The camera panned across a wide expanse of calm, gray sea at sunset, eliciting oohs and ahs from the audience, before delving into vibrant blue shots of underwater life. Schools of fish, colonies of shrimp and clusters of coral soon filled the screen, their colors even brighter and movements crisper on the giant 3D screen.
“Secrets of the Sea,” a documentary about cooperation among marine life, was directed by Jonathan Bird and Howard Hall and produced by Michele Hall. The documentary is a creation of Howard Hall Productions, which has specialized in marine wildlife pictures for the past 30 years, and Oceanic Research Group, a non-profit organization led by Bird and dedicated to ocean conservation and marine education.
The 45-minute documentary opened at the New England Aquarium’s Simons Theater Feb. 17 and will screen through Dec. 31.
“Secrets of the Sea” aims to “describe the ocean as it really is,” said Howard, who directed his first IMAX underwater film, “Into the Deep,” in 1994. He said most underwater wildlife films sensationalize the violence and predation among marine life, when, in reality, “the most important thing in the ocean is cooperation between species and symbiotic behaviors.”
Symbiosis — interaction between dissimilar organisms which depend on one another for survival, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — is a recurring theme of “Secrets of the Sea.”
The documentary depicts mutually beneficial relationships like that of sea anemones and clownfish — sea anemones provide clownfish shelter, while clownfish provide anemones nutrients.
“Whereas most documentaries try to play up predator-prey relationships, the fact is that in the ocean, there’s a lot more cooperation between species than there is eating each other,” Bird said.
“Secrets of the Sea” features clips of 70 different marine species that the Halls and Bird shot in 16 different locations, from California to the Philippines.
Bird said that most of the filming took place over three years, beginning in 2019, but some sequences took longer. He said that the footage of blue whales that appears in “Secrets of the Sea” took Howard nearly 10 years to capture.
“[Blue whales are] very, very large and very difficult to approach,” Howard said. “They’re very difficult to get underwater footage of and I spent 10 years gathering the footage that is in the film, which amounts to about 90 seconds.”
Although COVID-19 shut down some of the team’s expeditions, Bird said the pandemic allowed the team to work because there was “nothing else to do but go scuba diving.”
Bird said that the Halls inspired him to pursue underwater filmmaking 30 years prior when he watched a documentary of theirs, “Shadows in a Desert Sea.” Later, the three crossed paths at dive shows and dove in the Philippines together, until eventually the Halls mentored him on his film “Ancient Caves,” Bird said.
Michele described working with Bird as “a great collaboration” and “an opportunity for Howard and I to be able to get back out in the water.”
Michele said she and Howard had decided they were “semi-retired” until Bird contacted them about making an IMAX film, which eventually led to their collaboration on “Secrets of the Sea.”
“I kind of dragged them out of retirement a little bit,” Bird said. “They’ve been having a blast with it and so am I, so it was really good fun.”
In addition to its focus on symbiosis, the film also highlights the importance of the ocean’s biodiversity.
Howard said overfishing can knock ecosystems out of equilibrium, as reducing one species’ population can disrupt symbiotic relationships essential to the entire ecosystem.
“Ecosystems are complicated communities where animals interrelate with each other,” Howard said. “When those relationships break down, the whole ecosystem breaks down, so biodiversity is extremely important.”
Michele said she hopes the documentary brings awareness.
“It’s our hope that the film will help increase people’s awareness and appreciation for the ocean and for the magnificence of the animals,” Michele said. “With that appreciation and awareness, we hope then that they’ll be more inclined to want to protect the ocean environment.”
The next project for the creators of “Secrets of the Sea” will likely be another collaboration between Hall Productions and Bird, Michele said, and likely another IMAX giant-screen documentary.
Bird said that seeing the film in IMAX giant-screen 3D at the aquarium’s preview allowed him to notice things that he was unable to while shooting.
“You just don’t have much opportunity to look around and enjoy the moment, and then later when you’re sitting in the theater, you’re like, ‘holy cow,’” Bird said.
A lot of footage did not make it into the final cut of “Secrets of the Sea,” so Bird said many of the cut sequences will contribute to the next film.
Howard said that the team has already begun shooting for the next documentary, which he believes will expand on the ideas of symbiosis and cooperation depicted in “Secrets of the Sea.”
“That’s the story of the ocean,” he said. “This is a gentler, calmer, less violent place than we’ve been led to believe.”