Planet Ocean: Documentary Review

Planet Ocean is a 2012 documentary by French filmmakers Yann Arthus-Bertrand and Michael Pitiot. This film needs to be requisite viewing for every human being. I recently watched this documentary for the first time and was stunned and horrified at the damage we have inflicted on the ocean and on the Earth, at our collective lack of awareness and foresight, and the serious implications for the human species if we continue down this path. Nothing you read here or see in the film will be news to you. The issues presented are the same ones we have heard before, repeatedly, in different forms, although clearly none of it is getting through to us. Read it and weep…for our beautiful oceans, and for the sentient marine creatures – the life, soul and heart of the marine environment. I have summarized the main points of the documentary and added my comments in italics.

The documentary Planet Ocean begins with a geological, biological and hydrological history of the oceans, the creation of the Earth and of humanity’s marine origins.

A fiery birth

The narrative creates a vivid image of an Earth being shaken by violent convulsions four-and-a-half billion years ago, consuming itself, creating a red, stormy atmosphere of nitrogen, hydrogen and carbon, formed by meteors from the solar system, and water vapour from the galaxy. The surface was cooked under enormous heat and pressure, then cooled. Water vapour condensed, flooding the crust. Water eroded rock, salts were laid down, and the ocean was formed.

An Earth being shaken by violent convulsions in a storm of red elements, then being cooked under pressure reminds me of the gestation and birthing process. The Earth was giving birth to herself.

The oceanic origins of humanity

In Shark Bay, Western Australia, the history of the Earth is revealed in limestone cliffs, formed by the skeletons of billions of marine animals, creating our air and atmosphere. The three-and-a-half billion-year-old stromatolites, an ancient colony of bacteria at Hamelin Pool in the Shark Bay World Heritage Area, are the oldest life forms on Earth, and our living ancestors. We come from the ocean.

The ocean is our mother. I have a fondness for these fossilized beings, and that part of Australia, having visited several times over the years.

All life originated from the oceans

The ocean has built and shaped the Earth and provided the support structure for all life. Intricate relationships exist between the planetary systems and natural cycles of the ocean, land, sun, and atmosphere.

The polar regions of the Earth are the planet’s inbuilt cooling system.

Powerful marine currents move millions of cubic metres of water across the ocean. It takes a thousand years for one drop of water to complete its cycle in the ocean. The ocean currents created Earth’s temperate climate.

The Earth’s ‘blue lung’

Plankton forms the basis of the marine food chain. Every marine species has a role to play in the marine ecosystem. All marine species depend on the microscopic phytoplankton and zooplankton at the base of the marine food chain, conceptualized as a hierarchy or pyramid structure.

Phytoplankton, including microalgae, represents half of all vegetation on Earth, and is our major source of oxygen, providing half of the air we breathe.

We refer to the Amazon rainforest as the ‘lungs of the planet’, but it’s the microalgae in the ocean that produce most of the oxygen we breathe.

The ocean is the ‘blue lung’ of the planet. Trees also produce oxygen, so this makes the rainforests of the world ‘the ‘green lung’.

Life feeds life

Plankton trigger another explosion of life, billions of herbivorous animals that feed on microalgae. The most important species of zooplankton are the krill and copepods. The copepods are eaten by predatory carnivorous species.

These predators are eaten by other crustaceans, which are eaten by larger animals, and so on. The cycle of predation is governed by the evolution of species, the way life has operated for millennia. This process is an organized chaos.

But, these explosions of life eventually disappear, devoured by lack of resources or wiped out by an invisible enemy. Billions of viruses have the biological role of regulating these explosions of life. Humans are the final link in the chain of life, and have no predators.

Nature does not tolerate excess

This is the salient point and the overarching theme of Planet Ocean.

We have no predators to keep us in check should our population explode beyond manageable limits.

Humans have devised ways to outsmart any viruses (and diseases) that would otherwise function to regulate explosions in the human population to restore ecological balance. With antibiotics, vaccinations and medical intervention, human beings no longer die from diseases that historically wiped out large sections of the population.

Governments and corporations actively encourage increasing the human population. I am NOT suggesting we shouldn’t fight diseases or viruses, or not vaccinate our children, nor do I support population control methods that involve culling large sections of the human population – the ethical issues alone are enormous. My comments are purely academic.

I wonder what the consequences will be, for the human species, the other forms of life that share the Earth, and the Earth herself, of allowing the human population to grow beyond seven billion people. Thwarting the natural processes that are supposed to maintain ecological balance may prove to be our downfall.

Half of the world’s population lives less than one hundred kilometres from the ocean. Every second, there are two more mouths to feed. Three billion people depend directly on marine resources. Fish are the only source of animal protein for one billion people.

The world doesn’t need more mouths to feed. We need to decrease, not increase, the human population. I support reducing the overall birth rate, yet respect that people want to have their own children. Perhaps we need to restructure our ideas around children. Children don’t have to be biologically and genetically ours. There are so many children in the world who need a home.

The ocean has enabled globalization

As the ocean shaped us, we are now re-shaping the ocean. We are interrupting the inter-relating systems and natural cycles of the ocean and Earth.

Coral fauna and fossilized plankton have built living structures and sustainable communities over millions of years. In contrast, man has built an empire bigger than the coral and plankton cities.

We build more and more and we refuse to stop.


Every day, there are four million boats on the ocean. Globally, fishing sustains five hundred million people. Fishing has gone from a family craft to an industry dominated by investment and technological improvements to increase catch.

As a result of destructive, industrial fishing practices we have reached a biological limit. Eighty percent of commercial fish stocks worldwide have either been declared fully exploited or over-exploited. We go deeper, trawling to depths of three thousand metres.

As oceanographer Sylvia Earle says in her TED talk ‘Should you stop eating fish?, eating fish is a choice for most of us, not a necessity, and it should be a luxury, except for indigenous coastal communities with fewer food options, and fish as their only source of protein.

Globally, every year, we extract ninety million tonnes of wild fish from the oceans. Half this amount is fished by only one percent of the total number of fishing boats on the ocean. Intensive fishing sacrifices millions of fish, discarded and wasted.

Modern, industrial fishing practices are indiscriminate and wasteful. Unless we can assign a dollar value to the fish we catch, the lives of these sentient beings mean nothing to us. We discard them easily, with no second thought, no care and no responsibility. The technical term for the marine life we throw back into the sea, dead, dying, injured and rejected is ‘bycatch’. I call it ‘collateral damage’ and it needs to stop. I don’t care how much money it’s going to take. If we make it about money, we have sold our collective soul for cash.

We are far removed from our oceanic origins. In less than two hundred years, we have disrupted four billion years of natural history and evolution. We fail to see the beauty of life. We only see what life can do for us, and we have de-humanized the world.

I don’t understand why we don’t honour and respect the life we take so that we can survive. The Native American Indians offered gifts of prayer and gratitude to the spirits of the animals they hunted for food, so their families could eat.

Addicted to oil and consumption

The industrial revolution has cost the Earth one hundred million carbon years. Every year, we burn the equivalent of one million years of the laying down of plankton.

As a society, we need to change our lifestyles so we use less oil, but because oil is a finite resource, and WILL run out one day, we need to transition to alternative forms of renewable energy NOW.

Three-quarters of global merchandise is transported via ocean routes on container ships. Six hundred million shipping containers circulate the oceans. The global fleet of container ships has tripled in less than ten years.

Our fleet of container ships has tripled in the last ten years because of modern civilizations INCREASED DEMAND FOR GOODS. If we consumed less stuff, we wouldn’t need to transport so much, and we wouldn’t need as many container ships. We need to embrace lives of simplicity.

Industrial civilization is destroying the natural world. Ocean currents and atmospheric circulation disperse pollutants from human industry around the world.

We cannot continue down our path of unlimited growth without any consequences.

Global warming

Increased carbon emissions are melting the Arctic icecap, causing the oceans to overheat. A quarter of the world’s coral reefs have died, being highly sensitive to subtle changes in temperature. Plankton blooms have migrated north, towards the temperate polar regions, and this re-distribution is having a negative impact on other marine species. Global warming is altering the ocean’s ecology.

We need to reduce our fossil fuel emissions to effectively combat global warming and climate change.

Fish farming

As commercial fish stocks become depleted, we have begun to fish down the marine food chain, placing extraordinary pressure on smaller species to fulfill our desire for seafood, and to feed farmed fish.

We raise fish with high market value in fish farms. Smaller species are caught and ground into fish meal to feed the twenty-five million tonnes of farmed fish that are raised each year globally. It takes four kilograms of wild fish to produce one kilogram of farmed fish.

Marine dead zones

Around the world, four hundred ocean zones have been declared dead, emptied of resources, and unable to sustain life. Dead zones are being populated by other species, including jellyfish, multiplying unchecked because their predators have gone.

Loss of top marine predators

About ninety percent of the biomass of the top marine predators has disappeared. The Atlantic Bluefin Tuna will be extinct within the next few years. The tuna fishing industry in the Mediterranean is enabled by millions of Euros of European subsidies.

Plastic pollution

There are more than forty-six thousand pieces of plastic per square kilometre circulating in the oceans. We tip six billion kilograms of plastic debris into the ocean every year. Plastic micro-fragments, entering the global food chain.

The documentary includes a montage of American photographer Chris Jordan’s images of dead albatross chicks, the insides of their bodies exposed to reveal stomachs full of plastic. Fish ingest plastic, and when humans eat fish, we are poisoning ourselves.

Marine turtles around the world are dying from ingesting plastic debris in the oceans. The plastic we throw away comes back to haunt us, when we eat fish that have ingested marine plastic debris. This alone should be an incentive for change. We need to recycle plastic waste but use less plastic overall.

The law of natural equilibrium

The ocean does not contain infinite resources, although we have always believed it did, and has only a limited capacity for self-renewal. Everything on Earth, since the beginning of time, respects rhythms and limits. This is the Law of Natural Equilibrium.

Environmental systems exist in a state of equilibrium and any small changes in ecological parameters will be corrected by negative feedbacks that serve to bring those parameters back into balance with the rest of the system. We need to understand how these sustainable systems work.

We need to work with nature, not against her. Working with her rhythms, her seasons, and respecting that she has limits, and knowing that when these limits are reached, she tries to re-balance herself. But we continue to thwart her efforts.

In 2009, during a TED talk, oceanographer Sylvia Earle told her audience when she first began exploring the ocean some fifty years ago, neither she nor her contemporaries ever thought extracting large amounts of marine life could damage the ocean. The ocean was believed to be “a sea of Eden”, but humanity is now “facing paradise lost”.

Evolving through consensus

We know we MUST change, but we collectively seem blind to the fact that we are headed for catastrophe. We will not be saved by religion, or belief in a benevolent saviour, but by our intelligence. We must imagine a responsible stewardship of the Earth.

It’s not the Earth that needs saving, it’s the human species. Only we can save ourselves. We must be the change we want to see in the world.

At the end of Planet Ocean, a sequence shows schooling fish gathering in a bait ball, a term used to describe how small fish swarm in large numbers in a tightly-packed spherical formation as an instinctive, defensive mechanism against predators.

Cue the narrator:

“For a long time, I watched these fish. I think I’m a little like them. I evolve through consensus, in a group. Even though I understand what’s happening to us, I can’t just choose to radically change the way things are going. But maybe our shared awareness will trigger a chain reaction and save our species.”

This is a lovely way to show how if we all come together to fight for a common cause, we can create real change in the world.

Fourteen solutions or recommendations are offered at the end of the documentary:

  1. Respect quotas
  2. Stop subsidies for industrial fishing
  3. Ban deep-sea fishing permanently
  4. Promote small-scale fishing
  5. Only buy fish with eco-labels
  6. Encourage responsible fishing
  7. Control pollution
  8. Limit deep-sea exploration
  9. Maintain the Antarctic Treaty
  10. Establish a treaty for the Arctic
  11. Invest in research and protect our marine genetic heritage
  12. Protect entire ecosystems, so marine life can recover
  13. Protect twenty percent of the oceans by the year 2020
  14. Imagine an international stewardship of the ocean

I think we need to do more than simply imagine an international stewardship of the ocean, we need to create it, and we need to act NOW.

© 2016 Environmental Warrior
Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

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