The new Netflix original documentary, "Mission Blue," is a touching and heartfelt celebration, both of oceanographer and activist Sylvia Earle, and of the oceans which she has made her life's work to explore and protect. The story covers her early years growing up in Florida, through her academic career, to her emergence as a rock-star scientist of sorts, not to mention her brief stint as the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). (She proved to be a little too outspoken for the world of government.)
But the story of Sylvia Earle's life is not best told through a collection of typical achievements and data points that would make up your average biopic. Where "Mission Blue" really comes alive is in covering Earle's enduring and sometimes all-consuming love for the ocean.
Having once lived underwater for two weeks with a group of fellow oceanographers (a news clip from the time delivers a fantastically condescending quip about "real life mermaids"), having cataloged thousands of rare species of seaweed and other marine life, and having held a world record for deep solo depth in a submarine (until that record was smashed by filmmaker James Cameron), there can't be many people on this earth who know the oceans and its inhabitants better than Earle. (At one point, Earle raves about living under water — remembering how she would encounter the same school of clownfish each morning, and begin to recognize them as individuals.)
It's this in-depth, hands-on relationship which works as such a powerful narrative tool: Not just to introduce us to the wonders of the underwater world, but to hammer home how much we've lost — and how close we are to loosing more if we don't curb the multiple threats to our oceans. In one scene, Earle revisits the site of her underwater living experiment. Where there was once an abundance of coral, seaweed and that family of clownfish, now there is only death and decay. Similarly, a journey hundreds of miles out into the ocean off Australia's Great Barrier Reef yields a similar experience: an eerie, empty and lifeless ocean. The reaction seen in Sylvia Earle's face should be enough to make all of us stop and take heed.
The documentary is not without its faults. Reenacted "home movie" footage of an actor playing the young Earle feels like a transparent ploy to insert some swimsuit scenes. And the scenes in which filmmakers Fisher Stevens and Robert Nixon gush over the fact she made it OK to be both beautiful and an accomplished scientist are hard to watch without cringing, although Earle delivers a perfect response: "It never occurred to me that it wasn't OK." Similarly, it's hard to watch the passing references to Earle's three marriages (and the suggestion that they failed because of her drive) without wondering how a similar documentary about a male scientist would have covered the topic.
But such awkward moments shouldn't overshadow what is a powerful homage to both a pioneering female scientist and her field of expertise. And they shouldn't overshadow the film's central message: that it is not too late to save the oceans. Indeed marine sanctuaries have been expanding of late, a cause which Earle has been championing for decades. But the collective ambition of our conservation efforts is nowhere close to matching the scale of the problem, says Earle. That's why she's pushing for 20 percent of our oceans to be protected as marine sanctuaries where fishing and other harmful human activities are prohibited.
Watch "Mission Blue" via streaming on Netflix now, and then donate to Mission Blue (aka the Sylvia Earle Foundation) to help them secure marine conservation parks (hope spots) at key locations around the world.
Watch the trailer for the documentary below:
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- Obama proposes Earth's largest marine sanctuary