When Jean-Michel Cousteau set out on his latest mission to record and reflect on the state of the world’s oceans, he knew the situation was dire for sea-dwelling creatures, especially for species atop the food chain such as beluga and killer whales. But never could the underwater explorer-son, you may know, to the legendary Jacques-or his team from Santa Barbara’s Ocean Futures Society have predicted just how immediate these same toxic threats are to the human species. Turning the lens on themselves, Cousteau’s team learned that they too are harboring dangerous levels of toxic chemicals in their own supposedly healthy bodies, particularly the substances used to fireproof our furniture, carpets, and clothing. That revelation prompted Ocean Futures to launch a statewide campaign this week to raise awareness about the danger of flame retardants and eventually eliminate these toxins from the everyday environment.
“It’s time to find ways to prevent such chemicals from entering the environment in the first place, to find alternatives, and to anticipate problems before they occur,” said Cousteau last Friday, a day after returning from Sacramento, where he took his message to legislators and the governor. “We cannot wait to find a cure for dangerous products after they are in the environment and in us.”
Of course, as with any of Cousteau’s cinematic undertakings, the path to discovering this bad news was lined with viewer-friendly goodness, such as surreal Arctic landscapes, rainbow-colored submarine settings, and plenty of informative, interesting characters from all sides of every issue. Though the focus remains steadily on sea life, the programs also feature ample footage of above-surface wildlife, engaging discussions of heritage and history, journalistic interviews of industry reps and activist scientists, and some genuine on-screen drama from inside the ongoing fight to save the whales.
The Belugas’ Song
The first episode in this next round of the Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures series-which airs in hi-def on PBS channels across the country next Wednesday, April 8, at 8 p.m.-is Sea Ghosts, an hour-long examination of the ethereal beluga whale, narrated by Anne Heche. Technically a member of the narwhal family, the curiously pale belugas are known as the “canaries of the sea” for speaking to each other via a continual cacophony of squeaky sonar. But as the film shows in traveling throughout Canada’s St. Lawrence River region and Alaska’s Cook Inlet, the species is quickly becoming the canaries in the coal mine of our environment. Even with protections from hunting-which nearly decimated the species in the 20th century-and being listed as an endangered species in the Cook Inlet, the populations are not rebounding as they should. In fact, the belugas are developing cancer and bacterial infections at alarming rates, both unlikely maladies for free-roaming beings and a reality most scientists chalk up to the toxins spilling into the marine environment from pollution on land.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. The episode reveals the still active hunts conducted by remote native villagers, who preserve and eat the whale flesh all year long and cling to the annual outing as the enduring remnant of their culture. We learn about the different beluga societies, from those that stick with their pods to those that gather in masses to eat and shed their skins along the banks of icy rivers. And, in between beluga cameos, the divers take us on a magical mystery tour beneath floating icebergs, where an odd ecosystem clings to life on the fringes of a warming planet.