Philippe Cousteau on Gulf oil spill

Jun 08, 2010

Philippe Cousteau, CEO of EarthEcho International, a nonprofit focusing on youth engagement and environmental education, was online Tuesday, June 8, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss relief efforts in the gulf, the environmental impact on the region and efforts to save wildlife.

He just returned from Grand Isle where he and a team from the Ocean Conservancy surveyed the damage to the marshes and mangroves and talked to the people who are most directly affected by the disaster. He also traveled to Tampa, Fla., for a local beach cleanup. He returns to the Gulf later this week. This is his third trip to the area since the Deep Horizon explosion.

Thank you all for joining me today, I look forward to answering your questions.  This is a terrible tragedy and I have been to the Gulf three times exploring the issue both above and below the water and I hope I can provide some insight into the situation.


Phillipe, What are the chances of the oil slick moving around Florida to the Atlantic Coast?

At this point we are trying to be optimistic that this will not happen and the oil will stay in the Gulf, unfortunately we don't know for sure as this kind of a disaster has never happened on this scale in the Gulf before.

I recall that your grandfather, Jacques Cousteau, once filmed and compared parts of the Mediterranean twenty years apart, just to demonstrate the degradation to the environment caused by mankind. Do you have any plans for a long-term evaluation of the Gulf of Mexico? Which marine species are most at risk at the moment? Also, what is it like to be a member of such a prominent family? It probably opens a lot of doors, but does it ever get annoying?

I have done some comparative analysis of the Florida Keys but not of the Gulf as of yet.  Through my work with the Ocean Conservancy we are on the ground assessing the damage as we speak and will be conducting analysis for years to come. 

As for being a part of the family it is an honor.  It opens a lot of doors but they are quick to slam in your face if you do not have something to contribute.

Thanks for your chat: I live near the beach in Floria. Would you elaborate on the potential health dangers of the 800,000 gallons BP has sprayed on the ocean. I fear we may have another love canal in a few years. Has this amount ever been used before on the ocean so near a large population? Thanks.

We have applied over 900,000 gallons of Corexit chemical dispersant in the past month.  We don't know the longterm effects of this toxic chemical because we have never applied it in such quantities...this is an uncontrolled experiment and that scares many of us.

What can young people do in their own neighborhoods to help the environment? What suggestions may we give to energetic young people who can't yet travel far but still wish to help?

Unfortunately, it is a very sad day for the oceans with the tragedy that is happening in the gulf. Thank you for all of the reporting that you have been doing from the areas affected by the oil spill, especially the dive into the "toxic soup." It has been both fascinating and extremely disturbing. Two questions: 1) What can and should we all do to commemorate World Ocean Day today? 2) What animals do you think will be most harmed by the oil and dispersants and which do you think will be most resilient?

It is World Oceans Day and non of us are in much of a celebratory mood.  This is an unprecedented tragedy and no spill has ever happened in such deep water so we don't know what all the longterm impacts on the health of the Gulf will be both at the surface and at the bottom. I think we should all commemorate WOD with a commitment to use less fossil fuels, support politicians who are green (visit for info on that).  The most at risk animals are the birds, fish and shrimp that nest and breed along the coast and use the wetlands as nurseries.  40% o the wetlands in the lower 48 states exist along the coast of Louisiana and they are in terrible jeopardy...this is very very serious to say the least.

Just curious, didn't you go to high school in Rhode Island? If you were curious David Segal, state Representative and candidate for Rhode Island's 1st congressional district, has successfully led the fight to restore funding to Rhode Island's Renewable Energy Fund (mostly focused on wind). I was curious if you had any thoughts about wind power and does it have any effect that we don't know about when they place so close to the shoreline? Also, do you have any plans on visiting Rhode Island anytime soon? 

I did go to high school in RI and I am glad to hear that they are embracing wind.  The effects of wind energy off the coast are negligible compared to the effects of oil, gas and coal on the health of not only the environment but of humans...remember asthma rates are sky high, largely due to outdoor air pollution and burning fossil fuels...that is yet another price that often isn't factored in.

Are you involved in the filming of Disney's Oceans? That is the theatrical feature, not the BBC series.

I was not involved in the filming but I have been involved in the promotion and the take action campaign.

I saw an episode Oceans, a BBC Knowledge documentary series, with you in it. It was about the Indian Ocean. Can you please tell me about your role in the series/expedition? What was the most memorable experience during the expedition/filming the series?

I was a co-host bringing the environmental voice to the show. The series has been modified for a US audience, less fluff and more information, and will air on Planet Green Network this August as part of Blue August a whole month of programming dedicated to the ocean.  The most exciting part of the trip was visiting the arctic for several weeks.

I saw a picture recently of a field of oil rigs in some body of water, each one having a tail of discolored water arching away from them. The person who posted the picture claimed it was regular oil leakage from each platform, though it's possible the streams were just the way the water was flowing around the platforms, or the picture could have even been photoshopped. Also, the group claims that offshore oil drilling causes "acidfication" of the ocean. How much truth is there to these kind of claims? Is there any way to have a balance of oil drilling and less risk to the oceans, if the claims are true?

Oil platforms do leak oil all the time, it is just not reported because the volume is "only" a few hundred or thousands of barrels.  Oceana is correct that oil drilling causes acidification...sort of. Oil drilling itself does not cause acidification, the burning of fossil fuels is what causes acidification.  The key is to stop using oil and develop renewable energy, will it happen tomorrow? No...but are we doing enough? No...

How involved will EarthEco be in rehabilitating the affected sealife? Do you have any specific ideas to tackle this challenge?

EarthEcho is dedicated to education, there are many orgs working on rehab and they are coordinated by BP and the coast guard.  Our goal is to educate the next generation and give them to knowledge and tools through our to take action and change the world, so that this does not happen again.

Hi Philippe, my 13-year-old daughter and I are big fans of you and your work. We live in Alberta, Canada and are getting so frustrated at the low interest and understanding people have here on this disaster. They mostly tell us, that it does not effect us here, because we are too far away! My daughter will join a Marine Biology Camp in San Diego this summer, since this is her dream job. She is trying very hard to make her pals at school to understand what an inpact this has on all of us. Any encouraging words for her?

She sounds like a remarkable young lady, good for her. I would tell her that anything is possible, not all people will agree with us but that is no reason to give up.  I travel the country and make presentations to over 100,000 youth each year.  What I tell them is that they are not only the leaders of tomorrow, but the leaders of today and that they have incredible power to change the world right now.  Visit to learn more.

How is the death toll on microorganisms being determined? Counting dead birds, mammals, and fish on shore and floating on the water/oil is easy. How can one determine the effect on dinoflagellates, diatoms, invertebrate larvae, etc? If it is too small to see, how can their deaths be studied?

Counting the large animals is harder than you think as once they die they don't last very long in the environment.  In fact, for every bird found dead we assume at least 10 others died.  As for the tiny creatures, the only way to test that is through comparative analysis.  Essentially testing the population of these creatures in water that is unaffected against water that is affected.

Philippe (also my son's name who is a fan of yours from your "Curious George" segment!), what can those of us who do not live along the gulf do? I've written my members of Congress about halting and even banning drilling so close to shore, but what else can we do?

Holding elected officials accountable is critical, but also vote with your dollars, eat less meat, consume less plastic and other products. Also, depending on where you live, organize a beach cleanup, or launch a recycling campaign.  Donate even a few dollars to a charity working on these issues.  Visit as over the next few days we will be updating with a lot of info.


Mr. Cousteau, thank you for hosting this chat. I live on the gulf coast of southern Florida and my spouse works for NWF. Even with those two connections, I feel like we're just standing around waiting for a disaster, like a slow moving hurricane. I'm set to take a couple of classes (hazmat, wildlife handling) but what more can we do? Any thoughts?

I'm afraid that it is frustrating for all of us.  It is a waiting game to a certain point and we can only do so much.  At this point it sounds like you are doing it, get angry and demand we get over the false lie that we cannot survive without oil...if we put our minds to it I think it is insulting to think this great country cannot find a solution quickley.

The key is to stop using oil and develop renewable energy, will it happen tomorrow? No...but are we doing enough? No...  Are there any countries that the U.S. should be looking towards as case studies for successful conversions from fossil fuels to alternative energy use?

Yes, Europe has been pioneering offshore wind for decades, we finally authorized our first park this year...we are way behind.  China also has stricter fuel efficiency standards than we do and have managed to ban single use plastic bags (a petroleum product). Lot's we can learn from others

Ever notice how windy city streets are? All that air forced into a tight space just increases its velocity. Why has no one started to capture this wind to generate energy?

I think a big part is that politicians have turned this into a political issue...think Drill Baby Drill.  Right or left, democrat or republican, we all owe ourselves and our children a healthy world. We have been hoodwinked by this argument for too long...

The slick is moving toward the coastal wetlands and delta land from the ocean. Understanding we have never had this type of situation before, do you have any idea how deep this may penetrate into those areas and what sort of impact that might have on not only the local wildlife but also on migratory wildlife like the waterfowl that use those areas for feeding?

This is of huge concern...500 million migratory birds fly through that area each year and are in serious danger.  The oil can only penetrate a few miles under normal circumstances, the fear is that hurricane season is upon us and with storm surge form a major hurricane, we could see the oil lifted up and covering much further inland...there is no silver lining here.

Thank you for your time here....I have read some news/blog items that are suggesting that in fact a 2nd hole has opened up at the bottom of the Gulf some miles away from the Deepwater Horizon location. That with an estimated natural pressure inside the deposit of some 12000 psi, the two breaches are blowing a quantity of oil that is closer to 100,000 barrels a day, and the extent of the subsurface oil mass is much larger than we know of for sure. The research ship Thomas Jefferson is supposed to be on the scene trying to assess the real situation. Have you heard anything about this and do you lend any credence to these reports? If the torrent of oil is closer to 100,000 barrels and cannot be capped for months then we are looking at a much more massive disaster than was previously thought?

This situation is changing all the time and we have not heard any confirmed reports of a second well leak.  However, we do know that this is already unprecedented and that the amount of flow is still up in the air and we may never know.  The best estimates are around 20,000 barrels a day with a 1/3 reduction thanks to the top hat procedure going on now but that is rough and could be (and probably is) quite a bit higher.

Can we save the animals that is affected by the oil spill?

We can do our best, but there is only so much that can be done, first we have to find them in time and that is hard enough.  Over half a million birds died thanks to Exxon Valdez, and that was only 11 million gallons...this is going to be a lot worse.

Is it possible to recover all or most of the oil that has already spewed into the water? Otherwise, what happens to it? Thank you for your good work.

The application of (outdated) technology that we have such as skimming and booms only captures about 20% of the oil...most of the rest will never be recovered.

Can our oceans with their microorganisms cleanse themselves of this oil? How long do you think it will take for the natural ocean eco-system to regenerate its self ? if at all?

The Gulf was already a seriously impacted system: over fishing, agricultural runoff etc had been killing the Gulf for a long time.  If it ever recovers fully it will not be for a long time into the future.

Dear Mr. Philippe, Do you think it will be safe to scuba dive off Bon Aire, Carribean Islands this December?

I love Bonaire, no oil from this spill will reach Bonaire, it is perfectly safe. Have a fabulous time.

Hello Philippe! Do we have other friendy alternatives to the oil dispersants, such as this: Could Oyster Mushrooms Help Clean the Gulf?, and what are your thoughts on this? Worth a try or waste of precious time?

There are a lot of solutions flying around, the challenge is the volume, we are talking over 50 million gallons already...that is what makes it so hard.

Phillipe, as residents of Mobile, we have thoroughly enjoyed being able to take our children to the beautiful Gulf Coast beaches quite frequently. In light of the oil and the dispersants, it looks like we won't be going again (try explaining to two toddlers why they can't get in the water!). My question: are bays safe if the oil hasn't come in, or should we still worry about dispersants being present? Thanks.

If there is no oil the water is probably safe. Dispersants are applied only where there is oil.  If you live in Mobile I am sure the Mobile Baykeepers has the latest info on your area.  They are a great group.

Is it true that you're going to be a guest on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report?

I haven't hear about that yet.

There is no doubt that we have a disaster on our hands. It has been estimated that it can go on for a year,. Has anyone talked about the long-term benefits? Petroleum sinks to the bottom once it is water saturated and it is a nutrient. In a number of years the algae and other veggies form and feed the fish. The area blossoms and yields are higher they have ever been. NOTE Look at the Alaska spill for confirmation..

I am sorry but this is plain wrong...oil is toxic and there is no indication in Alaska that the spill there has done anything but devastate the environment.

Last I heard they have capped the spill to capture only 1/3  of the oil. My question is, do you know if there is way for them to stop the spill completely and if so, why haven't they done it already? I'm rather confused as to why this is getting so out of hand.

The only way to stop all the oil is to drill a relief well where they intercept the existing pipe and pump it full of cement. The reason they have not done so is that they have to drill through 13,000 feet of rock and that takes a long time, they hope to have the relief well drilled by August of Sept so I fear that this will go on for some time.

Gimmick, or real green potential? I am curious, because I hear that the battery manufacturing/maintenance/disposal issues greatly diminish the "green" capabilities of current hybrids. I live in a place where using public transport is not an alternative, but I would like to be as climate-friendly as possible.

Hybrid cars like the Prius are a bridge technology to get people used to the idea of electric, batteries are toxic but can be reused.  The key is investing in battery technology.

Thank you all for your interest, I have to go but encourage all of you to continue to learn and fight to get off fossil fuels and build the sustainable future we all deserve.

In This Chat
Philippe Cousteau
Philippe is CEO of EarthEcho International, a nonprofit focusing on youth engagement and environmental education.
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