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This article by Caroline Calogero was published in U.S. 1
Newspaper on July 14,
1999. All rights reserved.
IMAX’s Intimate View of the Deep
Cocos Island is the stuff of legend, serving as the
inspiration for the settings of Robert Louis Stevenson’s "Treasure
Island" and Michael Crichton’s "Jurassic Park." The remote
rainforest island, 300 miles off the coast of Costa Rica, has never
been inhabited. Neither pirates nor treasure hunters have succeeded
in finding its fabled caches of gold and silver, but a different kind
of treasure awaits today’s divers. The natural wonders of Cocos Island
are captured in "Island of the Sharks," a new IMAX
underwater documentary featured this summer at the Liberty Science
Center. The spectacular 40-minute film is designed to immerse its
viewers in the waters of an exotic Pacific world to swim with sharks,
manta rays, marlin, and giant sea turtles.
To the uninitiated, Cocos Island sounds like the most dangerous place
on earth. Boasting the world’s highest concentration of large marine
predators, its waters teem with more sharks per cubic meter of water
than any place else on the planet. But the renowned underwater
Howard Hall and Michele Binder Hall, director and producer
of "Island of the Sharks," look at it a little differently.
"It’s a great place to make a large-format film," says
Howard Hall. "You see unbelievable schools of hammerhead sharks
— sometimes 400 of them filling your field of vision. It’s common
on a single dive to see 200 or 300 white-tip reef sharks, silky
black-tip sharks. But the fact is, they’re just not interested in
us. You just need to have a healthy respect for them."
In addition to the undisputed top predator, the shark, an
abundance of sea life swims in Cocos Island’s waters, owing to unique
underwater geography that encourages the growth of plankton, the
of the food chain. Vibrant tropical reef fish and moray eels abound,
as well as animals like stingrays, sharks, and tuna, which travel
thousands of miles for the feast.
The giant IMAX screen may be the perfect medium for a summertime film
visit to the Pacific. "The screen is eight stories high and 100
feet across. You are immersed in the scene — it’s as close to
being underwater as you can get without getting wet," says NOVA
producer Paula Apsell. The film is a production of NOVA/WGBH Boston
and Howard Hall Productions, with the participation of the New England
Aquarium, and support from the National Science Foundation.
For the husband-and-wife filmmakers, the truly compelling part of
the story is animal behavior. "The strength of the films we make
is bringing animal behavior to the screen," says Howard. "It’s
not just beautiful animals, it’s what they’re doing. We want to give
people a sense of the lives of marine life so that they appreciate
it more, and hopefully, want to do something to protect our
The Halls’ films are well known for giving an intimate look at the
private lives of marine creatures, which enlighten and often surprise
viewers. "We discovered an animal we didn’t even know lived there,
called a mantis shrimp," says Michele. "It lives buried under
the sand and suddenly springs out and snatches fish passing overhead.
It’s only about a foot long, but it could literally take your fingers
Careful observation techniques and filming that took place over the
course of six separate expeditions paid off. "Island of the
features behaviors never before recorded on film, including a dramatic
sequence of silky sharks feeding on a swirling school of jacks.
the presence of danger, thousands of jacks swim together in an
school. Several silky sharks close in, circling the school until it
tightens into a frenzied mass, or bait ball. Suddenly, the silkies
sweep into the bait ball, slashing jacks with their razor-sharp teeth
and devouring them until the school is decimated.
Capturing these extraordinary behaviors, especially in large format
film, is no mean feat, even for experts like the Halls. With the
weighing in at 250 pounds with its underwater housing, the highest
quality film image in the world is demanding of its practitioners.
"Part of what I really enjoy about filmmaking is dealing with
making things happen in a technical sense, says Howard, who relishes
the challenges. "The IMAX camera poses huge challenges for an
underwater filmmaker. And I love it; I like being able to take this
bulky, heavy gear down underwater, all the lights, the heavy tripods
and make it all work." Hall’s technical innovations, including the
underwater housing, custom lighting and tripod, are invaluable to
The film also sets out to dispel some misconceptions. Contrary to
the "Jaws" stereotype, the film crew and hundreds of sharks
co-existed peacefully. "I was jostled by a shark rushing after
some fish, but that was my closest encounter," reports Howard.
Michele believes the shark’s reputation needs reappraisal.
fascinated by sharks, but there’s more to them than what they
she says. "I’d like viewers to get past the image of sharks as
vicious creatures, and learn what’s really fascinating about them
— their sophisticated sensory systems, unique physiology and
State Park, Jersey City, 201-200-1000. Admission to the IMAX Dome
Theater only is $8.50 adults; $6.50 children 2 to 18 and seniors.
The film website is at www.pbs.org/nova/cocos
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