There is no substitute for a real-life experience of the ocean and the amazing creatures that live in it, but there are millions of people around the world who will never get the opportunity to swim in the sea or hear waves crashing against the sand – except for seeing it on a screen. Here are ten movies that deepened my connection with and understanding of the sea.
Video is an incredible vehicle for transporting people to unknown environments and inspiring connections between them and nature. As members of the Save Our Seas Foundation media team, this is one of our biggest challenges – Getting the public to connect with the work out project teams are doing is the first step towards conservation. And films are an awesome tool for us to achieve this.
Growing up in Johannesburg for the first 18 years of my life meant that I had a very abstract experience of the oceans. Here are a few of the films (in the order that I watched them) that made me fall in love with the sea and pursue an authentic relationship with it.
1) The Little Mermaid. 1989
This is probably the first film that I remember watching. It is the story of Ariel, the unfulfilled Mermaid princess who falls in love with an earth-dwelling prince. Even then I could not understand her mad desire to trade in her tail, and ability to breathe underwater, for bipedalism, but each to their own I suppose.
2) Free Willy. 1993
What 7 year-old wouldn’t be blown away by the idea of a friendship between a boy and a killer whale. It confirmed for me something that I had always suspected – animals have emotions and can work out what we are feeling too. The tragedy of Free Willy is that although Keiko (the Orca who played Willy) found his way back to the sea, he never re-integrated into a whale pod or learned to hunt. Eventually he died of pneumonia in Norway. Even sadder is the hard truth that some captive Orca’s develop deadly dark sides:
3) The Big Blue. 1988
The first time I watched Luc Besson’s beautiful film about a handsome freediver who just kept swimming downwards, I was freaked out. I wasn’t old enough to understand how someone could abandon their life in the world for something that they loved more than life itself. Now, following my own limited experience with freediving, it is easier for me to understand how becoming part of a world you are not designed to be in, free from the hassles of scuba equipment – can become the most important thing there is. Glancing upwards at a distant fading patch of light that signals “oxygen” and having the mental fortitude to swim deeper, is the ultimate definition of “mind over matter”.
4) Whale Rider. 2002
The wild and endless oceans are not generally seen as a woman’s place – the land may be ruled by Mother Earth but the ocean belongs to the Sea King. I was enchanted by Kahu, the young Maori who must prove to her grandfather that, despite being a girl, she is destined to become the leader of her sea-faring tribe. The film’s exploration of a modern indigenous people’s spiritual connection to the ocean is beautiful.
5) Shark Water. 2006
The first time I came face-to-face with a “deadly” shark was about 16m below the surface off the coast of Southern Mozambique. The spearfishermen I was with had disappeared and I watch in horror as a torpedo shaped Zambezi shark swam slowly towards me. I swiveled my head around to either side hoping there was something else it was curious about. Nope. I was all by myself, surrounded by deep blue water in every direction except for straight ahead of me where the shark was coming from. I took my snorkel out of my mouth and shouted into the water. This ‘monster of the sea’ stopped dead in its tracks, pulled it’s head back in shock and swerved to the left before powering off into the blue. I must be a truly terrifying animal.
Sharkwater is about Rob Stewart’s attempt to bring the demise of the shark into the public eye. It exposes the truth about dwindling shark populations and their essential role in the eco-system. It also confronts viewers with the incredible brutality of shark finning. I will never forget the image of a finless blue shark gulping into the sea, blood oozing from multiple wounds as it sinks slowly and pitifully onto the sea floor.
6) Blue Water White Death. 1971
A team of hairy-chested, super-macho marine scientists and freedivers travel the world in search of one of the most intriguing and feared creatures on the planet: The Great White Shark. The film gives great insight into the history of our obsession with these deadly beasts. It also illustrates how our relationship and understanding of marine animals like whales has evolved.
7) The Cove. 2009
It is a lot easier to inspire people to empathise with dolphins than with sharks, especially when they are being driven into a hidden bay and slaughtered en-masse. The Cove is a horrifying portrayal of human brutality. It is also a complex exploration of the conflict that exists between cultural traditions and modern perceptions of “humanity”. It illustrates that conservation is about the careful balance between politics, culture, awareness and people’s means to feed themselves and their families.
8) Disney Oceans. 2010
This is the real-life Fantasia of the Sea, a vast and stunning exploration of the oceans and the creatures that live in them – as well as a chilling reminder of those that used to. Museum rooms filled with extinct marine species are in sharp contrast with epic shots of otherwordly undersea phenomenonthat it is impossible not to be stirred by (watch out for the march of the crabs).
9) Ponyo. 2009
Ponyo is the story of a little goldfish princess and her friendship with a human boy. Much of the disconnection between people and nature can be attributed to cultural (mis)understanding. Japan’s Studio Ghibli animated films have a very different look and feel to Disney, but explore the complex connections and need for respect between people and nature.
10) BBC Human Planet: Oceans and Arctic. 2011
This is the BBC’s ode to anthropology and possibly my favourite documentary series ever. It showcases communities all over the world whose existence depends on an innate respect for the natural environment in which they live. The harpooning of a sperm whale is never an easy thing to accept, but in this case it fits into an ancient and ecologically sustainable way of life. From a humanitarian point of view, ‘Oceans’ is a poignant illustration of how vulnerable indigenous coastal peoples are to the destruction of marine ecosystems.
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Philippa Ehrlich is the Media Co-ordinator for the Save Our Seas Converation Media Unit. The CMU is an exciting, recently launched initiative that will be experimenting with the best ways to use media for effective conservation. Look out for our upcoming posts and multimedia publications.