Philippe Cousteau Will Not Despair

Credit: Great Big Story

The Aquatic World, a short-form video series starring Philippe Cousteau, is just a hair short of a spoof. Philippe plays host in the likeness of Steve Zissou, a wink to Wes Anderson's caricature of his grandfather Jacques Cousteau. But he offers a very serious exploration into marine sciences — just with a Campari cocktail in hand. The tone is, of course, all very calculated by the one-time co-host of The Ocean's Deadliest (with Steve Irwin) and CNN one-offs like Expedition: Sumatra. Cousteau wants to move past such earnest environmental documentaries and reality shows, finding another way to talk about some of the most serious problems of our time. To do this, he and the team at Great Big Story (a CNN offshoot), aimed their sights on the "most spectacular places we can visit." So far, so good: They've explored the mysterious kelp forests off the coast of California, Greece’s shipwreck-rich Fourni archipelago, and one giant underwater volcano. Here's why Cousteau thinks this quirky video series, now having just wrapped its second season, offers a crucial entry point for a new audience to learn about environmental problems.

What was your aim with The Aquatic World?

When I spoke to Great Big Story on the first phone call we ever had, and they asked what I was interested in doing, I said, “Whatever it is, I don’t want it to be earnest.” I have worked with CNN, and I have done documentaries with the Discovery Channel, but I wanted to have fun with this. I wanted to try and think of a way we can reach an audience that might not sit down and watch a documentary series, the news, or a serious in-depth analysis of these issues, and instead be something people want to share because they really enjoy watching it — and they learned something along the way.

The second season seems to have really hit its stride.

The goal of season two was to kick it up several notches. We wanted to add characters and get my wife Ashlan [a former E! News correspondent] involved. Having her be the point person on the science demonstrated the commitment we all have to recognize the role that women play in exploration and in science, which is traditionally a male-dominated space. Another way we amped up the second season is that we had real interviews with real scientists. We wanted to tie that in, as opposed to just me talking about the issues. But again, in kind of a funny way, in a not too earnest, a bit of an offbeat way.

How do you hope people to react to the show?

I want people to share this in social media, on YouTube, Facebook, because, "Hey, Joe, this is funny and you need to watch it, it's a great distraction from whatever you’re doing right now." And then they say, "Oh my gosh, I didn’t know narwhals had 10 million nerve endings in their horns, or that the Sargasso Sea is the largest sea not bordered by land."

How does the show fit into the wide world of environmental documentaries?

I don’t know of any other online or broadcast series that has done what we’ve done, which is script a show, but have real science and real information behind it. It’s a radical departure from anything else out there, I would argue. We live in a world today where entertainment is key. Entertainment has always been the way people communicate, through stories, and what is a good story but entertainment? We wanted to create a very entertaining and fun series that would take some risks and be a little bit unconventional.

Like your grandfather, you're something of a globe-trotting adventurer. Why go with a scripted series?

By scripting it, we wanted to insert the kind of humor, fun, and drama that doesn’t necessarily happen in real life. We have the ability to take some liberty with the story but still have all the facts and information and science be absolutely 100 percent spot on. Maybe the closest example in feature film would be The Martian. It's an attempt at the same thing, a scripted film but with real science, but still future science, so even then that’s kind of fake. Everything we’re doing here is about real information, real science, and we’re really proud of it. I hope people look at this and realize there are more ways for us to share scientific information and knowledge, because clearly we need more scientific understanding, not less, in today’s world.

Donald Trump has put together what may be the most anti-environmental cabinets in history. What are people like you, who've made environmental issues your life's work, to do?

We have work to do in the environmental community. I believe we can do a better job of telling these stories to appeal to a broader audience. To help people understand that when we talk about things like climate change or ocean health or ocean acidification or fisheries, fundamentally we’re talking about jobs, people’s dignity, and economic opportunities, the things that rose to the surface and do in every election. I think as an environmental movement, we tend to preach to the converted way too much. We tend to be too pedantic, too serious, and clearly it’s not working. We need new approaches.