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Bon chance ….

We had good luck this past weekend, at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival, where they screened both TERRA ANTARCTICA and the brand-new WHAT WOULD DARWIN THINK?

TERRA was given the festival’s “Grand Prize for Best Film” (the Jury: Jon Bowermaster takes us with stunning images on his sailing boat and kayak right into the beauty of the seventh continent. A place, not many of us will ever have the chance to see. He delivers a subtle message about climate change as we visit various research stations. The funding acquired for this film shows in professional visuals and a round delivery.)

And DARWIN was given the prize as “Best Environmental Film” (the Jury: The message is clear in this film stuffed with beautiful shots of all the famous Galapagos species such as the turtles, iguanas and marine life. Simply too many people are pressuring the 3% of the island that is accessible for the public. Tourists and the people depending or co-depending on tourism “visiting” nature to death.)

I’ve obviously seen the films many times now, in small editing rooms, various computer screens and on big screens and each time out I pick up small things I hadn’t seen previously. More interesting each time out is watching and listening to the audience, getting a sense of what they respond to in each, what they laugh at, what they moan at, when it is that they start looking at their watches.

While the two films are quite different, set in two very different environments, they share one common theme: Both are pristine environments threatened in part due to man’s rapacious desire to put his/her footprints … everywhere. In both places booms in tourism have both benefited and put at risk environments that we love. The challenge for the very near future is to figure out how to both protect these special places while at the same time making them just accessible enough that visitors can come, see and return home as ambassadors for protecting them.

This coming weekend both films show at the prestigious San Francisco Ocean Film Festival, at Pier 39 on the Embarcadero. (TERRA at 1 p.m. on Saturday, DARWIN at 4 p.m. on Saturday.)

The Age of Stupid

Spent a fantastic-if-occasionally-soggy weekend in Nevada City, California, roaming from venue to venue at the Wild & Scenic Environmental Film Festival, watching new films and re-watching a couple recent classics. We also showed two films – TERRA ANTARCTICA and the ‘premiere’ of WHAT WOULD DARWIN THINK? Man v. Nature in the Galapagos – to great response. My favorites were two: THE AGE OF STUPID and PICKIN’ AND TRIMMIN.’ The former, by British director Fanny Armstrong, is a look back at 2008 from the vantage point of 2050. The big question in retrospect becomes “What were you guys thinking, to have acknowledged environmental ills but done nothing-to-little to stop or cure them?” Thus, the Age of Stupid. (The line itself is spoken by a Louisiana oilman who loses his home to Katrina.)

‘PICKIN’ is a much smaller film, a short about the goings on at a simple North Carolina barber shop where musicians also gather to play (mandolins, guitars, violins) on a regular basis. The wry comments of the pair of barbers who host the shop – interviewed on a bench in front of their shop, waving to passersby as they gab – suggest that in some parts of the world little has changed in the past fifty years which in this case is a good thing. The focus is on community, and a weekly ear-lifting haircut.

I also saw for a second time the moving film about dolphin slaughtering in Japan (THE COVE) and a bio-pic of Sea Shepherd chief Paul Watson, (PIRATE FOR THE SEA) amazing for its collection of archival footage of Paul over the past thirty-plus years. While you may argue Paul and Sea Shepherd’s tactics, you cannot contend with his commitment: He’s been espousing the same message since the mid-1970s, to any cameraman or reporter who will listen!

Tonight, we’re off to the Sonoma Environmental Film Festival, to show our films again and hopefully to see a few new ones.

Galapagos, in Photos

Like so many parts of our still-protected world, in Galapagos it is sometimes easy to get swamped by what’s gone wrong with the place and overlook its uniqueness. Our new film, “What Would Darwin Think,” attempts to show both. Obviously the close to 200,000 tourists who arrive each year are coming for good reason – Galapagos offers the most spectacular glimpse of biodiversity on the planet. Albatross, boobies, finches and mockingbirds; iguanas, tortoises and penguins; sharks, dolphins and hundreds of species of fish. And more. Everywhere – everywhere — you look.

While I’ve been focused these past couple weeks on some of the ills besetting this truly special place – too many tourists, too many locals, shark finning, sea cucumber poaching, etc. — I’ve just put up some reminders of why Galapagos is such a draw. Photo galleries from Santa Cruz are up now: A peek at the natural world archives at the Charles Darwin Center; a look at local’s life and tourist life; the fish market and some of the incredible beauty. During the week we’ll add more photos from Santa Cruz, of Sea Shepherd’s operation and a recent protest by tourist operators plus beauty shots from seven more islands – Bartolome, Espanola, Fernandina, Isabella, North Seymour, Plaza and Santiago. If you can think of a place with more creatures per square meter … let me know.

What Would Darwin Think?

As the world raised a small hullabaloo last week in honor of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday it made me think long and hard about how the natural world has changed since his birth. I wonder what Darwin would make of these wild places that are now so linked with his name, his image, his writings? The timing is fortuitous too, because we are just finishing a new film about the Galapagos, specifically focused on man’s impact on the islands, and we’re calling it “What Would Darwin Think?”

Last May we spent several weeks in and around the bigger of the Galapagos islands, talking with locals and expatriate environmentalists about the relationship between its fragile ecosystem and a boom in mankind trodding its shorelines. Our goal was not to show (once again) how wondrous the wildlife is there but to show how man’s footprint is changing the place. And fast. The recently elected president of Ecuador has declared the Galapagos “endangered,” which takes most by surprise since only three percent of the island state is even accessible to man.

It’s not tourists exactly who are impacting Darwin’s laboratory, but all those who have arrived from mainland Ecuador to cash in on the tourist boom. They come, many of them with pick-up trucks, dogs, cats and kids, hoping to participate in the boom and hopefully get rich. Reality of course is that few get rich; in fact many can’t find jobs. On the big island of Santa Cruz there are today more than 25,000 residents; a decade ago there were 1,500. The pressure on the island is great; we watched a cargo boat arrive and spend three full days offloading all the good’s necessary to support the island for a single week.

The impact on the Galapagos wildlife is far-reaching. Unemployed fishermen often feel they have no option but to fish illegally, or to participate in the illegal sea cucumber and shark finning businesses (which are run by mafia-like organizations on the mainland). Others, tired of the crowds in Santa Cruz, are packing up and moving – with their dogs and cats – to some of the smaller, outer islands, where endemic species of reptile and bird will soon be made extinct thanks to their new neighbors.

In recent months I’ve been to a few wild places that are changing in part due to tourist booms: the Peninsula of Antarctica, the island of South Georgia and the Galapagos. All are suffering in similar fashion; each is wrestling on its own with how to control man’s increased visitations. It will be interesting to watch as they each fashion slightly different rules and regulations. I’ll remind you when our film – “What Would Darwin Think?” – is out; there will certainly be clues in it to the Galapagos’ future and plenty of pondering about Darwin’s 21st century take on the place.