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A World Without Whales?

The work of my grandfather, Jacques Cousteau, laid the groundwork for most of what we know about the marine world. Now, ocean acidification could spell the end of oceans as we know them.
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The water was the kind of blue usually reserved for color saturated photographs that hang on the walls of natural history museums; so deep and perfect that one would swear it was fantasy. All around us we could sense the mighty creatures even before they appeared out of the abyss. At first a faint shimmering of shadow alerted us to their presence until shadow gave way to form and first one, then two then eight graceful giants slowly emerged from the depths, their unmistakable form as familiar as any...humpback whales! Silently rising up from a deep dive, easily 50 feet long and over 40 tons each, their effortless ascent towards us is a sight not easily forgotten. While there is no way to know what they were thinking as they passed within a few yards away of my sister Alexandra and me, I like to think that they were as curious about us as we were about them. Regardless, coming face to face with a pod of humpback whales is a magnificent site that is at once both thrilling and humbling. I have traveled the world, from the frigid waters of the Arctic to the tropical paradise of the South Pacific and have been lucky to grow up witness to countless such wonders.

My grandfather was Jacques Cousteau, a pioneer of ocean exploration and the co-inventor of scuba diving. Back in the 1940's when he tested out his invention which allowed humans to swim freely in the ocean with a portable air source for the first time in history, very little of the ocean had been explored let alone captured on film. I remember growing up with his stories, about when he took his first breath underwater off the coast of southern France and how stunned he was by the raw beauty that surrounded him. However, I was also told of how devastated he was by what has happened to those very same reefs which have crumbled and virtually disappeared. The work of my grandfather and then my father, Philippe Cousteau Sr., over the following 50 years laid the groundwork for most of what we know about the marine world. There is an irony that while we have seen the greatest amount of exploration of our planet in the last 50 years, we have also seen the greatest destruction of it. And the oceans are no exception. Now, we face yet another challenge: ocean acidification.

Ocean acidification is caused by the ocean absorbing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the same carbon dioxide that is the primary cause of global warming, hence the nickname "the other carbon problem." As they do so, the oceans become more acidic with terrible consequences. Scientists have proven a direct link between the excessive carbon we have been spewing into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution and the rise in ocean acidity. Indeed, since that time, the pH of the surface of the ocean has dropped by 0.1 pH units (an approximate 30% increase in acidity in the ocean).

Who cares you might ask? Well, we all should because simply put, ocean acidification could spell the end of oceans as we know them. Since oceans are the life support system of our planet, regulating the climate, providing most of our oxygen and feeding over a billion people; what's bad for oceans is bad for us, very bad. Ocean acidification is often referred to as osteoporosis of the oceans because as acidity rises, shell building creatures such as lobster, oyster, crab, shrimp, and coral are unable to extract the calcium carbonate from the water that they need to build their shells and are thus unable to survive. But it isn't just the large creatures like lobster which are in peril. The tiny ones like pterapods and krill build shells too. These smaller creatures are the basis of most marine food chains, and as they disappear so too will all those animals that feed upon them, including the great baleen whales like the majestic humpback that so awed me in Hawaii.

I wrote earlier that the last 50 yrs have seen the greatest amount of damage to our environment. Well, ladies and gentlemen, it is the next 50 that will define the course of human history and decide our fate. If we are to build the just and sustainable world we all dream of we must act now. As the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said "we have no time for the tranquilizing drug of gradualism." The next 50, those are our years and we have the power to change course, to stop our abuse of this planet, to fight for clean energy, healthy food, and the protection and restoration of nature. Only then will we be able to pass on to our children the hope of a better world.

Special thanks to Elliott Norse, John Guinotte and Lance Morgan of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute (MCBI) for their support and research.

Learn more all month long as my sister Alexandra and I co-host the exciting programming event BLUE AUGUST on Planet Green Channel which includes a special world premiere of the documentary Acid Test, hosted by Sigourney Weaver who explores ocean acidification and what can be done about it at 10:30PM ET/PT on August 12. To learn more about BLUE AUGUST, visit

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