Critical Mission

Over the weekend I watched Mission Blue, a new documentary on Netflix from the producers of The Cove. It offers a fascinating look at world renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle and her efforts to shed light on the destruction of the world’s oceans. Its a sobering look at her one-woman crusade against overfishing and big oil and to establish “hope spots” around the world.

Directors Fisher Stevens and Robert Nixon follow Earle, former Chief Scientist for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and currently the Explorer in Residence for National Geographic, as she talks and reminisces about her childhood growing up around the Gulf of Mexico in Florida, to becoming one of the first aquanauts, a group of women who lived underwater to study the oceans in the 60s. Film from the era is featured, showing Earle and her fellow aquanauts living in an underwater home (built by GE!) and studying plants and fish around them. There’s a wealth of archival footage here, from a 12 year old Earle sifting through seaweed for crabs, to newsreel footage of her playing in her yard with her children to an appearance on The Colbert Report. The film doesn’t get too much into Earle’s personal life. When it does though, it feels creepily sexist, focusing on her failured marriages because the demands of her field of study were so onerous.

The last 30 minutes of the documentary takes Earle and the film crew to Austrailia, to observe a trouble-spot beyond the Great Barrier Reef. We get a sense of how distant from land they are from the miles of ocean around them as their boat speeds along to their destination. Earle works away on her laptop, Fischer gets sicker and sicker from the choppy waters. When they arrive, they scuba down to the coral reef that Earle had been concerned about. As the camera focuses in on acres of greyish coral, the movie cuts back to home movies (?) of her decades-earlier trip. What once looked like a scene from FInding Nemo, lushly colored and teeming with life, is gone. The look on her face as she gets back on the boat is heart-breaking.

The title of the movie is derived from Earle’s organization to establish hope spots. She points out that in 1949, there was one Dead Zone in the entire ocean, where mankind had disrupted the area so badly with pollution and overfishing nothing can grow/live. Today, due to large commercial fishing operations that mechanize much of the fish catching process and the ever increasing demand for exotic fish like Blue Fin Tuna, Orange Roughy, and even Fish Oil pills, there are over 500 of these Dead Zones worldwide. A statistic that made me proud I’m not a big fish eater in the first place (I’m one of the few people in SF who hates sushi). We journey to a spot in Mexico that was fished to extinction in the 70s due to its popularity as an American Vacation spot off Baja-California that declared 700 square miles of its ocean off limits to everything but eco-tourism and has managed to bring back the ocean life that had been hunted relentlessly by vacationing Americans. Old Kodachrome photos of families posing with gigantic fish from the era are truly appalling, reminding me of those disgusting photos families post on Instagram and Facebook with a freshly shot giraffe or elephant. This area has been declared Earle’s first hope spot, which she aims to replicate around the world.

It’s a noble goal, and one that seems reasonable, especially considering that 80% of Earth’s oxygen comes from the ocean, as Earle points out. One hopes that this documentary will spark the type of action and outrage that Fisher’s previous “The Cove’ did. But given that the ocean dead looks exactly the same as a live ocean, as director and fellow oceanographer James Cameron points out, and not cute dolphins being slaughtered, it’ll be lucky as effective as Al Gore’s The Awful Truth.

Image via Mission Blue. Available on Netflix.


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