The Sea Around Us

By Emily Vidovich. Emily has a background in environmental journalism and sustainability and is a member of the George Washington University Class of 2019.

In her award-winning 1951 book The Sea Around Us, renowned marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson introduced the ocean to a wide array of readers, merging poetic writing with scientific accuracy. The best-selling book led to an early attempt at ocean filmmaking—Irwin Allen’s documentary by the same name. But while the book was a valuable contribution to scientific literature, the film prioritized entertainment over scientific accuracy.

While Carson was retained as a consultant on the imagery used in the film, she was given no ability to offer input on Allen’s script. Ultimately, Carson was not pleased with the film’s outcome, and expressed dismay that it eschewed the objective science of her book in favor of outdated tropes about the ocean, human-centric narration, and a non-scientific approach. For example, Allen characterized the octopus as evil, which Carson felt both misrepresented and anthropomorphized the fascinating cephalopod. 

Nestled within the film’s cringeworthy narration were troublesome messages, including the glorification of whaling and the portrayal of ocean creatures as existing to benefit man. Carson was so disappointed in the film’s outcome that she never sold film rights to any of her books again. 

Cover photo credit: IMDb

Fortunately, nature documentaries have come a long way since this early attempt at ocean cinematography. Increasingly, filmmakers with scientific backgrounds are combining scientific objectivity with artistic expression in order to showcase the ocean in a way that is markedly different from Allen’s film. Creators are proving that it is possible for scientific accuracy, beautiful cinematography, and commercial success to coexist in a nature documentary. A notable recent example is the success of My Octopus Teacher, the 2020 documentary showcasing naturalist and filmmaker Craig Foster’s daily encounters with a wild common octopus. The highly popular film won the award for Best Documentary Feature at the 93rd Academy Awards.

Another documentary that combines science and cinematography is Planet California, a sneak preview of which will be presented at AltaSea’s upcoming event Blue Hour: Ocean of Inclusion event on October 9th, 2021. The documentary is the latest work by Rick Rosenthal, a four-time Emmy winning filmmaker and marine biologist.

Rosenthal, who has authored almost 50 scientific papers and articles on marine biology, ecology, and animal behavior, initially forayed into underwater camerawork for research purposes. His desire to share what he filmed in the ocean motivated him to transition from researcher to filmmaker. Now, he utilizes his scientific background to capture wildlife behavior on camera, showcasing the complex and beautiful nature of marine life. Such authentic and holistic representations of wildlife underscore the extent to which scientific filmmaking has progressed since Allen’s film.

The preview of this film is just one of the features of AltaSea’s Blue Hour: Ocean of Inclusion event, which will be held at Angel’s Gate Park in San Pedro, California on October 9th, 2021. In addition to showcasing Rosenthal’s film, activities include an ocean-inspired art exhibition and a question and answer session with Dr. Carlie Wiener, the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s Director of Communications and Engagement Strategy. If you would like to join us for this educational and inspiring evening for the ocean, you can find more information about the event and buy tickets here.

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