Exploring the Oceans with The Living Sea

By Kathryn M. Duda

Movie critic Gene Siskel of ABC-TV says, "The Living Sea has more entertainment value in its five minutes devoted to whales than both Free Willy pictures put together," a comment that could safely be interpreted as a "thumbs up." A Chicago Sun-Times critic was more specific: "No movie released this year is likely to contain more spectacular or astonishing images than the ones we see in The Living Sea. The film is a truly ravishing experience...an often overpowering visual experience." You can see what these critics are so enthusiastic about at the Carnegie Science Center's Rangos Omnimax Theater, where the film The Living Sea, nominated for an Academy Award in 1996, lets you experience the sea in a way that is impossible through conventional cinema or video.

Narrated by Academy Award -- winning actress Meryl Streep and featuring music by the Grammy Award -- winning recording artist Sting, The Living Sea uses the theater's huge domed screen and powerful sound system to celebrate the ocean's beauty and diversity, and its importance to life on Earth. The 40- minute motion picture was filmed in locations around the world, with an emphasis on footage from Palau, a string of Central Pacific islands offering spectacular images of unspoiled, healthy oceans.

In the more commercialized parts of the world, the importance of the oceans is often forgotten, but not so in Palau. Relatively isolated from the impacts of modernity, Palau islanders know their own dependence on the ocean and are raised to respect and nurture it. There it is possible to see what the oceanic ecosystem was like 500 years ago, and for this reason the island group was voted one of the seven "Underwater Wonders of the World."

As viewers, our guide through Palau is Francis Toribiong, a native diver whose life is steeped in the tradition of respectful coexistence with the sea. With his help, we come to understand and appreciate the Palauans' symbiotic relationship with the ocean, one that has allowed them to harvest the sea's bounty without destroying the underwater environment.

While the film emphasizes the necessity for a harmonious relationship between all humans and their environment, film director Greg MacGillivray says, "We've crafted a movie that is not overbearing and critical of man's use of the ocean. I believe the message is more powerfully felt when the audience can draw its own conclusions about how fragile the global system is, and how we must protect it."

To do this, MacGillivray treats us to awe-inspiring sights that, thanks to Imax technology, make us feel as if we're alongside the divers as they plumb the ocean depths. In one memorable sequence, we accompany a scientist on a dangerous, breathtaking dive through millions of jellyfish that spin and pulse around us. This dive is part of an ongoing experiment in Palau's Jellyfish Lake. When the ocean retreated and closed off this saltwater lake toward the end of the ice age, it left behind many organisms and began a natural experiment to determine how they would develop free from outside predators. One species under study is a particular species of jellyfish, which evolved from a predator to a farmer able to grow its own food within its body.

The film also accompanies Bill Hamner, director of the UCLA Marine Science Center, as he inspects a giant clam farm, where modern aquacultural methods are restoring a clam population that was nearly destroyed by over-harvesting. Hamner developed this project jointly with Palauans and Peace Corps volunteers to culture this Paluan food staple for the first time. Their success in rebuilding the clam population illustrates what they believe is a real possibility¥restoring balance in the ocean ecosystem. We then move up the Pacific into Monterey Bay, just south of San Francisco, and travel down 3,000 feet into the virtually unexplored mid-ocean regions with a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV). The mid-sea region contains at least 80 percent of the habitable area for life on Earth, but surprisingly little is known about the life forms residing there. Among the fascinating and bizarre creatures we encounter in mid sea is a siphonophore, a hydrozoan of the order Siphonophora. Almost half the length of a football field, a siphonophore is actually a colony of connected polyp-like and medusa-like organisms, including the Portuguese man-of-war, each with a different function.

The two-ton ROV in which we're travelling sends video footage to scientists in a research vessel in the waters above. In addition to locating increasing numbers of heretofore unknown life forms, the ROV has also helped scientists understand how water circulates through the Earth. Through images sent up by the ROV, scientists have discovered hydrovents where nutrient-rich waters seep up through the Earth's crust to support huge populations of tube worms, clams and other organisms. These hydrovents constitute a circulatory system whereby water passes into the Earth itself, picking up minerals, and then returns to the ocean, where the nutrients support underwater life.

In one particularly hair-raising Living Sea segment, we accompany a group of Coast Guard cadets in raging, stormy seas as they learn open-water rescue techniques. At Cape Disappointment, ocean swells coming from the Bering Sea are caught by a protruding sandbar and become huge waves that crash over our boat, knocking it over so far that half the deck is submerged. Strapped in with lifelines, the cadets are sometimes held under the icy water as the boat is knocked fiercely about by the power of the sea. Then during a less turbulent whale-watching adventure we swim among these enormous, graceful mammals as part of the "Allied Whale" team from the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. Allied Whale's goal is to foster respect for whales and to find new ways to strengthen their threatened populations. With the Allied Whale scientists we visit humpbacks as they migrate off the Maine coast, where tidal currents produce nutrient-rich water that supports a large population of plankton¥the beginning of the whale's food chain.

The Living Sea is showing in Omnimax and Imax theaters throughout the world, including museum and science center sites in Canada, Germany, Australia and Denmark. It is a film that appeals to people of all ages and interests, and it should be required viewing by the young. The powerful message conveyed by The Living Sea could have a positive effect on the future of humankind, as each of us ultimately depends upon the health of the sea. As the film's guide, Francis Toribiong, observes, "We are all islanders."

Kathryn Duda is associate editor of Carnegie Magazine.

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