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The Making of "Oceans at the Tipping Point": Notes from the Producer

Scientists are often amused at how science is represented on TV by people in white coats mixing a fizzy substance in test tubes.  The lab is dramatically lit, with swatches of red or blue light in the background.

This translation of scientific investigation may seem a little simplistic, but depicting concepts and numbers with images and sound can really be a challenge. Something needs to be on the screen, and pictures are a short-hand for an idea, activity or emotion. Sirens blare, our adrenaline pumps. Cars coast along a beautiful mountain road—that’s adventure, American-style.

A show about the Ocean Health Index clearly calls for images of the deep blue, marine creatures, and people fishing—but how do you tell a story about a complex set of scores and the methodology behind them? This was the basic challenge behind the making of “Oceans at the Tipping Point,” a half-hour television show about the Ocean Health Index.

Marine biodiversity in Raja Ampat, Indonesia

On top of that, we didn’t want to make a gloom-and-doom show, because people are tired of that—from a practical point of view, nobody would watch it. But also, we are making some progress.  Moreover, the Index is intended to be a constructive tool that makes it easier to evaluate policy across the board—how, for example, preserving a beach or mangrove forest in a given country would affect biodiversity, tourism, jobs, coastal protection or clean water.  The point of the Index, as I understand it, is not just scores per se—but the opportunity for a comprehensive, data-driven snapshot of ocean health that shows how people are part of the ocean ecosystem. 

Fortunately, I came to realize that the Ocean Health Index offered its own structure and language. The team of researchers, biologists and economists behind the Index had already struggled with the enormous task of boiling down the human use of the world’s oceans into ten goals that are valued worldwide.  

Producer Wynette Yao in the Conservation International editing suites.

These goals linked up with stories that the production team had already filmed to document progress on various conservation projects around the world—beginning with a worldwide photo/video expedition by photographer Keith Ellenbogen and the phenomenal work of other photographers from National Geographic.

We knew that we wanted to start the show with gorgeous underwater shots, because who doesn’t stare slack-jawed at the near-freakish beauty of creatures in marine habitats? The film starts with the story of Raja Ampat, an archipelago of 1500 islands in Indonesia, and one of the most diverse seascapes on the planet.  Even in this seeming paradise, overfishing and destructive fishing practices were taking a toll on the coral reefs, an essential building block for marine life. 

But the local villagers had their ideas about how to turn things around—go backward. They had a centuries-old tradition—called sasi—of rotating between protected and active fishing zones. Today we call the “fallow” areas “MPAs,” or “marine protected areas.” With support from conservationists, marine biologists and eco-minded businesses, the people of Raja Ampat are taking back their waters.  (It’s an on-going, daily battle—a few months ago, shark fin hunters were sighted, chased down, and even detained—but the party ultimately got away.)

 In the next segment, we followed our stomaches.  We all perk up at the sight or smell of food.  Despite the essential oxygen-producing and carbon-storing services the ocean provides us, we as a species are most grateful for a good feed.  The show works its way from stories on growing oysters in the Chesapeake Bay and seaweed farming in Bali, to creating sustainable fisheries in Maine and preserving carbon-storing marshes alongside farms in Elkhorn Slough.  Along the way, we interweave explanations of the Ocean Health Index goals of Food Provision, Jobs and Livelihoods, and Carbon Storage.

All these stories are about turning a grave situation around—because in fact, ocean health has been declining steeply in the past few decades. Climate change and pollution are aggravating the damage of overfishing.  Many people feel that we are reaching a tipping point, and we need to take every action we can to avert a “tip over.”

 Harrison Ford agreed to narrate the show, but he somehow had only received the promo script for the show.  He not only had to make his way through 20 more pages of script than he had planned on, but he had to enunciate and modulate a mouthful of sometimes dense, technical language. You try saying “eighty-seven percent of the world’s fisheries are now fully exploited, depleted or close to collapse” in one breathe! He kidded that he wasn’t getting paid enough (since, you guessed it, he wasn’t getting paid at all), and told me that I wasn’t praising him enough.  (I told him that when a Chinese American says “that’s good,” it translates into far greater praise.)  It was a sign of Harrison’s dedication to ocean conservation that he took time out of a busy schedule to labor in a small recording booth the morning before he was departing for a shoot. And…yes, I did do an inner double-take, hearing Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones read about “aquatic gardens,” but brings a lovely gravitas to the show.

We are delighted that “Oceans at the Tipping Point” was selected to screen at the Blue Ocean Film Festival, and hope you can catch in when it airs on television. At least you won’t see any lab coats!