Cousteau's granddaughter floats on a pontoon

Published online: Sep 10, 2010 News www.ajc.com
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Alexandra Cousteau began learning to swim when she was 4 months old and went on her first expedition, to Easter Island, about the same time.
But the granddaughter of legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau had never to her knowledge been on a blackwater stream.

Not until Tuesday, that is. That's when she toured the Ogeechee River as part of a 138-day, 1,800-mile-long exploration of North American waters dubbed Expedition Blue Planet.

Her purpose was to reap knowledge as well as sow it.

So as Cousteau, her colleague Jonathan Smith and her mother Jan headed downstream from King's Ferry on the Island Express pontoon boat, local experts told the river's story.

Chandra Brown, the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, explained the mercury situation - stressing that upstream users were likely unaware their reliance on coal-fired power was ultimately putting so much mercury in the river that it was dangerous to eat its fish too often. The acidity of blackwater streams makes the mercury in them more accessible to wildlife.

Capt. Mike Neal, who donated the services of the pontoon boat from Bull River Cruises, pointed out the rice canals and related how the Geechee people, originally from West Africa, knew how to grow the rice that became Georgia's wealth.

Ann Hartzell, a board member of the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, spotted a great blue heron standing like a statue in a dead cypress tree, a bald eagle flying away and messy big osprey nests overlooking the water.

Cousteau took it all in, munching on an organic plum and chatting a bit with her mother in French.

This tour is the second one undertaken by Blue Legacy International, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit she and Smith cofounded in 2008. Cousteau and her crew use Twitter and Facebook, and they post on the website of National Geographic - the organization whose name was intertwined for years with that of her grandfather as well as her father, Philippe Cousteau Sr., who died when she was just 3 years old.

They also produce longer movies, but are able to do so with digital equipment, making the turnaround much faster than what her father and grandfather had to deal with.

They're trying to tell the story of water in a way that makes it the story of people, Cousteau said.

"If water is safe enough for children to swim in without getting a rash, it's safe enough for the environment," she said. "Apparently you can't eat the fish in this river. If you could, it would be safe enough for the bald eagles and other fish."

The biodiesel bus that brought them to Savannah from their last stop in Mobile, Ala., was once Paul McCartney's tour bus and then John McCain's Straight Talk Express. It's now plastered with eye-catching water-themed graphics and contact information, making it a moving billboard, Smith said. People Twitter at them as they're rolling down the highway, he said. And it's a way to get people involved in their watersheds.

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