Text by Jessica Ritz
Images by Vivian Kim
“To really care about something and protect it, you have to understand it,” says Ashlan Cousteau. “That’s what we try to do—from television to the documentaries to the books—is make the ocean more accessible and show people how amazing it is.”
Ashland and her husband, Philippe Cousteau, share the ocean and their taste for adventure with the public via media including television shows such as Caribbean Pirate Treasure, which they co-host on the Travel Channel, and Xploration Awesome Planet, hosted by Philippe and airing on FOX. They also co-authored Oceans for Dummies, which hit shelves February 2021, and in fall 2020, Harper Collins published The Endangereds, the first of a middle-grade fictional series Philippe co-wrote about four animals who set out to save endangered species from the effects of climate change.
Philippe was profoundly influenced by his grandfather and oceanography icon Jacques Cousteau, as well as by an expedition with pioneering marine biologist Eugenie Clark he joined when he was a teenager. “She invited me to join her for two weeks filming and researching in Papua New Guinea on a research vessel,” he recalls. “It was about as remote as you can get.”
In 2005, Philippe and his sister, Alexandra, founded the nonprofit EarthEcho International, which partners with schools and on-the-ground community groups to develop classroom education curricula and hands-on outdoor experiences. “We’re always looking at ways to merge the media work we do with education in the classrooms and really get young people engaged and fired up about these issues,” says Philippe. He points out that even in Los Angeles, “there are kids who have never been to the beach.”
Ashlan’s accomplishments as an entertainment journalist and documentary producer—along with her passion for the environment and travel—merge seamlessly with Philippe’s calling. The two met in L.A. in 2010 after a conference which Philippe presented at and Ashlan attended, both noticing each other in the crowd. Though he was based in Washington D.C. at the time, “I’m a California boy at heart,” he says. Born in Santa Monica, he lived his first few years in the area before moving to Paris and around the East Coast. Eventually, he relocated to L.A. to join Ashlan, who grew up in North Carolina.
Philippe is also at home in France and typically spends much of the year on the road, and Ashlan’s work has brought her to all seven continents. But being based in Southern California, with its diverse climate and population and its own pressing environmental issues, helps keep Philippe and Ashlan rooted in their mission. They find pathways to empower communities with the tools to advance environmental stewardship, whether it’s along the banks of the Los Angeles River or by a body of water in another hemisphere. Ashlan describes the satisfaction of leading a group of middle schoolers on a water-quality testing mission to the L.A. River, during which they saw a live fish jump out of “the middle of a river that runs through this big, busy city. The kids thought it was the coolest thing they had ever seen!”
“Our work always focuses on the connectivity of it all.”Ashlan Cousteau
In August 2020, EarthEcho International hosted a digital conference that attracted more than 400 youth leaders from 33 countries and supported educational initiatives in the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Almost 2 million participants in more than 140 countries have joined the EarthEcho Water Challenge to monitor water quality. These programs have impacted locales ranging from the lakes of Nagpur, India, to the famed cenotes of the Yucatan in Mexico.
The Cousteaus are inspired by youth activists they’ve met, such as an 8-year-old girl in Plymouth, England, who, upon noticing litter in her coastal town’s estuary from an annual water balloon fight, successfully campaigned to cancel the event and recruited local businesses to ban single-use plastics. “When we think about these amazing kids and all the work they’re doing, that helps us sleep at night,” Ashlan says.
While the Cousteau name is most closely associated with the ocean, the couple is committed to protecting all elements of the natural world, because everything leads to the ocean and vice versa. “Our work always focuses on the connectivity of it all,” Ashlan says.