NOTE: This is a retrieved story from Examiner, which has shut down suddenly.
On June 9, 2016, the Wildlife Conservation Examiner had the great privilege of interviewing Philippe Cousteau Jr. (grandson of famed marine explorer and documentary film maker Jacques-Yves Cousteau) and his wife Ashlan, about their recent trip to the Marshall Islands and the Bikini Atoll – site of experimental nuclear bomb testing by the US government during the cold war. The Cousteaus were there to explore the extent of the damage, and see if the shattered marine ecosystem is managing to recover. The result of that visit is ‘Nuclear Sharks’, their upcoming Shark Week special airing June 30, 2016 on Discovery Channel.
Needless to say, the opportunity to talk with such a famous pair of activists was thrilling.
WCE: I’m so happy to meet you both. I’m especially excited because, having watched a special on the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster*, we have at least one instance where it seems nature is rebounding with gusto after a nuclear accident. A big difference however is that, unlike at Chernobyl, which experienced a radiation leak, there had been actual detonations at your research location, with the resulting physical damage on top of radioactive fallout. I would think those factors would effect the marine ecosystem in very different, more catastrophic ways.
So with all this as background, please tell us what you found on your trip,
Ashlan: Last September, we went out to the Marshall Islands, to the Bikini Atoll specifically, to see how nature has rebounded. As you mentioned, that’s where the US conducted many detonations during the Cold War. We detonated 62 nuclear bombs there, and we vaporized entire islands, turned them into glass. Everything within miles, anything close, was just vaporized. Everything else surrounding the islands, within miles suffered from radiation poisoning, which included some of the people who lived there.
We’d heard stories, though, that there were an amazing number of sharks that had come back to the Bikini Atoll. The interesting thing about these sharks, the gray reef sharks in particular, is that they don’t migrate. So we were wondering, if these were non-migrating sharks, how would they have come back to the islands? So, for three weeks, a group of us, including a marine biologist, went down there, and we tagged 17 sharks during our visit. Over the next six months we were able to see how the sharks traveled. It was fascinating to see that, indeed, these sharks do travel. That, and just diving in those waters, being able to see that the coral and the fish, and just everything we saw was doing great! The biomass in that area has completely come back. And it was thriving. “
WCE: Really! The coral reefs have come back?
Ashlan: Well, there are no people there now, because the islands are so radioactive. Without the people, everything came back, and everything is healthy.
WCE: That’s amazing. I would have thought, with the impacts causing actual physical damage to the reefs – I mean, at Chernobyl, where the ecosystem is also thriving now, there was a radiation leak, but no explosions. I would think with an actual bomb, it would have been a much harder recovery.
Philippe: – Well, the craters themselves are still just sandy white craters. There are a few outcroppings of coral that are starting to come back in those, but you know different species of coral grows at different rates. So the faster growing branching corals were starting to come back in the craters themselves, and within a few thousand yards of the craters it was really coming back.
WCE: We know ocean acidification is destroying the Great Barrier Reef. Is that effecting where you were? With all the recovery there, did you see those effects there too?
Ashlan and Philippe: Yeah –
Ashlan: We did see some coral beaching while we were there – We were both very sad about that. But for the most part, I would say the coral was very healthy. I think that, since it’s in the middle of nowhere, carbon emissions haven’t really gotten to that part of the world yet.
Philippe: Well, it’s always an issue of remoteness. Remoteness, I believe, is key, because, what’s happened, as scientists have realized, the best way for us to maintain resilience in any wild ecosystem in the face of climate change, ocean acidification etc., is for it to be as healthy as possible in the first place. And that’s really what Bikini’s all about. It’s been untouched 50 or 70 years, so the system itself is resilient because it’s healthy.
Take, for example, the human body. It’s possible, at least with some cancers now, you can survive. But if you then also get tuberculosis, and then catch pneumonia, plus some sort of an infection, it’s probably not going to work out well for you because you’re probably not going to survive that many different diseases at the same time. So, in relation to the oceans, when you have a system that is already very healthy, and has been essentially been left to its own devices (for instance, there’s no fishing, local pollution, coastal mining or other local, human-caused impacts that are such a problem all over the world, including many parts of the Great Barrier Reef), you will have a system that is healthier, more resilient and able to withstand climate change, warming oceans, ocean acidification, etc. So I think what Bikini teaches us is that (1) nature has an incredible ability to bounce back, and (2), that if nature is given an opportunity, it can be resilient in the face of some of these larger, global problems which can be mitigated on a local level.
For instance, what we can stop immediately is the pollution, and over-fishing. We can stop those things relatively easily. Can we stop warming oceans? No. Even if we stopped all carbon emissions today, the climate would continue to warm for a few decades due to the delayed reaction. So there’s nothing we can do immediately to stop the impact of ocean acidification or climate change. What we can do, however, is make those local systems as healthy and resilient as possible so that they are more likely to survive those bigger problems.
WCE: Please tell us more about the sharks! Can you pick out one or two real stand-out experiences from your time with the Bikini Atoll sharks?
Ashlan: When the boat first pulled up to this area called Shark Pass, right off the Bikini Atoll, as soon as the boat stopped and turned off it’s engine, we turned around and there were 25 gray reef sharks at the back of the boat, sniffing about. And it was so cool! I’ve never seen sharks do anything like that. When we asked the dive-master on board, who knew the area really well, he said, ‘you know, we don’t exactly know why they do this but we think it’s because they’re bored, and there’s never any boats or people here. So they’re just really curious’.
WCE: Yeah, sharks are smarter than most people think, aren’t they?
Ashlan: Yeah! It was so interesting to think that, here we are, in this 150 foot re-purposed shrimp trawler, and as soon we got to the area, the sharks are like ‘hey what’s that? Let’s go check it out’. And there they were. They did not leave us the entire time we were there. I called them the Welcoming Committee.
Ashlan: What I think had the biggest impact on me was the sheer number of sharks and marine life. The entire ecosystem is beautiful and healthy, even after 62 nuclear bomb explosions.
WCE: Do you have any stories of actually being in the water with the sharks?
Philippe: They call this area Shark Pass for a reason. As soon as you jump into the water, there would be dozens and dozens of sharks just swirling in the water.
Ashlan: And by that we mean, 70 – 80 sharks –
WCE: Oh, wow –
Philippe: It was spectacular. I travel all over the world and this is one of those places that just takes your breath away. And the amount of sharks! What’s wondrous about it is that, while it’s important to be respectful of them, you don’t find them trying to rush over and ‘get yah’. It was really just a beautiful experience, being in the water with these sharks, who were curious at times, but not necessarily aggressive towards us. You had to be careful, and respectful of them, though, that was clear. Being on a beautiful reef, surrounded by a hundred sharks swirling around, is quite an experience.
WCE: Wow, I wish I’d been able to experience that. I might have been a little scared, though!
Ashlan: (chuckles) I was actually more scared of the giant tunas and groupers out there. They’re almost as big as Philippe and I, and we’re 6 feet tall. Those are some HUGE fish out there!
WCE: (laughter) I know a little, maybe, but I certainly don’t understand all the nuances of shark behavior when it comes to diving with them safely. But I have absolutely no clue about how to dive safely with giant Tuna!
(Laughter from all)
Ashlan: That was our thought, too. It was just so nice to be able to see fish that were actually that size, because that’s the size they’re supposed to be. That’s what you’d have if you don’t over-fish them. So it was really fun to see a giant shadow coming out of the darkness at you, coming into focus, and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a grouper!’
WCE: It sounds like one of the only places left on Earth where you can see what it was like when the Earth was still wild, fresh, grand and unspoiled. Before man interfered with everything. Which is ironic, isn’t it, when you remember the nuclear detonations . . .
Ashlan: It’s true. It’s a sad realization but at least we have a few of those places left.
WCE: And that should inspire people to really want to preserve them. Hopefully we can pave a path for more open spaces to be, now and in the future.
WCE: Is there a take-away for my readers, who always ask, ‘What can I do?’
Philippe: The take-away is really that conservation works. Protecting areas and leaving them alone, works. Reducing local impacts from waste-water, from plastic, from pollution –works.
In the face of these big global problems, the key is acting locally. We need to make sure that local environmental systems are as healthy as possible. And that means it matters who you vote for, it matters what you buy, and it matters what you throw in the trash. All of that matters, almost more than ever, because we don’t have the latitude to abuse these systems on a local level. I think it really stresses the point of being informed, and making choices that are consistent with sustainability in our lives. What do we value? Do we value having big cars, big houses and all this other stuff ?
Or do we value systems that let us breathe healthy air and eat nourishing food? That’s the question we have to ask ourselves. Hopefully the answer is we’re going to value the latter, not the former. Then we need to make choices that are consistent with those values, including who we vote for. With the presidential election coming up, congressional elections, local, federal, state, it’s very important to be calling out these politicians that are willing to sell our environment, and thus our health, up the creek.
WCE: Exactly –
Philippe: And not believe the lies that protecting the environment kills jobs, and costs money – quite the opposite. There are vested interests that will feed us those lines, in order to maintain their positions, and their wealth. And we can’t let ourselves be fooled by them.
WCE: Right. I’ve heard people say, for instance, ‘yeah I’m a staunch wolf advocate, but we’ve got to get our party straightened out first, then we can help the wolves’ – And I tell them, ‘um, no, the ecosystem, the wolves (or sage grouse, or vaquitas) can’t wait until we figure out our politics. They don’t have four or eight years to wait on us while we get our act together politically and their situation keeps getting worse’.
Ashlan: Yes. It’s a shame that the environment is seen as part of one party, because at the end of the day, we all need a healthy environment. Whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, or an independent. We should all be voting for the environment.
WCE: Thank you so much to both of you for your continuing good work on behalf of the planet.
After the interview, there was much to mull over. With all the bad environmental news, the unprecedented wave of extinctions and escalating insults to our living biosphere, knowing that nature has an innate and enthusiastic resilience, if given the right conditions, is more than heartening; It is our only hope — one we need to embrace and enable with every decision we make going forward. We need to take heed.
Marshall Islands sharks. Chernobyl wolves. Yes, there’s a common theme here – When people are removed from the equation, nature rebounds with exuberance. It is our somber and critical responsibility to lighten our impact on our living planet, now and in the future, and live a more mindful life, for as far ahead as we can see.
The Cousteau’s ‘Nuclear Sharks’, special premiers June 30, 2016 during Shark Week on Discovery Channel.
During a break in our interview, Philippe shared a campaign he and Ashlan are spearheading for takepart, to gain protected status for unique and critical marine habitat along the coast of New York. Please learn more and get involved by followingthis link.
Learn about Philippe’s award-winning program for children, Xploration Awesome Planet, found on FOX stations across the country. You can also learn about his newest book for children on saving sea turtles, Follow the Moon Home.
* The WCE would be remiss by not sharing the inspiring story of wilderness resurgence in Chernobyl, Russia, the infamous site where entire villages and farms had to be permanently evacuated due to core meltdown and radioactive fallout from their failed reactor nuclear station. While not to downplay the serious effects of radiation poisoning, the magical results point to an innate factor in resplendently biodiverse ecosystem recovery that should give us all pause: It can happen as long as we allow it, and the best way to allow it is by staying out of the way.
Because the documentary link on PBS is no longer active, you can watch a YouTube version of Radioactive Wolves, here. Please ignore the sensationalist added photo and title – Video content is the same as the original documentary.