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New 3-D Film, Screened at AAAS, Sparks Discussion on the Future of Endangered Coral Reefs

As the former president of the island nation of Palau, Tommy Remengesau brought a special perspective to a preview at AAAS of “The Last Reef 3D: Cities Beneath the Sea,” a new film on endangered coral reefs.

“The reefs are very important to us because they are the essence of our existence and livelihood,” said Remengesau, a prominent conservation leader. “The production of ‘The Last Reef’ can only inspire and promote what mankind needs to do and that is ensure the reefs do not become extinct.”

“The Last Reef” was shown in the AAAS auditorium on 13 March before its Washington, D.C., premiere at the Environmental Film Festival. Shot on the world’s first underwater 3-D beamsplitter rig, the film allows audiences to explore coral reef habitats in diverse locations around the world including the waters off of the Bahamas, Cancun, French Polynesia, and Palau. True to its subtitle, “The Last Reef” juxtaposes footage from coral reefs with images of urban life in New York City. It also highlights the biodiversity of the reefs by focusing on the beauty of underwater organisms, including sea slugs and the venomless inhabitants of Jellyfish Lake, Palau.

Theatrical trailer for “The Last Reef 3D: Cities Beneath the Sea”

After the screening, Steve McNicholas and Luke Cresswell, the directors of “The Last Reef 3D,” joined Jesse Smith, senior editor atScience magazine, and Sacha Vignieri, associate editor at Science, for a discussion on the future of coral reefs. The screening was organized by the AAAS Art Committee in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the discussion was moderated by Beth Dieveney, acting deputy director of NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program.

“As shown in the film, coral reef ecosystems are both valuable and threatened,” Dieveney said. “Protecting and conserving coral reef ecosystems is an urgent issue that is best achieved with an engaged public taking part in the solutions.”

It is difficult to say how quickly reefs are being affected by climate change, Smith said. “Corals all are impacted negatively and this is a really serious problem,” he said. “But, as the film says, a lot depends on what we do, what steps we take to mitigate CO2 emissions, how we deal with pollution, overfishing, lots of different things.”

Ocean acidification due to carbon dioxide uptake is just one of many threats to coral reefs, Vignieri said. “I think coral reefs are facing all kinds of problems that are actually much more imminent than acidification,” she said, including overfishing, dynamite fishing, and pollution. “Those types of impacts are actually much more pressing than the acidification because they are happening at a really rapid rate.”

Cresswell concurred: “You could make 10 documentaries about these things [that affect coral reefs] and should make 10 documentaries about these things,” he said. “We target one area because I think you have to pick something in 40 minutes. If we did every subject in 40 minutes that was hitting reefs, you’d all leave crying.”

Smith described ocean acidification and rising sea surface temperatures as “slow-motion disasters” that can be challenging for people to address. “When the consequences of actions aren’t felt immediately, it’s really easy to turn away and not do anything about it,” he said. “As an editor of a scientific journal, for AAAS, my position is that we really have to try to educate people to convince them that just because they don’t see a problem when they do something, it doesn’t mean that a problem doesn’t exist.”

Some viewers may not be receptive to the conservation message of “The Last Reef 3D,” Vignieri said, but “there are people out there who I think are reachable and I think films like this help because you have to grab somebody’s heart strings in order to make them listen.” Show them the beauty of the reefs, Vignieri said, and then inform them about how many reefs and species have been lost.

Making “The Last Reef 3D” was one way the directors believed they could engage the public in discussions about how to help coral reefs, McNicholas said, particularly because of the medium’s emotional impact. “It’s an immersive experience and it’s all about the images and the soundtrack,” he said. “We still want to take people on a great trip and a great journey but at the same time we still want to slip in the conservation message.”

Moreover, the film’s format allows screenings in a variety of locations, Cresswell said. “This 3-D set-up here doesn’t belong here,” he said of the AAAS screening, which was the first time a 3-D film had been shown at the headquarters. “It’s been brought in here. So this can be set up anywhere. And that’s a great thing.”

“It was an honor for ‘The Last Reef’ to be introduced to the research and conservation community in D.C. through such a prestigious organization,” he added, “and we were humbled to share the stage with leaders from the field.”

The film will also be shown in traditional IMAX settings, including aquariums and museums. “I think if you’re going to have kids actually get into this subject,” Cresswell said, “nothing compares to seeing a big 3-D movie that they love on a 60-foot screen and so it really sucks them in and it makes them feel like they’re actually with the manta ray underwater.”

The film will release widely in summer 2012 but it has already inspired some audience members to take action, McNicholas said. “We did have a screening in Santa Barbara a few weeks ago and there were kids coming up after the screening saying, ‘What can we do?’”


Learn more about “The Last Reef 3D: Cities Beneath the Sea.”


Kat Zambon

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