Santa Barbara’s Own Cousteau Works His Magic in D.C.

by Russ Spencer

On June 15, George W. Bush — the president with the worst
environmental record in the last 50 years — created by executive
order the largest marine preserve in the world. The new
Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument covers
140,000 square miles of ocean stretching from Kauai to Midway and
encompassing a pristine array of atolls, sea mounts, and small
islands, in an area larger than all of America’s national parks
combined. Jean-Michel Cousteau, who spends about a third of his
time in Santa Barbara, was the mastermind behind Bush’s shocking
display of environmental concern.

With his company, the Ocean Futures Society, Cousteau first went
to the area three years ago to lead a six-week expedition. The
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and others
had advocated the creation of a marine sanctuary there for years.
What Cousteau found blew his mind: 14 million seabirds filling the
skies, sweeping underwater landscapes of untouched coral,
endangered species such as monk seals and green sea turtles
thriving in obscurity, hundreds of endemic and yet-unidentified
species, and vast schools of spinner dolphins and other big fish
mostly absent now from the main Hawaiian Islands. Cousteau’s team
turned 83 hours of footage from the expedition into a two-hour
special for PBS titled Voyage to Kure. Through a series of
advantageous connections, Cousteau found himself at the White House
on the evening of April 5 — just a few hours before the program
would make its debut on PBS — to screen the movie for the
president, First Lady, and about 50 other administration figures.
After watching the movie, Bush stood up, thanked Cousteau, and
ordered his staff to “get it done,” “it” being the creation of this
unprecedented preserve. The idea that Bush would personally request
the showing of a PBS environmental special in his private screening
room boggles the mind. But that’s just the beginning of one of the
most fascinating and unlikely stories in the history of American
preservation. Cousteau, still reeling, sat down with me last week
in his Chapala Street office to discuss his involvement.

You’ve taken expeditions to some of the most
inhospitable, foreboding places on earth. My question is: How did
you manage to get into the Bush White House?
(Laughs.) You
know, people are people. As surprising as this is, when you
approach people in a non-aggressive way and explain the pros and
cons of something and how it relates to all of us, usually you get
attention. If it makes sense and the advantages overcome the
obstacles, good sense prevails.

Inasmuch as this particular administration in the last five
years has not done much for the environment, in this
particular case we got very much to the president’s good side and
he really was turned on. He wanted to make a mark for himself, to
take a very strong stand, and he did. I didn’t expect that much,
frankly. But I feel it’s gutsy.

In what capacity did you approach the White
It’s a long story. NOAA and the National Marine
Sanctuary Foundation were trying to get the area designated as a
sanctuary for five-and-a-half years. So, about four years ago, I
approached [the public broadcasting channel] KQED in San Francisco
and they expressed an interest in doing a film. We needed a lot for
permits to go there, but Ocean Futures Society took the financial
risk to launch an expedition.

We did some research and met a few people. U.S. Fish and
Wildlife [Service] offered to invite some of the scientists who had
been there, one who specialized in birds and one coral reef expert,
and we put the whole thing together. We left with some knowledge of
what to expect, but we went pretty much into unexplored territory.
What we found there was fascinating — from sea mounts to atolls to
very complex coral reefs to finding out there were a lot of pelagic
fish there (big fish that you don’t find in the Hawaiian Islands
because they’ve been fished out). We went to a place called Kure
Island, where there is a research center, and studied birds and
endangered species.

We came back after six weeks with 83 hours of video. I had to go
back to PBS and say it would be criminal not to do more than one
hour, so we agreed to do two. Then I met with the governor of
Hawai‘i [Linda Lingle] and I told her about my experience there.
She invited me to do a premiere at the governor’s mansion in
Honolulu, and she organized a fabulous event with hundreds of
people. From there, I met with Jim Connaughton — who is a diver and
also the chairman of the White House Council on Environmental
Quality — and urged him to talk to the president. Ultimately, we
got a call saying that the president would like to invite a bunch
of guests on April 5 to preview the film privately at the White

So it helped that you already had a friend in the Bush
administration, and that the governor of Hawai‘i is a
Yes, definitely. We got to the White House on
April 5 at 3 p.m., and at 5 p.m., they screened the show in the
White House screening room. We were told to pick up a drink and go
sit down in the front row with the president and Mrs. Bush. There
were people from the Department of the Interior, the Fish and
Wildlife Service, the Department of Commerce, NOAA, the Navy, Coast
Guard, and Governor Lingle. The president was very attentive
throughout the screening. I was sitting next to the First Lady, and
she asked me several questions. She was trying to place herself
geographically in the film. I would like to give her credit because
I think perhaps she was a strong power behind the scenes, telling
her husband that something had to be done.

The president stood up at the end of the show and said that he
really enjoyed it, he had no idea that was the situation, and he
congratulated me for the show. Then he gestured toward his staff
and said, “Get it done.” I was dumbfounded to see how quickly he
was ready to make a decision.

Just like that. Classic Bush to be so impulsive and
insistent. Did you have any interaction with him after
Well, we had dinner. I had the privilege of sitting
next to him, together with Dr. Sylvia Earle, who is on my board. We
spent that dinner trying to further convince the president of the
importance of our case, and he asked a lot of questions. One of the
things that really got to him is that there are 15 marine
sanctuaries in the U.S. — including the one we have here at Channel
Islands — and fishing is outlawed in very few of them. The fact
that you can fish in sanctuaries just blew his mind. He’s a
fisherman, his father was a sport fisherman, and I think he was
convinced that in sanctuaries, you don’t fish. We had a very nice,
pleasant dinner and answered his questions. As he was going to
depart, he turned to us and said, quite forcefully, “No

Did you know right away that he was going to make it a
monument instead of a preserve? That’s even more
Well, I got another call three months later
saying the president wanted to make an announcement on June 15, and
they would like me to be there. So I returned to D.C., and spoke to
Jim Connaughton again; he was the one who told me the president
wanted to make it a national monument, as opposed to a marine
sanctuary. He explained that making it a sanctuary would require an
extensive process wherein you create a plan, open it to public
comment for 60 days, and then give it to Congress; they take a
position whenever they decide to put it on the agenda. The process
can last a year or two, and we had to tell that to the president.
The president said, “No, I want to make it happen now. There must
be a way.” One of his legal advisors told him, “You can make it a
national monument if you want; you can do that with an executive
order.” Bush said, “That’s what I want to do.”

The lawyer asked, “Well, how big should we make it?” The
president said, “How big is the Great Barrier Reef?” When they told
him it was 128,000 square miles, the president said, “Let’s make it
140,000 square miles.” The next day, it was declared a national
monument. We went to the White House at 2 p.m. and got checked and
had our pictures taken. I was honored to be in the room prior to
the announcement with the president, Mrs. Bush, the secretary of
the Interior, the secretary of Commerce, and the governor of
Hawai‘i. I gave the president a picture of my dad that was taken in
the Oval Office with his father [George H. W. Bush] when he was
president. He took it and said, “Two fathers can be very proud of
their two sons.” It was just so amazing.

So there you are at the White House for the second time
in three months, standing next to the president with the worst
environmental record in recent history. It must have seemed so
We still haven’t recovered from this incredible
decision. In the history books, George W. Bush will be referred to
as the president who made the largest protected piece of ocean on
the planet. It’s just shocking — but in a good way for once.

What was it about your film that appealed to
Well, the film swayed him, there’s no question. It’s
a cliché to say, but a picture is worth a thousand words. I think
he saw that part of the planet that he didn’t know about. He told
me during dinner, “You know, I am a man of the desert.” But we made
him discover a little jewel of the planet that he didn’t know

Now that you have the president’s ear, can you please
make him a film about global warming or the way wild bison are
still mistreated at Yellowstone?
Well, I’ve heard that
several times now. I don’t know at this point. I want to make a
film about the Amazon River. We did seven hours on the Amazon 25
years ago, with my dad. It’s time to do an update, which would be
only two hours, but show what is happening in the Amazon Basin and
its impact on the Atlantic, Caribbean, Gulf Stream, and outward
almost to the U.K. And then the next year, I want to do a show on
the Mississippi River, which we also did 25 years ago. A lot of the
junk we find on the islands comes from us on the mainland. When
someone in Topeka, Kansas, throws a cigarette lighter in the river,
that’s going to end up in the ocean.

In any case, you’re the only environmentalist who has
even come close to making anything happen with our present
administration. What advice would you give the rest of us?

I don’t pretend to have a secret solution. But the method of
confrontation has to be left behind. That was the ’60s and ’70s. We
can’t do that anymore. That was okay then, but not now. In terms of
dealing with decision-makers — whether industry or government — we
have to establish dialogue; we have to behave as human beings
talking to other human beings. Those people have a family, they
have children, they have obligations, they are the same as you and
I. If you approach them in a non-confrontational way, chances are
that you will have some success. And if your arguments are
convincing enough, it’s going to work. You might not get exactly
what you want, but at least you will be heard.

I have always operated that way, and that’s the difference
between my dad and me, and Ocean Futures and the ones who break the
law and damage equipment and so on. They will never be listened to.
They will never sit down with the president. Those who are into
patience and solutions will win. That’s my only recommendation, and
I say this in a very humble way.

4·1·1 PBS is now airing Jean-Michel Cousteau’s
Sharks at Risk and The Gray Whale Obstacle
. Go to for show times.


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.