Jonathan Balcombe, Ph.D.

Jonathan Balcombe Ph.D.

The Inner Lives of Animals

Oceans Dignified

We can almost smell the briny spray from its blowhole.

Posted Apr 28, 2010

I watched the new documentary film Oceans, directed by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud and produced by DisneyNature. Having read a rather tepid review by Claudia Puigh in USA Today, my expectations were not grand. But I was pleasantly surprised.

The film was visibly beautiful, which will come as no surprise to anyone who's seen Perrin's earlier films Microcosmos and Winged Migration .

And like those other works, Oceans provides intimacy. We get a crab's-eye view of a crab scuttling across the sandy bottom within inches of the camera. We glide across the back of a surfacing blue whale and can almost smell the briny spray from its blowhole. A velvety cloak of flaming color trails from a blanket octopus like a billowing silk scarf. We look into the faces of seals, and the whites of their eyes as they glance back at us convey a blend of wariness and curiosity.

Everywhere there is interdependence. A dugong munches on sea grass while a yellow fish tags alongside picking up tidbits from the roiling mud like a cattle egret shadowing a cow. Remoras and other hitchhikers huddle against rays and sea turtles. Sardines, herring and shad form dense, swirling balls whose morphing shapes mirror those of flocking starlings .

Oceans is primarily a showcase of the beauty and grandeur of its subject, but it doesn't shy away from the human element. While the film falls short of telling viewers to think about what they buy at supermarkets and restaurants, it mentions bycatch, we see fishes and cetaceans trapped in purse seines, and the narrator (Pierce Brosnan) laments the toll we are taking on marine life.

What most affected me was the dignity with which the living subjects were portrayed. The footage, narration and music are sensitive not sensational, and the pace languid not artificially frenetic. The subjects are individuals. I was deeply moved by a great white shark swimming placidly alongside a human diver. (How refreshing to see one of these magnificent creatures depicted as something other than a deadly savage.) Another poignant moment was an a decades-old sheep's-head wrasse, whose large eye swiveled eerily like a human's.

I couldn't help wonder what the wrasse was thinking. Perhaps his thoughts echoed the film's closing words: "Who, exactly, are we?"