Fabien Cousteau looks particularly comfortable sitting in the captain’s chair of the Ian Mitchell-designed Asean Lady, which is unique in the world for its proa-based design that dates back to 2,000 years ago. You could put a captain’s hat on him and he’d fit right in. In his case, a red beanie might be more apt, given his grandfather was the renowned Jacques-Yves Cousteau, one of the inventors of the Aqua-lung, which we commonly call regulators in open-circuit scuba gear. He started diving at the age of four, when his grandfather customised a special miniature underwater breathing apparatus for him. In fact, he often remarks that he feels far more comfortable underwater than on land.
In town in April to officiate at the International Seakeepers Society Asia Awards Dinner, Cousteau presented two prizes to Francis Lee and Stephen Beng for their efforts in marine conservation and protection of the country’s natural water resources. Back in the 1980s, Lee founded the Singapore Reef and Marine Conservation Committee and helped to establish our first marine park in 2014. It covers 40 hectares and includes Sisters’ Islands, St John’s Island and Pulau Tekukor. Beng, who chairs the Marine Conservation Group of the Nature Society, Singapore, represented the group to receive the Seakeepers Asia Achievement Award 2017.
Cousteau sits on the Scientific Advisory Council of the International Seakeepers Society and strongly advocates the group’s work, which connects luxury yacht owners with researchers and education or conservation groups that need access to the sea for their work. “By sponsoring their yachts and resources for academic and research purposes, they allow researchers to utilise the monies they have received from grants to the maximum,” he explains.
But the organisation does more than loan out yachts to scientists for diving trips. It also conducts education programmes for children and schools as well as community engagement to raise awareness of our environmental impact, global warming and more. Fabien’s father, Jean-Michel, established the Ocean Futures Society after a very public family feud with Jacques-Yves that involved the latter’s second wife Francine. Fabien was actively involved with the society until last year but has since struck out on his own with the Fabien Cousteau Ocean Learning Center, a non-profit that develops education and community outreach programmes.
Ecotechnology is something that he’s also working on. He’s deeply involved in projects such as 3D printing for reef structures that are designed to encourage coral growth and that are more resistant to temperature changes, thus preventing bleaching.
This year has seen another coral bleaching event around the world. Due to the frequency of these occurrences, there is little time for reef recovery. Two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef can now be described as severely impacted. He’s worried, as are all marine conservationists, but remains optimistic about fixing the problems that we’ve caused. “What is happening out there is devastating on many levels but it is not surprising,” he mulls. “The fact that it is in the news is good; it means people are paying attention. The Great Barrier Reef isn’t dead. It’s having problems, just like a lot of other coral reefs in the world. It just happens to be the poster child. Unfortunately we are going to see more of these and in other parts of the world including right here around Singapore and the rest of Asia.”
Technology, he believes, is the way forward. “Innovation is going to change the course that we set for ourselves and our children. And a lot of innovation in today’s world, whether it’s on land or in the ocean, actually brings about economic opportunity. So there’s no reason why you can’t help save the planet and make money out of it at the same time,” he explains, disparaging the belief that conservation is expensive for consumers. “We see this time and time again. The most basic example is recycling or using the waste stream as a resource. There are many others.”
Plastic wastage is one massive issue we ought to pay attention to, not just because it’s been found at some of the deepest points of the ocean, but because it ends up back in our stomachs.
A study by the Plymouth University in the UK found that one-third of all fish sold in supermarkets have ingested plastic. That’s fish you eat. “It’s a material that can last 500 years, but we use it for 30 minutes? An hour? And we discard it. That’s inefficient.”
More importantly, he’s concerned that governments across the world are not constructing a coherent agenda. “There are times when it’s better for the public sector to step in, and others the private sector gets things done better.”
“We’re all individuals, whether we are in the private or public sector. The CEOs of companies have children too while heads of states have children they need to worry about and communities they need to attend to,” he opines.
“We’re all responsible for our actions and we all need to row in the same direction to create a better world for ourselves and the environment that we depend on.” With a Cousteau at the helm, it looks like.
For information on Seakeepers Asia’s programmes and how you can support them, visit seakeepers.org/singapore.