I usually avoid reading film reviews as they often give away too much about the plot or, worse still, say too much about how the movie ends. So, rest assured there’s no spoiler in this review.
The Last Ocean is a documentary and, as is typical of that genre, doesn’t follow the usual three-act formula we see on the big screen. However, it is full of drama, mystery, good and bad guys and what look like prehistoric creatures. What it doesn’t have is climactic finish. That’s because it’s a work in progress and the audience is left to write its own ending, but more about that later.
If you’re a regular reader of Greenpeace blogs you’ll be aware of the issues surrounding the Ross Sea in the Antarctic. If you’re not you may not even know where the Ross Sea is.
Making a documentary about a place most people had never heard of was the first hurdle for producer Peter Young when he started work on this project a little over six years ago. He starts by asking New Yorkers what they know about the Ross Sea. Most are bewildered by the question. “Is it eastside or westside?” “Is it man-made?” However, he doesn’t fare much better when he asks the same question in downtown Wellington which, compared to the US, is only a stone’s throw away from the southern-most ocean and one of the most amazing places on earth.

Having established its location the doco then explores what’s happening in the Ross Sea. The Last Ocean title refers to the fact that the Ross Sea is the most pristine marine ecosystem on the planet due to the minimal impact of human activity.

It’s described as a living laboratory where scientists can study marine life as it has been for thousands of years. Young has recorded some stunning images of vast landscapes and wildlife but the most powerful images are revealed when the cameras go below the ice capturing penguins, seals and fish in an almost supernatural environment. The water is so clear a Weddell seal seems to swim with the weightlessness you’d expect to see in outer space and penguins leave underwater wakes like vapour trails in the sky.

However, the point of this doco is that pristine quality of this ecosystem is now being threatened due to industrial fishing in the region. The doco charts the increasing international interest in sending boats to the bottom of the planet each summer to haul prehistoric looking toothfish out of the Ross Sea. It started back in 1996 when New Zealand sent the first fishing boat but now up to 20 vessels battle their way through the southern ocean and harsh conditions every fishing season.

Young records opinions from a large cast including scientists, diplomats, and politicians and fishing industry representatives. Some see fishing in the Ross Sea making perfect sense while others see it as the executioner’s axe for a fragile region.

One of this doco's strengths is the calm and well-presented argument it puts forward for protecting the Ross Sea. Young declares he is not anti-fishing but the Ross Sea should be off limits. Fishing there affects not only the fish population but the balance of the whole ecosystem. That’s a price not worth paying he says.

Young is not alone. One of the strongest supporters of getting fishing boats out of the Ross Sea is a New Zealand diplomat Stuart Prior who helped open the Ross Sea fishery 16 years ago. He now says that was a mistake and calls on the new Government to put some “steel in its spine” and lead the way out.

The release of The Last Ocean is well-timed. In October this year the 25 countries that make up the agency which oversees the conservation of Antarctic marine life will meet to discuss proposals for protecting the Ross Sea. And this is where audiences at The Last Ocean are asked to help write the ending to this story. At the moment it could go either way but Young says our Government will respond to public opinion and he asks viewers to leave the cinema and take action by contacting politicians and urging them to make sure New Zealand pushes for extensive protection at the October meeting. To make that easy you can do that right here.

The Last Ocean is part of the New Zealand Film Festival screening around the country over the next few months. You can see the trailer and the festival programme here. Don’t miss it.

Photo: John Weller