New IMAX film shows that the real secret of life under the sea is that it's surprisingly fun
By Cory Schachtel | January 18, 2023
When you settle in to watch an under-the-sea nature documentary — especially when settling in means putting on 3D glasses and looking up at Telus World of Science Edmonton’s (TWOSE) IMAX screen — you expect to see at least a few things: freaky-looking fish, vivid colours and sharks.
Jonathan Bird’s Secrets of the Sea, which just premiered at TWOSE, has all of the above, but takes a different tack than most nature documentaries, whether on land, underwater or in the air. Instead of focusing on the brutal, life-and-death reality of the creatures that call Earth’s oceans home, Bird’s cameras focus on what those creatures spend most of their lives actually doing: hanging out, playing and even cooperating in surprising (and sometimes gross) ways.
“If you’re an underwater cameraman, sharks pay the bills. Sharks built my house. I love sharks. But we didn’t put a lot of sharks in this because we didn’t want to make it a big shark feeding frenzy film,” Bird explains.
Even for someone like Bird, who seemingly spends as much time underwater as he does on land, it’s actually difficult to see natural predation in the sea — almost every clip you’ve seen of a shark chowing down was staged in some way. “If you go on 100 dives, you will probably not witness anything eating anything else. Many animals can go weeks without eating, sharks in particular, so it just doesn’t happen that often,” Bird says. “But what you see on every single dive is symbiotic behaviors. You see animals working together. And so when we started working on a film, that became the concept.”
Bird, along with co-cameraperson (and legendary underwater cinematographer) Howard Hall started a list of what they wanted to film. There was the “easy stuff” — sea anemone fish (aka clownfish, aka Nemo) embedded among anemones, the tentacles of which sting other creatures but protect the clownfish — and the harder stuff, like the footage of a couple clownfish head butting a coconut shell into position below an anemone to create a safe space to lay their eggs.
Then there are the happy accidents one gets when sea filming around the world, including Indonesia, the Galapagos, Mexico and Hawaii. In the Philippines, the crew was really just interested in the relationship between dugongs and golden jacks — as the dugongs eat seagrass on the ocean floor, they disturb shrimp too tiny for us to see but big enough for the golden jacks to chomp. “It’s a one-sided symbiotic relationship where the golden jacks are getting something out of the deal and the dugong is just annoyed by them. But then we discovered this relationship with the remoras that were eating the dugong’s poo. We had never heard of that, and I think we are the first people to ever film it,” says Bird, whose name has appeared in scientific papers for discovering other happy accidents simply by being in the right spot at the right time with an underwater camera in hand.
Patience, and gaining animals’ trust is key, and for the truly epic shots of a blue whale feeding, “you just have to get in front of it from a boat, jump in the water and hope it goes right by you.” But Bird says the best animals to observe are the ones that observe back. Turtles have different personalities, but some will let you get right up close, and sea lions are as much fun as they look — maybe even too much. “They’re naturally very curious, so the way you get a sea lion to come close to you is you pretend you’re doing something very interesting, like playing with some rocks on the bottom, and completely ignore the sea lions. Next thing you know, you’ll have a sea lion poking his head right over your shoulder trying to figure out what you’re doing. Then you can’t get them to back off. They’ll stick their nose right into the lens and be like, I look good.”
On a giant screen, Secrets of the Sea looks more than good. It’s a vibrant film that raises a point that seems obvious only once you hear it: If so many sea creatures, like certain fish, sharks and turtles, go weeks without eating and live for hundreds of years, how violent is their world, really? But a (relative) lack of violence doesn’t mean boring. It means cooperation, even playing and having fun, and reveals a more interesting underwater world captured beautifully in this immersive, 3D film.