Today may be Earth Day, but here at Fathom we believe we should protect our big, beautiful planet and its oceans every day. Which is exactly what the Cousteau family has been doing for decades through their deep-sea ocean exploration and conservation efforts. Travel writer Paul Jebara dove into the sea with Jean-Michel Cousteau to learn about his Ambassadors of the Environment program, which is teaching future generations to protect our the seas.
DORADO BEACH, Puerto Rico — Looking back, I suppose I was a bit starstruck meeting Jean-Michel Cousteau for the first time on Grand Cayman. He may not have been the star of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, the landmark show whose reruns inspired my fascination with marine biology — that was his father. But Jean-Michel is just as much a pioneer, having produced many award-winning films of his own deep sea expeditions and encouraged President George. W. Bush to create the Papahānaumokuākea Marine Monument in Hawaii, which was further expanded by President Obama. So shaking hands with this protector of the oceans, to me, certainly made a splash.
According to Monsieur Cousteau, everyone deserves a healthy planet anchored by a thriving ocean. Devoting his career to ocean conservation was a no-brainer, a commitment made soon after being “thrown into the ocean” at the age of seven by his father. Jean-Michel made it his mission to expose what’s under the surface to those who live above it because, he declares, “people care about what they love.” By way of his Ocean Futures Society, Cousteau established Ambassadors of the Environment program, a partnership with select Ritz-Carlton hotels that takes vacationers out of their hotel rooms and into the natural realm.
The program co-founded by fellow environmentalist Dr. Richard Murphy is currently operating at four Ritz-Carlton properties: Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands, Dorado Beach in Puerto Rico, Bacara in Santa Barbara, California, and Kapalua on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Each is surrounded by coral-rich waters, ripe for introducing guests to the vibrant ecology beneath the waves.
“Getting our participants to fall in love with the natural world is our top priority,” says Cousteau, “especially the little ones.” The majority of ambassadors' programming is geared towards the adolescent demographic, and that’s on purpose. Like learning a new language, Cousteau’s team contends that wiring brains to be focus on conservation is most effective at a young age. But that doesn’t mean that Ambassadors of the Environment is only for kids. Parents often find ways to participate. And the whole family returns home with a heightened perspective on what it means to protect the environment and native cultures.
At Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, the program is headquartered within a traditional Cayman cottage dubbed the Ambassadors Heritage House. As a base for all their experiences, the house also serves as an educational center for learning about organic cooking and sustainable living. From there, guests can embark to excursions, such as reef-snorkeling, mangrove-kayaking, and glass-bottom boat expeditions. The ambassadors, many of whom are budding marine biologists, are impressively knowledgeable and contagiously enthusiastic about their roles. And that trickles down to the participants who can hold a giant starfish, swim with stingrays, and spot tropical birds.
As I write this piece at Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve with Ambassadors of the Environment onsite, it was admittedly difficult to pry myself from the resort’s sumptuous grounds to partake in an ambassadors program. But it was so worth it. Dorado Beach is the second property to host Cousteau’s program, having reopened in October 2018 after extensive restoration efforts after Hurricane Maria. The fragile coastal environment is now ready to be explored again, its natural wonders found both on land and sea. The ambassadors can take you to snorkel in nearby coral reefs, to birdwatch in the wetlands, and to discover traditional Taino culture at an archaeological site right on property. Also featured is the historic Rockefeller Trail, originally conceived by Laurance Rockefeller in the 1950s as a walkable sanctuary that winds through the resort’s property and beyond.
While I only had the chance to visit Ritz-Carlton properties on the Caribbean, I trust that Cousteau’s ambassadors bring the glory of the Pacific to life in the most captivating ways at Kapalua and Bacara. If Jean-Michel Cousteau was able to convince presidents that our oceans require protection, his ambassadors of the Environment are well trained to do the same with Ritz-Carlton guests, one family at a time.