Happy new year, everyone! For my first blog post of 2009, I thought I’d give you something fun — a video and interview with underwater filmmaker Steve Clark. Clark is a fashion photographer-turned-underwater filmmaker whose latest film, “Arc of a Diver,” explores the wildlife of Lembeh Strait, Indonesia. The film, which was a finalist at the Cannes Film Festival Short Film Corner, skillfully exhibits the beauty of rare sea creatures, and captures their remarkable behavior on camera. I spoke with Clark on the phone about the filmmaking process, his goals and passions, his perspective on conservation messaging, and his three favorite creatures — the striated hairy frogfish, the blue-ringed octopus, and the flamboyant cuttlefish (all seen in the above trailer for the film).
You mention Carl Safina’s book at the beginning of the film. What was it about his book that inspired you so much?
First of all, I think it’s a brilliant book and it’s beautifully written. He was able to take me underwater. When I was a little boy I wanted to be an oceanographer. I was at my parents’ party and I announced that to some adult that was there, and this adult turned to me and pointed at me and said, “You can’t be an oceanographer, you’re not good enough at math.” And I believed this adult. I was a little kid, and I gave up on the spot. I ended up becoming a fashion photographer, and it wasn’t going that well and I wasn’t enjoying it that much, and I just felt unsatisfied. And this book just came to my attention and within two chapters I decided, “I’m gonna be an oceanographer, dammit!” That just morphed into an underwater filmmaker. I’ve never looked back and I’ve never regretted it for a second and that was nine years ago.
You seem to be a passionate conservationist but your film doesn’t have an explicit conservation message, why is that?
Great question. I’ll answer it in a few ways. I had read several times that the greatest force for ocean conservation in America was Flipper. If that’s true, it makes a lot of sense to me. Flipper’s the reason people demanded dolphin-safe tuna nets. I’ve seen a lot of this very grim footage which means a lot more to me than the general public, and that doesn’t spur me to action. What spurs me to action is affection. If I love something, that’s when I’m gonna want to protect it.
My whole theory and perspective is I wanna light the fire. I wanna make films that make people happy and get them excited about the ocean and feel a kinship with creatures. What’s on TV is sharks, sharks, and more sharks, and danger and teeth and attacks. Virtually everyone I talk to, when they found out what I do they say, “You can’t be serious. You go in the ocean? Aren’t you afraid of getting eaten by sharks?’ That’s what everybody thinks. It’s true. I laugh, but that’s what people think. 20 years of shark week and the movie jaws terrorized three generations including me. It’s my job as I see to kindle that affection and point out the beauty that exists in the water that isn’t sharks or whales, because that’s mostly what’s shown on TV.
You’ve dived all over the world, I assume. In your dives have you witnessed the degradation of ocean habitats?
I’ve seen altered environmental states locally in California with the urchin barrens. I will have done a dive in a beautiful kelp forest and two years later it’s nothing but rubble and purple urchins. That, I think, can be extrapolated back to the wiping out of the sea otter. I have seen dead coral reefs in Papua New Guinea. You can go from one reef to another and one will be alive and one will have expired.
Your narration contains a lot of science about the creatures. Where did you get that information?
I’m just incredibly smart… No, the research was by far the hardest part of the film. I used every source available. I hired the curator at the Aquarium of the Pacific to go through and name every creature, and then I cross-checked her answers on the internet and with other scientists. I talked to two authors of fish ID books who spend a lot of time in the field in these area. So they were a great help and their books were a great help.
One resource which was incredibly helpful was certain aquariasts, aquarium hobbyists, have a lot more information about behavior than people studying in the wild, because these creatures are so rare and so secretive that really, you can’t just google a rhinopius and get a lot of information, they’re not well studied. People are more concerned about pelagics and mercury, which are more cogent right now. So a lot of these animals are so rare that there isn’t a big body of knowledge in one source.
Is there a particular environmental/ocean issue you are most concerned about?
There are so many. I heard a radio show yesterday about the Pacific Garbage patch. There was a man talking about how some of the plastic bags don’t stay in the form of bags, they dissolve into a broth of plastic. That’s in addition to the nurdles and the footballs and the kayaks, and they absorb every toxin that comes out of the sky, so they’re toxic waste. I think they said there’s ten million square miles of toxic plastic in the pacific ocean.
That’s a concern, and I think shark finning is a huge concern. The most infuriating atrocity occurring for me is bycatch because they don’t use the bycatch. My suggestion would be to harvest the bycatch, as long as you’re gonna kill it anyway, and sell it to the fish farmers. They’re out catching fish to feed their salmon and whatever else. If you hauled all this bycatch in, maybe you could save other fish that you’re killing and feeding to the farmed fish. The ratio is 7 pounds of fish to grow one pound of fish.
Do you have a favorite marine creature that you’ve seen?
I have three. My top three are the striated hairy frogfish, personal favorite. Two is flamboyant cuttlefish. And three is the bluering octopus, that’s one of the most exquisite creatures in nature. They will actually come over to you if you’re alone and gentle, and just check you out and hang out, and look you right in the eye. You can feel the presence, not as powerful as with a dolphin, but you can feel that they are prescient, and their eyes are exquisite and they’re a very unusual shape, so that’s the first thing you look at.
How has the response been to the film, and what do you hope to achieve with your film?
The response has been delight. People are so surprised. I show it at schools a lot, and we’ll do an assembly and they’ll watch the movie. They are so amazed that someone can have so much fun with a subject, and they’re amazed by these creatures. It’s also really helpful and healthy for kids to see an adult who is unabashedly in love with the oceans.
Usually when you see something, I’ll use Planet Earth as an example, it’s so professorial, it’s so from on high. They never have fun, it’s never spontaneous, and it’s always like a lecture or a sermon. I want to get away from that. The last person to not do that was Jacques Cousteau. When he was on camera, or voicing, you felt his affection for the creatures, and that’s what I’m trying to promote. I want to spread a kind vision of the sea and get as many people to be involved and connected to it as possible so that when they read about altered oceans and 100 million sharks finned every year, and all those stories, it will mean something to them because they’ve had this exposure to really charming, wonderful creatures. That’s my intention, that’s the bottom line.