible. So for little cost we provide the camera crews and theyâll 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 âDonât do this, donât do that.â Weâve 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 âHow does that affect ecology?â It gets people interested in that area of the world, and itâs 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 isnât available, then Iâll 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 hadnât 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. Itâs 66 metres long and 16.5 metres wide, weighing about 1,000 tons. I donât 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 itâs 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 youâre in the scientific community. I think itâs 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 theyâve 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 Iâve been involved with, you never have enough money, weâve 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 theyâre not clean and green, they wonât 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 weâve got to get that snowball effect working. If that doesnât happen the world will be far worse off.
When the New Zealand Navy perhaps fronts up alongside a Japanese whaler, they canât really do too much, and there may be political reasons why New Zealand wonât want to embarrass Japan. We donât care about that. We wonât 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 donât care. The albatross numbers are dropping. I think weâre 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.
Iâm 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. Weâve 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 theyâre 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. Weâll have set time zones depending on where you are in the world. Weâll work in different languages, people can watch a video of what weâve 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 theyâre 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 weâre away.
Are you optimistic about the Societyâs future?
Iâm optimistic about the Societyâs 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 doesnât 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 worldâs 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, youâd better build a hospital there, because thatâs 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 Americaâs Cup campaign and the future challenges of bring the magic of our planet to the people of the world through the Cousteau Society.