When Philippe Cousteau Jr. was 16, he took a trip to Papua New Guinea to try to understand what his famous grandfather, ocean explorer Jacques, referred to as “the connected world.” “I remember seeing these tribesmen walking toward me on a dusty road,” Cousteau recalls, “wearing grass skirts, bones and feathers in their noses – and one of them was wearing a Lakers T-shirt. And I was like, ‘We do live in a connected world.'” That was Philippe’s first expedition and the beginning of a life mingling adventure and advocacy – one that is unique to his family. “Let’s face it,” Philippe Cousteau Jr. says at the start of his new television series, ‘Expedition: Sumatra,’ which begins this winter on CNN, “adventure and exploration are in my blood.”
What was it like growing up a Cousteau? Did you live on boats and swim with sharks?
No. I didn’t grow up with the fantasy that everyone thinks. My father [Philippe] died in a plane crash before I was born. I saw my grandfather [Jacques] only a few times a year. I’ve been on my grandfather’s boat, Calypso, twice in my life. My mother raised me in a pretty typical middle-class life.
But adventure called to you?
I think it started out as an attempt to get to know my father. Chasing who he was, what he was all about, because I never knew. I loved traveling and loved adventures and have stuck with it.
You were co-hosting Ocean’s Deadliest when Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray in 2006. Did that give you pause over the dangers of your profession?
It was certainly cause for some soul searching. It drove home the sacrifice and danger of this type of work. He died in my arms – at an age that was similar to my father’s when he died. You never forget it. But I still think this is the best job I could ever imagine.
Your new show explores the environmental toll of logging in Sumatra, Indonesia. Why there?
Sumatra has these lush forests and huge, amazing creatures like elephants, orangutans, and tigers. They’re disappearing because of industry coming in and cutting down the forests. There’s a bill in front of the Sumatran government right now…to approve an area of land to be protected, so we felt it was timely to tell this story.
Did you run into any wild animals?
Well, no one ever really sees tigers in the wild. But I met these people living in the middle of the jungle who have dedicated their lives to rehabilitating orangutans sold into the illegal pet trade. These rangers mentor and teach them how to live in the wild and then release them. They handed me this chunk of wood with termites all over it and said, Show them how to suck the termites out of the wood. So I sucked the termites out of the wood, and this baby orangutan is watching me with these big, wide eyes. And he reaches down, he takes this chunk of wood, and he sucks the termites out of the wood, too, just like I did.
Were you ever in danger?
One of the crew members got stung by a giant wasp – the damn thing was as long as your finger – and started to go into shock; we had to put him into one of the trucks and drive over these horrible, muddy, crunchy, gritty roads for six or seven hours on end. But he made it.
What is the most overlooked environmental issue today?
China consumes half of the world’s coal today. Half. Two billion additional people are going to populate this planet in the next 40 years. Whoever owns renewable energy and figures out how to feed, power, and clothe those 2 billion people is going to be the economic winner in the future. China is outinvesting the U.S. because they recognize the situation. The pro- and anti-climate change folks here are too busy acting like a bunch of petulant children.
You’re traveling more than 300 days out of the year. What’s a day off like for you?
I got in last Sunday from Brazil (from the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development) at 7:30 in the morning. My girlfriend was sleeping, the doggy was on the bed, so I jump in, go back to sleep, wake up, and it was Sunday morning. I was like, Woohoo! I ate breakfast, and we walked the dog and had a normal Sunday. Those are my favorite.