Postcard from the Pacific: In new film, ocean is the star

Out of sight, out of mind.

When people don’t see the way that oceans could be — full of life and color — they forget.

A new film, “New Caledonia: Mother of the Coral Sea,” showcases the relationship that the people of New Caledonia, a French territory in the southwest Pacific Ocean, have with nature.

According to Shawn Heinrichs, the film’s creator, the archipelago halfway between Australia and Fiji is one of the best places on the planet to film the ocean. Conservation News recently spoke with Heinrichs and Mael Imirizaldu, marine officer at Conservation International New Caledonia, about depicting the relationship between the islands’ people and their oceans — including an unlikely friendship between a man and a clownfish.

Question: How did this film come about?

Mael Imirizaldu: It all started with manta rays. With the support of the Keidanren Nature Conservation Fund, we started the Manta Initiative in New Caledonia to help protect the region’s population of manta rays. Then in March 2017, the Conservation International New Caledonia team talked about producing a short film that would focus on mantas as “ambassadors” of the reef. Through this film, we also wanted to give people from New Caledonia the opportunity to express themselves and showcase their own links to nature, to the ocean and marine life.

I’ve been following Shawn’s work on social media for years — it’s spectacular. I was aware that Shawn has been working with the Manta Trust Foundation, with whom we were also working. We got in touch with Shawn and were delighted by his enthusiasm and commitment to the project.

Given the strong link between culture and nature in New Caledonia, we decided to produce a film that would capture this relationship while highlighting our natural heritage and reflecting the challenges we face as an island nation.

Shawn Heinrichs: For years, I had heard whispers about New Caledonia and the fantastic marine life there. So much of the Pacific Island marine habitats and species, including reefs and reef fish, sharks and pelagic fish, have been severely depleted due to unchecked commercial exploitation and now climate change. Yet I had heard that New Caledonia stood proudly among a select group of Pacific Island nations that had protected their resources. The Conservation International New Caledonia team contacted me, and I knew we had to tell this story.

Q: What is so special about New Caledonia?

Heinrichs: I wanted to create a picture of what reefs systems, shark and fish populations looked like before we so severely depleted them. Most people forget how abundant and thriving the oceans once were, and instead consider the current diminished state of the oceans to become the “new normal.” With this shortsighted perspective, people lack the understanding and will to support broader marine conservation initiatives and large-scale fisheries reform.

In only 50 years, we’ve lost almost half the reefs in our oceans and depleted more than 90 percent of all predatory fish. My hope is that by presenting what a truly thriving marine ecosystem should look like with a healthy predator-prey balance — what we’re seeing in the waters around New Caledonia — we can inspire people to raise the bar higher, take more aggressive steps to conserve what is left and choose to make significant course-corrections to help the world’s reef systems.

New Caledonia is an oasis of marine stewardship in the Pacific Ocean, where national laws and traditional wisdom bring together communities, industries, organizations and governments to safeguard their marine treasures. By showing people what the successful conservation of reef systems and reef shark populations looks like, hopefully we can engage wider and more diverse audiences to support global reef and shark conservation initiatives.

Imirizaldu: I wanted to put New Caledonia under the spotlight because it isn’t really known around the world. Yet, it boasts some of the greatest biodiversity in the world on both land and at sea.

In New Caledonia, there is a strong influence of the Kanak (Melanesian) culture, which is deeply rooted in the elements of nature. The culture is also made up of a variety of ethnicities and communities — Melanesian, European, Polynesian, Asian and Caribbean. Because of this, people from New Caledonia have developed what I’d call their very own “nature culture.” At a time of important social changes [New Caledonia will have a self-determination referendum later this year], and faced with growing environmental challenges to tackle, New Caledonia might have what it takes to build a country that is in balance with nature.

Ultimately, I want people from New Caledonia to realize what they have and to tell them they can be proud of it — all of this abundant nature — because being proud of something is the first step to preserving it.

Q: What was your favorite scene to film?

Heinrichs: Definitely “Marino meets Nemo,” which tells the story of Marino, a local divemaster passionate about New Caledonia’s marine world. Ten years ago, he met a baby anemone fish and they formed a unique and special relationship. Even today, a decade later, the two unlikely friends have a very special connection. If this underwater world happens to disappear, Marino’s world would fall apart. His duty is to protect the reef where Nemo lives.

When I first heard about the local divemaster, Marino, and his unique relationship with a clown fish on his local reef, I immediately grasped how significant this message could be. People protect what they love and if we want people to stand up for the oceans and defend them, we must speak to their hearts. We tend to look at fish as commodities in our food chain or emotionless beings without personality. The story of Marino and his “Nemo” turns that misconception upside-down, revealing that so many creatures in nature have distinct personalities and behaviors.

Q: New Caledonia is not immune to environmental threats — tell us more about those.

Imirizaldu: Environment challenges are affecting our natural heritage. Some of these challenges have been around for a while, such as the mining industry. New Caledonia is in the top five countries for nickel production in the world. The industry’s practices have left visible scars on the landscape of the island, impacting the watershed and generating run-off that ultimately ends up in the lagoon. We also have to deal with invasive deer and pigs, which destroy the vegetation, as well as large-scale bushfires that accentuate the degradation of watersheds and ultimately impact our forests, rivers and coastal habitats.

New Caledonia’s growing population is another pressure, like many places in the world. That growing population needs to be fed, and in New Caledonia, we rely heavily on fish for our diets. Both reefs and offshore fisheries provide New Caledonia with a key source of protein, offering hundreds of different species of fish and shellfish for consumption. This ensures food security for many communities around the island, and it’s also a source of entertainment for many Caledonians who love practicing recreational fishing. The small fisheries industry generates incomes for many households and constitutes a blue economy for the country.

Unfortunately, climate change is threatening all of that. With sea-level rise, changes in rain intensity and frequency, and rising temperatures, habitat and species loss are accelerating and posing a threat to our livelihoods.

Q: With respect to what New Caledonia is doing to address these challenges, what influence does it have in the Pacific region?

Imirizaldu: I believe New Caledonia can be a model of development for the Pacific region. To protect nature, New Caledonia listed six world heritage sites and created a protected area in the Coral Sea that completed a vast network of marine protected areas that have been in development since the 1970s.

To protect its resources, industries such as mining and hydropower are tightly regulated, must follow strict standards and use innovative compensation mechanisms. The fishing industry and agriculture sector have been determining best practices and the certifying companies that do a good job at protecting the environment.

People in New Caledonia don’t wait for nature to disappear or be fully degraded to take care of it. They take action. And change happens: New Caledonia has only been building its own model for society in the last 20 years. This has pushed us to reflect on conservation and management at scale with shared governance between neighboring countries. With leading science, best practices and innovative mechanisms for conservation, I believe New Caledonia has some experience and expertise to share in the region.

Watch the film in English and French.

Shawn Heinrichs is an Emmy Award winning cinematographer and marine conservationist. Mael Imirizaldu is a marine officer at Conservation International New Caledonia. Morgan Lynch is a staff writer for Conservation International.