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Explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau Probes Depths of Oil Spill’s Impact

June 8, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As the environmental impacts of the BP oil leak unfold in the Gulf of Mexico, Jeffrey Brown talks to ocean explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau about conservation and his team's dives into the spill.
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight: another perspective on the Gulf oil spill.

Since the April 20 disaster, we have spoken with company executives, administration officials, community residents, and many experts. Well, tonight, we talk to an outspoken environmentalist and ocean explorer, Jean-Michel Cousteau. He recently went to the Gulf with a team of divers to examine the damage there. He’s the son of the late Jacques Cousteau and the author of a new book about him titled “My Father, the Captain.”

Jeffrey Brown spoke with him earlier today at the studios of Sirius XM radio in Washington.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jean-Michel Cousteau, welcome.

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU, chairman, Ocean Futures Society: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, government officials confirmed what everyone feared, these large plumes of oil lurking below the sea. What does that mean? What is going on beneath the ocean?

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: Well, first of all, what it means is that, instead of letting the oil go to the surface to recover it, dispersants have been put, chemicals have been put into that oil to keep it below the surface.

So, now you find that oil pretty much all along the water column, or the 5,000 feet of depth. Some of it stays on the bottom because of these dispersants, but a lot of it is kind of in mid-water, which means it’s going to be affecting the entire water column.

JEFFREY BROWN: We all talk now a lot about the world underneath the surface of the Gulf. That’s your world, I mean underneath the — under the sea. What should we know about life, the ecosystem?

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: Well, we need to learn. We need to learn more, because we know very little.

And I know it’s a cliche. We know more about the other side of the moon than we know about our own ocean. So, there’s a lot more research that needs to be done. And we cannot fool around with nature, like we do now, by suddenly decided to have these dispersants being put in there, because we don’t know what the longtime effect is going to be on the marine life.

We’re talking about everything. We’retalking about animals. We’re talking about plants. And, ultimately, all of that reaches the coastline, as we have seen it now going under the booms and reaching the marshland, which is a very, very sensitive environment, as well as the mangroves in Florida, where pretty much all forms of marine life will spend some time there to hide, to find food, protection from predators, and on and on and on.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, with the dispersants, isn’t there inevitably a tradeoff? I mean, isn’t the idea to keep more of the oil from coming to the coast?

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: I don’t believe that’s the answer.

I think the — the long-term damage and consequences is much higher than if we allowed them to come to the surface and start to skim it, picked it up, like we have done in other parts of the world. And playing — playing God is not acceptable. And that’s what we’re doing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Playing God, you think that’s what is going on?

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: Well, that’s what we’re doing by pouring these chemicals without even knowing what it does. It’s completely unacceptable.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, most of us, I imagine, think that, as the technology improves for reaching into the earth to extract the oil, that the technology for dealing with a problem would also advance. Well, maybe we just don’t think about it. And, yet, now we learn otherwise.

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: When we go in space, we have prevention regulations, and we have in case of an accident, we can do this, this and that. That’s not the case there.

And you go to different parts of the world, and they’re playing different games. And we’re finding out now that a lot of shortcuts have been taken. We need to stop that. We need to change. We need to have a system whereby everybody plays the same game, because we all get affected, no matter where you live.

JEFFREY BROWN: We have had correspondents down there. We have talked to people in the region. This is an important industry to many people. This is jobs. This is money for the state governments. This is — a lot of people depend on this, right?

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: And I’m not saying we need to stop. I have never said that.

I’m saying we need to do it the right way. And not only we need to do it the right way, but let’s — let’s assume that that particular industry is still doing fine. What about the people who — tens of thousands of people whose families now are out of work because they cannot go fishing anymore, because the hotels are getting empty, because the restaurants are getting empty, because the gift shops are getting empty, because its transportation systems are being affected by all of this?

I mean, I have met some of those fishing families. The stress in their faces is shocking. It’s not just one industry vs. another industry. It’s us as a family. We need to really face up to the realities. And we — I believe we can put a system which will take care of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the big questions now, of course, is how long will the impact of this be felt. You — you…

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: Decades.

JEFFREY BROWN: Decades.

You were there in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill.

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: I can go back there today and see how much some of the people are still affected by it.

I can give you a shovel and you can go and find oil in about a foot-and-a-half below the surface. It’s there still, and the people are still paying the price, psychologically, if not otherwise.

I’m talking about now something which is, who knows, 10, 20, 30 times what the Exxon Valdez has done, which is happening right in the Gulf right now, and still going on, and is going to spill out into the Caribbean, into the Gulf Stream, and it’s going to go all the way to Europe.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what do you hope might come out of this disaster?

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: My hope is that this is the kick in the butt that we needed to change, and to stop blah-blahing, and make really very strong decisions to create a system which will protect us, which will protect nature, because we depend on nature for our own survival and well-being.

We can do it. We need to do it. And that’s the exciting time today that we are looking forward to, and I believe we’re going to do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jean-Michel Cousteau, thanks for talking to us.

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: You’re very welcome.