Reprinted with permission from
The Washington Post
The closest you'll ever get to scuba diving without getting wet is watching "Ocean Oasis," the ravishing new Imax film opening today at the National Museum of Natural History. But you could dive your way halfway around the world and never witness the submarine poetryand predationthe film documents so majestically in Mexico's Sea of Cortes.
Working with a cinematic sophistication and a visual elegance Jacques Cousteau would have killed for, producer-director Soames Summerhays waltzes us up and down the oceanic food chain in awe, from blizzards of reef-born plankton to vast silver rivers of frigate mackerel to pods of cavorting humpback whales, and manta rays the size of small planes.
It's the same sort of subject matter treated regularly on TV's nature shows, but you've never seen it like this. It's not just the big-as-a-house Imax screen that mesmerizes, or the jewellike clarity of the images thereon; it's the way everything works together, including composer Alan Reeves's evocative score, to make "Ocean Oasis" a bath for the senses.
Let's all pack our flippers and go.
The 38-minute, $5 million film, which will alternate with "Galapagos" through January at the museum's Imax theater, sets out to do for Baja California what "Galapagos" does in fine style for Ecuador's famously antidiluvian islands. But in many ways it's a better filmless dependent on 3-D gimmickry and biological weirdness.
What it celebrates instead is the incredible lushness of an undersea life cycle just a beach away from one of the world's thirstiest regionsa land so parched that one species of cactus there reproduces only every 300 years.
It's the juxtaposition of the 3,000-foot depths and chilly waters in the Sea of Cortes and the adjacent desert that highlights the distinctive character of each, and Summerhays introduces us to both places through the eyes of two Mexican scientists appealingly besotted with this part of their country.
Whether he's describing the life of Baja hummingbirds, which follow flower blooms north as "a dance with spring," wondering whether king angelfish eat stinging jellyfish because "they like spicy food," or refereeing a burping contest among giant elephant seals, Exequiel Ezcurra, an ecologist at the San Diego Natural History Museum, easily infects us with his Baja fascination.
Even more fun is Iliana Ortega Bacmeister, a lithe underwater naturalist, who while telling us sharks need to be taught respect as well as receiving it, blithely fends off a 10-foot gray reef model nuzzling her for a snack.
"See what I mean?" she says, with scarcely an increase of exhaled bubbles.
"Ocean Oasis" is a joint venture between the San Diego museum and the Mexican conservation organization Pronatura, both of which see the film as an important educational effort in winning public and financial support in Mexico for ecotourism and the preservation of Baja ecology.
Michael Hager, executive director of the San Diego museum and also executive producer of "Ocean Oasis," said the film's world premiere in Washington will be followed by a second premiere in Mexico City and showings in Baja schools. The museum has prepared a Spanish-language version of the film as well as teaching aids and other follow-up features visible on the film's Web site, www.oceanoasis.org.
Teachers using "Ocean Oasis" will find a few puzzling lapses: It never tells us where in the 700-mile length of the Baja peninsula we are at any one time or how deep the Sea of Cortes is or how cold its famously chilly water gets where it nourishes the most life. What's with the lack of numbers?
Then, too, the narration in a few places veers dangerously close to the whale-hugging anthropomorphism of a Disney film.
But it never quite gets there because Hager and Summerhays are determined that we see how complex life is, and how infinitely fascinating.
"It's so crowded down here I think of this reef as a city," says Bacmeister as she shows us a loutish hogfish mugging a colony of sea urchins while schools of scavengers swarm for leftovers. "But in this city," she says as a python-size moray eel makes off with a frogfish, "you better look before crossing the street."
Kids will love "Ocean Oasis," particularly the scare-me-to-death moment when the six slimy green morays writhe in a cave, like Medusa's new coiffure. And that incident on shore when we try to guess if the sinister-looking rattlesnake will catch up with the kangaroo rat he's stalking, that cute, happy little creature who never realizes the snake is Snaking Down His Hole and OH, NO, NOW THE CAMERA'S IN THE BURROW TOO AND THE RATTLESNAKE'S COMING RIGHT AT US!!!
Dad, maybe we shouldn't go to Baja after all.
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