March 13th, 2012
10:21 AM ET

Why exploring the ocean is mankind's next giant leap

Editor's Note: Philippe Cousteau, a special correspondent for CNN,  continues the legacy of his ocean-exploring family -  including his late grandfather Jacques Cousteau - through his work with EarthEcho International. The non-profit organization, which he co-founded with his sister and mother, empowers youth to become involved with environmental causes.

By Philippe Cousteau, Special to CNN

“Space…the final frontier.” Not only has this classic phrase dazzled the many millions of fans of the Star Trek franchise, some could argue it has defined a big part of the American ideal for the last 50 years.  The 1960s were dominated by the race to the moon and Americans were rightfully proud to be the first nation to make it there.

However, another incredible feat happened in 1960 that is largely forgotten today.  For the first time in history, on January 23, 1960, two men, Lt. Don Walsh and Jacques Picard, descended to the deepest part of the ocean, the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench located in the western Pacific Ocean.  While this feat made international news,  the race to the depths of this planet was quickly overshadowed by the race to the moon - and no one has ever gone that deep since.

And for the last 50  years, we have largely continued to look up. But that trend may be changing.

In July 2011, the space shuttle program that had promised to revolutionize space travel by making it (relatively) affordable and accessible came to an end after 30 years.  Those three decades provided numerous technological, scientific and diplomatic firsts.  With an estimated price tag of nearly $200 billion, the program had its champions and its detractors.  It was, however, a source of pride for the United States, capturing the American spirit of innovation and leadership.

With the iconic space program ending, many people have asked,  "What’s next?  What is the next giant leap in scientific and technological innovation?"

Today a possible answer to that question has been announced.  And it does not entail straining our necks to look skyward.  Finally, there is a growing recognition that some of the most important discoveries and opportunities for innovation may lie beneath what covers more than 70 percent of our planet – the ocean.

Filmmaker James Cameron sets out to explore the deepest part of the ocean

You may think I’m doing my grandfather Jacques Yves-Cousteau and my father Philippe a disservice when I say we’ve only dipped our toes in the water when it comes to ocean exploration.  After all, my grandfather co-invented the modern SCUBA system and "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau " introduced generations to the wonders of the ocean.  In the decades since, we’ve only explored about 10 percent of the ocean - an essential resource and complex environment that literally supports life as we know it, life on earth.

We now have a golden opportunity and a pressing need to recapture that pioneering spirit.   A new era of ocean exploration can yield discoveries that will help inform everything from critical medical advances to sustainable forms of energy.  Consider that AZT, an early treatment for HIV, is derived from a Caribbean reef sponge, or that a great deal of energy - from offshore wind, to OTEC (ocean thermal energy conservation), to wind and wave energy - is yet untapped in our oceans.  Like unopened presents under the tree, the ocean is a treasure trove of knowledge. In addition, such discoveries will have a tremendous impact on economic growth by creating jobs as well as technologies and goods.

In addition to new discoveries, we also have the opportunity to course correct when it comes to stewardship of our oceans.   Research and exploration can go hand in glove with resource management and conservation.

Over the last several decades, as the United States has been exploring space, we’ve exploited and polluted our oceans at an alarming rate without dedicating the needed time or resources to truly understand the critical role they play in the future of the planet.  It is not trite to say that the oceans are the life support system of this planet, providing us with up to 70 percent of our oxygen, as well as a primary source of protein for billions of people, not to mention the regulation of our climate.

Despite this life-giving role, the world has fished, mined and trafficked the ocean's resources to a point where we are actually seeing dramatic changes that is seriously impacting today's generations.  And that impact will continue as the world's population approaches 7 billion people, adding strain to the world’s resources unlike any humanity has ever had to face before.

In the long term, destroying our ocean resources is bad business with devastating consequences for the global economy, and the health and sustainability of all creatures - including humans.  Marine spatial planning, marine sanctuaries, species conservation, sustainable fishing strategies, and more must be a part of any ocean exploration and conservation program to provide hope of restoring health to our oceans.

While there is still much to learn and discover through space exploration, we also need to pay attention to our unexplored world here on earth.  Our next big leap into the unknown can be every bit as exciting and bold as our pioneering work in space.  It possesses the same "wow" factor: alien worlds, dazzling technological feats and the mystery of the unknown. The United States has the scientific muscle, the diplomatic know-how and the entrepreneurial spirit to lead the world in exploring and protecting our ocean frontier.

Now we need the public demand and political will and bravery to take the plunge in order to ensure that the oceans can continue to provide life to future generations.

Today is a big step in that direction and hopefully it is just the beginning.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Philippe Cousteau.

soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. Sanford Yeend

    An entrepreneur is an economic agent who unites all means of production- land of one, the labour of another and the capital of yet another and thus produces a product. By selling the product in the market he pays rent of land, wages to labour, interest on capital and what remains is his profit. He shifts economic resources out of an area of lower and into an area of higher productivity and greater yield...,

    All the best
    <http://caramoan.ph

    May 3, 2013 at 10:42 pm |
  2. Mike_88

    There's boat loads of gold down there too.

    March 19, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
  3. Michael

    We already know how polluted our oceans are and why they are so why not throw all efforts right now to end any further destruction. Yes the Cousteau jegacy brought awareness of seas beauty and how fragile an environment it is but has done nothing to end it. All the pretty words and pictures to be taken will just be historical records of destruction much as been scientific studies as we watch specier disappear now. The same Hi tech that allows construction of deep sea vehicals can be used to mine oceans and so cloud water we can no longer see the sea.

    March 14, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  4. Michael

    Science for science sake, mentality does not care about what use findings are used for or as scientific reasearch has be euer more specific and compartmentalized ones findingings may go to a far larger project and then they go on to another, never seeing what ones work was for. Science to devolope newest smaller more powerful nukes on the day they are first used they will plead innocence * They just found way to build them they do not drop them. People will be promised much and will pay tax and donate with high cause but who realy profits? We cannot control those who militarily destroy and our commercial interest that may of already pushed environent too hard. As the American people have proven, Good Intentions can kill you. Ask the Indonesians, Iraq Afghanistan Yemen, Latin America. Our Excuse? We didnt do it we just elected those who did, we were shopping and twittering.

    March 14, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  5. Michael

    PIE N SKY Just as space programs became militarized and commercialized under Science for mankinds sake the big push now for sea will become. Case in point Space Shuttle Program, Instead of building what what worlds scientific commuity said they could build permanent orbit rocketto build space platform military just in hurry to put spy satelites into nonpermanent orbits and limeted manpower to scientist and military.lots of magazine articles last few months even down to Popular Mechanics on how to mine all the rich abundant easy to get minerals. US military siphoned off any and all tech it could use from computer fiber optics, metal and chemical, and even solar power CLASSIDE Secret and delayed civilan access for years. we paid a military budget under a seperate program. Now we found a familiar and legendary mane to hype Deep Sea just as we used military test pilotsas heros back then.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  6. witchesshado

    Forgiveness, now i remember the sin. You were assigned the task of taking her down. If i may ask rabbi, why in hell you didn't tell them no? just because their stupid for a story and risk safety over common sense?
    let me guess, a sense of babysitting and i might add, understandable.
    dancing with devils is not a privledge for everyone. one must be part of the family.

    The shame of failure? the legacy? don't take the money and uphold your principles.

    Policy is, let the seas die. You should see what we have for an environmental platform. One of the most traveled cities in the world embraces war, DC. It's a sad state of ignoring potential economic growth while promoting and educating for the future.

    side bar,
    Atlanta i hear has a beautiful rehab facility (aquarium) that could be used to help some veterans. my two cents.

    March 14, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  7. Chris Martin

    Great article, Cousteau, I remember watching as a kid, and I have been to the museum in Monaco.

    March 14, 2012 at 3:27 am |
  8. dantheman

    Good article! yes space is easy bc its a void. we walked on the moon without being crushed!!!

    March 13, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
  9. witchesshado

    sobriety ? maybe the next race, in a million years. Still-in decline . i'm surprized you took the doll down with that training, with those tips circling? agitator-territory

    March 13, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
  10. Laura

    I think the reason people are more interested in space than the oceans is because space seems less obtainable. Almost anyone can become scuba certified and see what's under the water, but very few have left this planet and seen what's in space.

    March 13, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  11. Sunny Murchison

    "MOTHER EARTH DOES NOT NEED US. WE NEEDMOTHER EARTH." – CHIEF SEATTLE

    March 13, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  12. frespech

    "The 1960s were dominated by the race to the moon and Americans were rightfully proud to be the first nation to make it there."
    Mike the US was first to the moon not the first into space.
    I have to give you D- for reading comprehension.

    March 13, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  13. Whatever

    I love how all of you are arguing over the fact of who got into space first and totally ignoring the main point of the article. Exploring and taking care of our oceans.

    March 13, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  14. JOE

    Did Russia send astronauts to space before the US? let's face it, Spotnik wasn't a person, therefore that makes us first to outer space!

    March 13, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • wakawaka

      yuri gagarin

      March 13, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  15. SIR COUSTEAU

    everything you touch turns to gold

    March 13, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  16. Charlie Tuna

    This guy can't be a Cousteau, where's his red cap?

    March 13, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  17. Peter

    Maybe the article was edited since the first two comments, but it says Americans are rightfully proud to be the first to make it to the moon, not into space.

    March 13, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  18. Chillax

    Regardless if its a typo or he ment the moon, we all know who was first. Besides, it was a personal letter to CNN by him.. CNN wouldnt edit or change it. No harm done, relax people.

    March 13, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  19. Ikram

    I think they meant "the moon".

    March 13, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  20. Kassie

    They didn't say we were the first in space, they said the US was the first to make it to the moon. Read your article before you criticize it's facts.

    March 13, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  21. Michael

    Actually, if you read the article he is talking about the race to the moon, not space and, yes, the US was the first to make it to the moon.

    March 13, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  22. Jon

    Actually, the articles references the "race to the moon" and acknowledges that Americans were the first to make it. Please read carefully and fact-check yourself before criticizing.

    March 13, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Michael

      You beat me to it.

      March 13, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  23. Masha

    Americans were not the first nation to make it to space! How about Yuri Gagarin – the first man in space? From USSR?

    March 13, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Gaga

      Yawn.

      March 13, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • Nighthhaaawk

      "The 1960s were dominated by the race to the moon and Americans were rightfully proud to be the first nation to make it there."

      How about a little reading comprehension out there! If you want to put someone's ideas down – make sure your not putting your own foot in your mouth while doing it.

      March 13, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  24. Mike

    Actually the US was not first. I would think CNN would know something like this.

    March 13, 2012 at 1:01 pm |

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