Blue Water White Death

Documentary: Blue Water White Death

Blue Water White Death
Blue Water White Death

It’s hard to believe that this film was made in 1969, but one is periodically reminded by the ridculously short and embarrassingly tight shorts favoured by the men, and the odd bouffant hairstyle sported by a lady. The quality is fantastic given that it was made over 40 years ago – Tony’s laptop (our favoured DVD-watching device, since we don’t have a television) wouldn’t play it full screen, and I only realised half way through that this is probably a function of the size and quality of the film on which it was shot.

I had a bit of a head start on this movie, having read Blue Meridian, which describes the entire filmmaking process from the point of view of a relative outsider, Peter Matthiessen. The premise of the movie is to find and film great white sharks underwater; the actual results take a long time to achieve, but are quite spectacular.

The intial parts of the film show the crew setting out from Durban to film the sharks that eat the whales harpooned off the KZN coast. Tony got very nostalgic seeing his hometown as it looked when he was a boy, and pointing out the places he and his friends used to hang out (no doubt also sporting ridiculously short shorts, though on my husband I don’t mind) near the harbour and on the Bluff.

The Durban whaling station only closed in 1975 – the footage of sperm whales being pursued and shot is horrifying and very upsetting. It’s a completely barbaric activity – you should read Sylvia Earle on the subject, and Willard Price for a surprisingly accurate depiction of how the whaling process worked (and still works, in some cases – I’m looking at you, Norway and Japan). There’s some later footage – almost equally upsetting – one of the team riding a turtle by holding onto its shell.

It’s dispiriting to see how little seems to have been learned about the movements of great whites since 1969 – the filmmakers did not sound any less authoritative or sure about where to look for the sharks or what their habits are, than anyone today seems to be. Their footage of great whites, filmed in South Australia, was the first of its kind in the world, and is quite spectacular given the state of underwater camera equipment forty years ago.

The shark cages they used were designed by Peter Gimbel (who dived the Andrea Doria the day after it sank), and float independently of the boat with compressed air devices to raise and lower them in the water column. I can’t say I would feel terribly comfortable being untethered from the boat when there’s a 5 metre great white in the water with me… When the stills photographer gets stuck in a cage while one of the sharks is attempting to detach a large piece of horse meat that was wisely tied to the bars of the cage, he’s tossed about like a leaf and the cage is bent and broken beyond recognition. He eventually manages to cut the piece of meat free and thus get rid of the shark, but if he hadn’t the shark would have persisted until either the cage broke open or he swallowed the meat and the rope and whatever was attached to it.

You can get the DVD here. It’s stood up really, really well with the passage of time.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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