Dr. Anna George (left) and Alexandra Cousteau (right) collect fish samples on the Emory River, near the site of the Kingston, Tenn., coal ash spill. (Photo: Blue Legacy)

French explorer and filmmaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s devotion to ocean preservation has inspired generations of scientists, conservationists and nature enthusiasts. “To live on the land we must learn from the sea,” wrote John Denver in a 1975 musical tribute to Cousteau and his iconic research ship, the Calypso.

Today, Cousteau’s granddaughter, Alexandra, a filmmaker, explorer and environmentalist, is carrying on her grandfather’s legacy of living on the land in harmony with the sea. Her nonprofit organization Blue Legacy, which she founded in 2008, utilizes film, photography and journalism to raise awareness of critical water issues across the globe.

Alexandra Cousteau, a member of the National Geographic Emerging Explorers Program, visited Chattanooga this week as part of the Tennessee Aquarium’s Blue Planet Forum lecture series sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Cousteau spent much of her childhood touring some of the most beautiful aquatic environments on the planet, and it’s those memories that frame her perspectives and devotion to clean water today.

This largemouth bass, taken from the Emory River, has a parasite near its fin. (Photo: David Neely)

“I was very fortunate to see a lot of really incredible places as a child, but a lot of those places have started to disappear, which has underscored for me the importance of understanding how our watersheds work and how our rivers are connected to the sea,” said Cousteau, who lives in Washington, D.C.

Most people don’t understand what “watershed” means, according to Cousteau. Scientist and geographer Wesley Powell defines a watershed as “that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.”

We all live in a watershed, and in Chattanooga, that watershed is the Tennessee River, which flows into the Ohio River, which flows into the Mississippi River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

“In every way imaginable, the ocean is downstream from us all,” Cousteau said. “It is important that we all look at the water in our own communities, find out where it comes from, what happens to it as it flows through our lives and where it goes when it leaves us.”

Cousteau uses her films to draw viewers in on an expedition to experience the people, places and systems affected by critical water issues.

In 2009, Cousteau and her crew embarked on their first global expedition to explore and film critical water issues across five continents. Stops included India, Botswana, Cambodia, the Middle East and the United States.

According to Cousteau, public response to their first global expedition was enthusiastic, but revealed a deeper problem: “People were concerned about the global water crisis, but told us they were glad it wasn’t happening in the United States.”

In 2010, Cousteau and the Blue Legacy crew launched out on a North American expedition, devoting 140 days to setting the record straight that yes, indeed, the global water crisis is taking place in the United States. The crew travelled 18,000 miles in a biodiesel bus, collecting stories about watersheds in six distinct ecosystems throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico.

“We explored the Colorado River, which never reaches the sea; the Mississippi River, which ends in a dead zone; and the fact that more than 60 percent of the rivers, lakes and streams in the Southeast ... are unfit for swimming, fishing or drinking,” Cousteau said. “I learned more about the global water crisis in North America than anywhere else on the planet.”

Expedition Tennessee
Part of Blue Legacy’s 2010 expedition included a visit to East Tennessee to explore watersheds impacted by the largest coal ash spill in the history of the United States. In December 2008, a massive coal ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston coal-fired power plant dumped more than 1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash into the Emory River and surrounding community of Harriman, Tenn.

Cousteau teamed up with scientists at the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, which began independently monitoring aquatic species in the area just months after the spill, to collect fish, water and sediment samples to be analyzed for research.

“In one sample, we saw a shad that was covered with a fungus infection and a smallmouth buffalo with caudal fin damage,” Dr. Anna George, director of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, said. “While the spill has impacted the fish health and diversity in this reach, we hope that these resilient animals will be able to recover soon.”

For Cousteau, whose life’s work is telling the story of water, the coal ash spill was shocking on many levels.

“It was shocking to me to see the footage of the spill, but I was even more shocked that the coal ash spill wasn’t better documented in the media and that there wasn’t more outrage,” Cousteau said.

To learn more about the effect toxic coal ash has on waterways and aquatic life, watch Blue Legacy’s film “Clean Coal: Water Pollution at the Light Switch."

Despite her hands-on exposure to global water issues, Cousteau finds hope in the grassroots watershed protection and recovery efforts taking place in communities throughout the world.

“What keeps me hopeful is working with the ‘water heroes’ who are out there trying to understand what is going on, educating people and influencing how we understand and solve these problems,” Cousteau said. “Grassroots efforts really inspire me and give me faith that we can make big strides.”

Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden’s Ridge. She enjoys writing about the natural world and exploration opportunities found within the southeastern United States, one of the most biologically and recreationally rich regions on Earth. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.

(From left to right) Alexandra Cousteau and Dr. Anna George of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute. (Photo: Donna Lisenby)