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Forbes 30 Under 30 recipient Emily Hazelwood ’11 talks to fellow ocean explorer Fabien Cousteau about the state of our oceans.
come from a family of scuba divers who from a young age supported my passion and curiosity for the sea, encouraging me to get scuba certified by the age of 12. As I grew older, that passion evolved into academic curiosity, through my studies at Connecticut College, and eventually led to my first job, working as an environmental field technician in the Gulf of Mexico following the events of the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill. The spill covered over 1,300 miles of the Gulf Coast in oil and threatened not only the physical, economic and food security of the Gulf’s communities, but also resources for businesses worldwide. Never had I so acutely bore witness to the devastating impacts of humankind on our oceans, and this experience would go on to shape my career path.
However, my time spent in the Gulf of Mexico also enlightened me to humankind’s capacity for creativity and hope. It’s where I first learned about the Rigs to Reefs (RtR) program, where retired oil platforms are repurposed and given new life as artificial reefs, and where I began to think differently about ocean conservation. The RtR concept fascinated me; how could a structure capable of such intense environmental degradation also be capable of supporting marine life in a positive way?
To dive into this question, both literally and figuratively, I completed a master’s degree at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, investigating the social, economic, and ecological implications of repurposing offshore oil and gas platforms into artificial reefs. There are thousands of offshore platforms found in almost every ocean around the world, and it is estimated that many will be decommissioned, or completely removed, in the next 10 years. Completely removing an offshore oil and gas platform is both costly and environmentally taxing, especially when you consider the marine ecosystems colonizing these structures, some of which, such as those found in California, are noted to be among the most productive marine habitats on the planet. This experience opened my eyes to the global potential for this concept and helped me realize that while not every offshore platform is a good candidate for a reef, many are, and there is a need for alternative decommissioning options in the offshore oil and gas industry. To address this need, in 2015 I co-founded Blue Latitudes LLC, a certified women-owned marine environmental consulting firm.
Our vision at Blue Latitudes is to unite science, policy, and communications to develop sustainable, creative and cost-effective solutions to manage the environmental issues that surround the offshore energy industry. Today, we work with government and industry around the world to develop RtR strategies and, using remotely operated vehicles, we dive into the deepest depths of the ocean to evaluate the marine ecosystems found on deep offshore energy structures.
Over the last century, cumulative anthropogenic action has triggered a cascade of environmental problems, threatening the ability of our natural systems, and particularly our oceans, to flourish. During this time, our oceans have served as a crucial buffer against global warming, soaking up about one-quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted from our factories, power plants, and cars, and absorbing more than 90% of the excess heat trapped on Earth by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. However, the ocean’s ability to absorb is also its greatest downfall, causing changes in water temperature, which leads to changes in oceanic circulation and chemistry, rising sea levels, increased storm intensity, as well as changes in the diversity and abundance of marine species.
Our oceans are in danger. Climate change weakens the ability of the ocean to provide critical ecosystem services such as food, carbon storage, oxygen generation, as well as to support nature-based solutions to climate change adaptation. The sustainable management, conservation and restoration of coastal and marine ecosystems will be critical to ensure the continued provision of the ecosystem services on which we depend. Solving the environmental problems associated with climate change, I believe, will be one of society’s greatest challenges.
Recognizing the human demand for ocean resources, in 2018 we launched the Blue Latitudes Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, to broaden the dialogue on traditional ocean conservation practices to find ways to use our oceans without using them up. In broadening that dialogue, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to meet other ocean scientists and enthusiasts who have left me feeling truly inspired—one such individual is Fabien Cousteau.
PERSPECTIVES FROM A COUSTEAU
Fabien knows a thing or two about the current state of our oceans. He’s an aquanaut, third-generation ocean explorer, filmmaker and ocean conservationist, and once spent 31 days living underwater at the Aquarius Undersea Laboratory during Mission 31, in 2014. He also happens to be the eldest grandson of Jacques Cousteau, famed ocean explorer and co-inventor of the Aqua-Lung (the predecessor to modern scuba equipment) and the first underwater camera housing.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Fabien and discuss some of the greatest challenges facing our oceans today.
Emily Hazelwood: One of your greatest accomplishments was the work you did in the Florida Keys at the Aquarius Undersea Laboratory during Mission 31, spending 31 days living underwater. This mission followed in the footsteps of your grandfather who, 50 years earlier, spent 30 days living at the bottom of the Red Sea. What did you find to be of greatest value from this experience, both personally and for the world?
Fabien Cousteau: The objective of Mission 31 was to bring attention to underwater research stations, akin to the International Space Station and Mars colonization. We have one of the most amazing alien worlds right here at our feet and yet we have barely scratched the surface of its exploration. During Mission 31, we highlighted the fact that we were able to do over three years’ worth of scientific research in 31 days.
But what I thought was really exciting was that for the first time in my career I was able to have Wi-Fi underwater 24/7, enabling my team and me to connect with over a hundred thousand students in classrooms from all seven continents, including Antarctica.
Emily: Was your career in the ocean sciences inspired by your grandfather Jacques Cousteau?
Fabien: As the eldest grandchild I had the chance to spend several decades going on expeditions with my grandfather, grandmother and the team of Calypso [a British minesweeper that was converted into an oceanographic research ship by Jacques Cousteau and his team]. We were able to travel to parts of the world that, back then, very few people had ever been to. It was a huge blessing and has served as the foundation for the person I am today. Like most kids growing up, I looked at other careers, but nothing satisfied me, made me sleep better at night and wake up ready to do it all over again, like ocean exploration and filmmaking. I am forever grateful to my family for opening my eyes to this amazing, alien world.
Emily: If your grandfather were alive today, what would he think about the state of our oceans?
Fabien: He wouldn’t be surprised. In addition to spawning the public’s awareness of what lay beneath the ocean’s blue veneer, my grandfather was also talking about climate change, pollution and the overconsumption of natural resources as early as the 1950s and ’60s. I think that he would be sad and depressed, but he also believed deeply in the human spirit. He would say, “If we were only logical creatures, the future would look bleak and deep, but we are more than logical; we have feeling; we have hope.”
Emily: What do you believe is the greatest threat facing our oceans today?
Fabien: The single biggest threat facing our oceans is human beings. But at the same time, some of those human beings are rolling up their sleeves and finding innovative ways to address some of the problems they are faced with, whether that be plastic pollution, climate change, or the depletion of natural resources, such as fisheries. They’re finding ways to counterbalance their impact and not only make a living but have a more harmonious relationship with the life-support system that our planet provides.
Emily: If people could do just one thing to help secure the future of our oceans, what would it be?
Fabien: Look back to make decisions forward. As soon as we started saying, “You can throw that away,” that was our downfall. There is no such thing as “away;” this is a closed-loop system, and there is no such thing as waste in nature. We must look at what we do in our daily lives and curtail that consumption rate, even if it’s just as simple as adopting the four R’s: refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle.
Emily: You have had a career in the marine sciences for decades; what continues to drive you?
Fabien: It’s very easy to lose hope, given the changing oceans and the changing environment. It’s very easy to get depressed, to get overwhelmed, and want to throw up your arms and quit. It’s difficult because much of our species is still so disconnected from nature. But what drives me is very simple, it’s being able to share my experiences with people who are inquisitive and curious and have that drive to learn more and want to be a part of the solution.
My nonprofit, the Ocean Learning Center, is an excellent engagement platform and educational tool for this type of experiential learning. We have programs such as women empowerment through sea turtle restoration in Nicaragua, beach cleanups throughout the United States, eelgrass and mangrove plantings, and coral restoration using 3D printing. By giving local communities opportunities to be actionable and involved, all of a sudden you have advocates, you have people thinking about the natural world and people understanding the connection between human beings and something as alien as a coral reef.
Emily: Is there hope for the future of our oceans?
Fabien: One of our greatest assets and motivators is hope; if you lose hope you lose everything. When people are pressed to a task and they are motivated to do something, they can create miracles in a short amount of time, and that is the sense of hope that I think we all need to have. You are a veteran yourself, and I thank you for all that you are doing, because you are a changemaker and you’re motivating people to look up to you and hopefully find innovative solutions within their own circles.