The new IMAX film “Dolphins and Whales 3D” takes viewers into the secret world of bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, and 10 other cetacean species. Distilled from footage collected over 600 hours of diving, the 42-minute film succeeds because it doesn’t preach. Sure, it hits environmental notes and educates with profiles of the sea creatures. But its aim is not merely to serve as a Cetacean 101 course, or even to take kids off harried parents’ hands for an hour during aquarium visits.  By awing viewers and allowing them to connect with the underwater world that less than 1% of people actually ever see firsthand, the producers hope to inspire people to take action to conserve this precious environment. So don’t expect footage of manatees mangled by motor boat propellers, or wasted coastlines.

“We could have shown images of dead dolphins, dead whales, but that was not the purpose of the film,” said producer François Mantello, during a question and answer session after the film’s premiere at Boston’s New England Aquarium on February 15. François’ bother, Jean Jacques Mantello, directed the film.

While the film is kid-friendly, its stunning underwater footage will keep adults at the edge of their seats, too. It’s difficult to fall asleep with an eight-ton whale slashing his massive 3D tail through roiling ocean water at what feels like two inches from your nose—so close that you can count the white barnacles encrusting his taut grey skin, or the scars on his snout as he looms up  to your face.

Narrator Daryl Hannah’s  deep, distinctive voice enhances the sensation that viewers are in a mysterious world. She’s well-cast, not only because of her emotive voice, but also because of her impressive green record—she once lived in a tree for three weeks to protest the destruction of an urban farm in Los Angeles.

Hannah, in turn, was drawn to the project in part because of its producers’ compassionate approach to filming.  None of the animals shown in the film were trained or captive—a rarity in the wildlife film industry. “I love the fact that all of these animals were filmed in the wild,” said Hannah in an interview before the premiere. “They did most of this film free-diving. The animals could have left easily, so the divers had to be accepted by them in order to get any of this footage, which is why it took three years to collect.”

“Dolphins” is also unique in that every second of footage is taken from underwater. “Usually you see movies about dolphins and whales and you see their tails and you see them breaching and that kind of thing—but this is all from their world, in their world,” Hannah said.

Film collaborator Jean Michel Cousteau, son of ocean explorer Jacque Cousteau, also believes that helping people to experience the ocean—speaking to the heart first, rather than trying to appeal directly to the mind—is the best way to inspire conservationist attitudes. “That’s all you have to do,” he said in an interview before the premiere. “Then good sense prevails.” The seed of his own career as a marine conservationist and founder of Ocean Futures Society was planted in childhood, when he saw firsthand the degradation of the ocean, his “backyard and second home” growing up in France.

As the lights went down on the night of the premiere, François Montello told the audience: “put on your glasses, put on your fins, hold your breath, and have a great dive,” and the film turned out to be just that. You’ll likely forget you’re sitting in a movie theater wearing those goofy 3D glasses. Don’t be surprised if you flinch as whales skim the tip of your nose, or if you reach out when dolphins toss bits of seaweed to you in a game of catch.

Dolphins and Whales 3Dwill roll out across the country over the next year. It runs at Boston’s New England Aquarium through April 16th. Check the film’s website for other locations and dates. Eventually, the Mantello brothers hope to see the film screened in Japan, where whaling is still practiced.

Story by Tobin Hack. This article originally appeared in Plenty in February 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Swimming with killer whales
A new IMAX 3D film narrated by Daryl Hannah lets viewers dive into a mysterious underwater world.