The Last Reef

Advocacy film delivers “Cities beneath the Sea” in 3D IMAX, bringing you nudibranchs as you’ve never seen them before and activism that you have. By Liza Lester, ESA communications officer. La Evolución Silenciosa (The Silent Evolution), an installation of 400 life-size figures 9 meters under the sea off Cancun / Isla Mujeres, Mexico, is featured in the new IMAX film The Last Reef: Cities beneath the Sea. Credit, Jason deCaires Taylor. WE OPEN with an atomic explosion mushrooming over Bikini Atoll. Historic footage, made 3D through the magic of post-production graphic arts, rolls on a projector screen in a 3D schoolroom. In 1946, the United States removed all humans from Bikini in preparation for atomic tests that would span twelve years and 23 nuclear detonations. Lingering radioactivity has kept people away. In our absence, the disembodied voice of Jamie Lee tells us, the reef has rebounded. Fishy, invertebrate and microbial life now thrives on the resurgent coral (with the exception of a few species that didn’t make it back). From this promising beginning, The Last Reef plunges us into the present, into the ocean, into full throttle modern 3D-IMAX, and into an old school advocacy film, heavy with environmental rhetoric and swelling music. “We love working with images and music,” said director Steve McNicholas, during the post-preview panel discussion at AAAS headquarters, explaining that he and co-creator Luke Cresswell are not scientists or wildlife documentarians, and began filming the ocean because they wanted to take us on an underwater adventure. During the filming of their first underwater feature they awakened to the not-so-beautiful developments in the ocean resulting from fishing, shipping, agriculture, and fossil fuel combustion. “Mid-way through making Wild Ocean we became quite politicized.” The team behind the Broadway sensation STOMP!, McNicholas and Cresswell know what they are doing with sight and sound.  They commissioned a novel containment system from cinematographer D.J. Roller to house the massive 3D macro beamsplitting IMAX camera system, helping him shoot closer close-ups of reef creatures underwater. You have never seen nudibranchs like this before! A soundtrack thrumming with complicated rhythms (and a descending harp line reminiscent of John Adams’ El Nino) matches the vibrant underwater colors and textures, occasionally freezing with anxiety or swelling with promise as the narrator tells us of human threats to the reefs. McNicolas and Cresswell intercut scenes of the reef “cities beneath the sea” with some beautiful, if frenetic, footage of New York City – drawing an analogy of two kinds of communities built on the accretions of past generations. We get a simple introduction to the ecology of the reef, couched in balance-of-nature oratory; the coral...

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Beneath the waves film festival–call for submissions!

This post contributed by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer. Four years ago, graduate student Austin Gallagher took a video camera into the tropical waters around Mo’orea, about 17 km northwest of Tahiti in French Polynesia. With his first post to YouTube, he was hooked. Filmmaking supplied an instant gratification quotient to balance the years of patient, slow research required to turn scientific inspiration into scientific publications. It also reached an audience that doesn’t usually dive into the technical depths of scientific papers. Gallagher wanted to show people the beauty, as well as the science, of his ecological subjects, and share some of the every-day experiences of research. “It’s a way to connect with people,” he said. What I want to do is show other researchers that filmmaking isn’t that hard to do. It should be one of our tools.” Now a PhD student in conservation ecology at the University of Miami, Gallagher is still filming, and urging other divers, scientists, conservationists, and policy wonks—all the aquatic stakeholders—to take up a camera and show off the underwater world at his third annual Beneath the Waves Film Festival, screening at the Benthic Ecology Meeting in Norfolk, Virginia on March 21-24. Previous festivals have drawn audiences of 300-500 locals and conference-goers, and featured the rap stylings of young ecologists alongside professional animation and endearingly untutored footage of divers at work. Gallagher encourages novices to jump in. “Get your hands on some equipment. It doesn’t matter how good the equipment is, because you’re still going to be able to record something. The tool doesn’t make the filmmaker. It’s how you tell your story.” Gallagher recommends that new filmmakers let their own identity spill into the narrative, and use the specialized knowledge behind the lens to woo viewers. “Some of my favorite submissions have been from scientists out in the field, filming on their iPhones, for all I know,” he said. “Try to convey who you are.” Underwater footage is not required, but the film should tell a story or impart a message. Focused brevity is key. “People have really short attention spans. You should be able to get your message across in five minutes. Keep it short, sweet, and potent.” Gallagher studies sharks, and admits to a bit of a shark-bias on the festival website, but the film series welcomes aquatic themes of all persuasions in all narrative forms. He wishes he could include everyone who applies, but since space and time and limited, a panel will select films for the March lineup. Submit your creations by February 24th to be considered for the 2012 Festival. Image credit: Austin...

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Bonding with wild turkeys

This post contributed by Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs Just in time for Thanksgiving, comes the true-life tale of a man who raised a rafter of sixteen wild turkeys, gaining a newfound understanding and deep appreciation for them in the process.    My Life as a Turkey aired on PBS last week and shows how naturalist and wildlife artist Joe Hutto immersed himself in the lives of his young charges, becoming part of a strange “tribe” for 18 months. Hutto has a strong interest in imprinting—most obvious in birds such as geese and turkeys, that imprint on their mother and follow them everywhere.  Although farmers and others had taken advantage of this phenomenon for years, Austrian scientist Konrad Lorenz was the first to document the imprinting process. The PBS film is a reenactment of the book Joe Hutto wrote about his experience, Illumination in the Flatwoods.  In it, he incubates the eggs which a farmer has left at his house in the Florida Everglades and then raises the hatchlings to adulthood.  The story chronicles Hutto’s gradual understanding of turkey communication, behavior, as well as the threats facing “his” young brood. After a rat snake manages to squeeze into the pen where Hutto houses the young turkeys, or poults, and kills one, Hutto realizes he must not only reinforce the structure, but also spend every waking minute with the poults, from dawn to dusk.  Indeed, his entire life revolves around the young turkeys.  He bonds with them to such a degree that when they reach the stage of their life where they launch into flight and settle into a tree to roost, he feels left out and clamors up the tree to join them. With their comically gangly necks coupled with surprisingly graceful bodies, the young wild turkeys follow Hutto through the Florida Everglades.  They recoil yet are fascinated when they encounter their first dead animal and seemingly are also bothered by a tree stump, which they inspect for a long while and about which they make many turkey “comments.” One of the most beautifully filmed and entertaining scenes shows Hutto strolling alongside the turkeys as they go on a “grasshopper hunt.”  With barely a pause in their stride, the turkeys expertly snatch the grasshoppers from their grassy perches, as seen in the clip below. Imprinting on ones’ parent early in life is a survival strategy.  But when young animals imprint on humans, the result is often that when the animal reaches adulthood, it is unprepared to live on its own or it interacts inappropriately with its own species or with humans, often resulting in the animal’s death.  To...

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Marine film festival returns with a splash

This post contributed by Ashwin Bhandiwad, marine biologist and filmmaker When my colleague and good friend Austin Gallagher told me he was thinking of starting a film festival focused on science and conservation, I relished the opportunity. Austin and I are graduate students and share a passion for the marine environment. Like all graduate students, we have had many conversations about how our work is woefully underappreciated and about how a fundamental lack of communication exists between researchers and people outside their field. This is why last year’s Beneath the Waves Film Festival was so appealing. Finally, here was a chance to break free of sometimes monotonous ten to twelve minute PowerPoint presentations with the requisite black and white graphs. Here was a chance to show, rather than tell. I was at Duke University at the time and had recently talked to a faculty member about a conservation issue facing North Carolina. There was a fight raging over beach access to the picturesque Outer Banks. Conservation groups, like the Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife, were fighting to restrict driving on the beach, contending that off-road vehicles and SUVs on the beaches disrupted and destroyed nesting behaviors of turtles and seabirds in the area. Beach access interest groups claimed that the disruption was minimal  and that beach restrictions would decimate the local economy. The U.S. National Park Service had provided management plans that could be debated by the public in order to reach a middle ground, but few people knew about it. I decided it would make a great topic for a short documentary, one that would highlight regional conservation issues through the lens of behavioral ecological data (see below video). Shifting Sands: The Fight for the Outer Banks from Ashwin Bhandiwad on Vimeo. The festival itself was impressive. They ranged from natural history descriptive studies (a squid spawning event in San Diego) to global conservation issues (shark finning and turtle egg poaching) to short animated films about invasive species. Each film was remarkable in scope and breadth and showed creative prowess. The panel of judges, comprised of both filmmakers and academics, were surprised to see such diversity and passion in filmmaking. This year, I am happy to be an organizer and judge at the Second Annual Beneath the Waves Film Festival at the 40th Benthic Ecology Meeting in Mobile, AL from March 16-20, 2011. Even though our call for submissions was released only a month ago, we have received a deluge of strong entries. The spirit of the festival is even more pronounced , with entries from researchers as well as avid naturalists and divers highlighting, not only...

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From the Community: Ecology influencing art

Architects, ecologists and urban planners design projects to tackle upcoming waterfront property issues in New York City due to rising sea levels from climate change, zebra finches play electric guitar as they go about their routines in a London exhibit and bacteria colonies produce intricate Petri dish art. Here is what’s happening in ecology for the last week in March.

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Scientists and filmmakers are making “Waves” together

Even though most of my face was covered by neoprene, acrylic glass and rubber, I could still feel the whiskers of the harbor seal rub against my skin as he repeatedly kissed my face. Believe it or not, the harbor seal wasn’t the only marine organism that was showing me the love during a morning of scientific diving in a marine reserve off the coast of Catalina Island, California.

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