The Cove is about one little geographic body of water, a couple of hectares. But with that little body of water we were able to talk about big issues. Here we’re talking about a huge issue. That’s the question, how do you take such a broad issue and make it so that people feel that they can grasp it, and then at the end actually do something about it? It’s a mass extinction, with multiple drivers, not just one cause. So we wanted to approach it from that perspective. How do you give people the breadth of it, but at the end feel like they can have an impact?
We started by trying to bring it down to a single species, and a single animal in a species. The first animal you hear about is the ‘O’o bird, the last male of a species singing for a female who will never come. The idea is just to get people to realise what it’s like to empathise with one creature. You talk about 30,000 species being lost every year – it’s just a number. Until you put a feeling on it, you don’t have a sense of that loss.
There’s a hidden world of voices. Just about everything with a heartbeat is singing, you just can’t hear it. The blue whale has the loudest song in the animal kingdom but you can’t hear it, it’s below the threshold for our hearing. But they’re actually able to communicate, they’ve adapted so that in the southern part of the ocean where there are no geographic obstacles, they can actually communicate over 13,000 miles. They’ve adapted to communicate in a silent ocean around the world with other creatures. That should give everybody pause for thought.
We’re all hypocrites though. I try to think very consciously of the actions that I’m taking and how it’s going to affect the future. I flew around to promote this movie on a plane that spewed more carbon dioxide than anyone should produce in a year – hopefully the impact of the film is offsetting the impact of the damage I’m doing. Another thing we also do is set aside a number of acres in the Ecuadorian rainforest so we can basically indulge ourselves by making a film.
We had 2,000 hours of footage, and we narrowed it down to an hour and a half. In a traditional Hollywood film, they shoot about 57 hours. We have to overshoot our mark because you’re not sure when you’re making a film where the story is – a lot of it is found in the editing room.
The way the film is structured, it covers the smallest thing in the ocean – plankton. You think, what does plankton have to do with me? It’s only the base of the food chain, responsible for two out every three breaths that you take, and we’re losing them because of acidification. Hopefully people get a sense that we’re not just on the top of the pyramid looking down at the rest of life below us anymore. It’s a web, we’re all connected. You might not think about plankton, but it’s more important to your life than an African elephant is.
I’ve dropped in on sites that are supposed to be the best preserved reefs in the world and literally been down there and seen nothing but rubble. There’s a reef in Papua New Guinea that was seen by a friend of mine, Jim Clark, the guy who started Netscape and financed The Cove. He wanted to show me this reef but it was gone, just rubble. Because of an El Niño year, combined with dynamite fishing, it was completely obliterated.
All the river dolphins are now in peril. We’re set to lose half of all frogs, we could lose half of all turtles in the next few decades too. The burning of fossil fuels is acidifying the oceans. We’re losing the coral reefs, we’re losing plankton, we’re losing these incredible species that came from the same gauntlet of history that we have. 4.6 billion years of evolution to get here. And one species, homo sapiens, which means ‘the wise ones’, is causing the Anthropocene, the age of man – the biggest extinction event perhaps since the dinosaurs died 65 million years ago.
The thing I want to leave everybody with is the sense that together we can reverse things. We saw it happen with The Cove, we were able to reduce the numbers, the killing of dolphins from 23,000 per year down to about 6,000, almost a 75 per cent drop. We have an opportunity to scale this up, by going to racingextinction.com and being part of this change, through the campaign #StartWith1Thing. You think, it’s just too big, it’s too much for one person to handle, but you see that the small changes we make will have an effect millions of years from now. This is the most important time for a human being to be alive if you want to create massive change. We’re one step away from either greatness, or the greatest disaster in the last 65 million years.
1957 Born in Dubuque, Iowa
1980 Won the College Photographer of the Year award and became the first new National Geographic photographer in more than a decade
1994 Published Hunting Dinosaurs, a book about travelling the world in search of dinosaur remains
2005 Founded the Oceanic Preservation Society, a non-profit that uses film, photography and media to raise awareness of environmental issues in the ocean
2010 Won the Best Documentary Academy Award for The Cove, a film about dolphin hunting in Japan
This article was published in the February 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.