SEAHORSES are beautiful and romantic, perhaps the marine life easiest for people to relate to because of their similarity to their earthbound namesake.
Mostly mating for life, they are also remarkable in that it is the male seahorse who physically gives birth.
Unfortunately, they are also highly prized in Traditional Chinese Medicine for making medicinal tea. At least 150 million seahorses in the Pacific Ocean are harvested, dried, and packaged every year, mostly for export to China.
Many are harvested by hand by regional divers and fishermen, but by far the most devastating impact is by ocean trawlers dragging huge nets.
“Galloping Extinction: The Last Stand of the Seahorse” tells the tale of these amazing creatures, the subsistence fishermen who rely on them for income, and efforts to save them.
This episode of the wonderful web video series “Borneo From Below” screens Sunday afternoon at Tybee Post Theatre as part of the Grays Reef Film Festival.
Videographer Will Foster-Grundy, who created “Borneo From Below” with photographer and presenter Bertie Gekoski, spoke to us about the film recently from his home in Borneo.
First of all, how did you end up moving from the U.K to live and work in Borneo?
Foster-Grundy: I finished a degree in 2013 studying zoology. I’ve always been fascinated with animals and underwater life. So I decided I wanted to get into diving seriously.
Me and my best mate at the time headed to Mexico and took a divemaster training course there. Then I moved around central America for awhile working as a divemaster.
After finishing up, I returned to the UK and decided I didn’t want to give up the diving. I didn’t want to take a usual job in biology, and go into schools and become a teacher. I’d just scratched the surface of the amazing potential careers out there.
I found out about a company in Malaysian Borneo called Scubazoo. As soon as I read about them I desperately wanted to work for them.
They’re an underwater wildlife filmmaking company based in the coral triangle, which includes Malaysian Borneo. It’s probably the most biodiverse marine ecosystem on the planet.
Coral damage from bleaching or fish bombing is a systemic problem all over the world. Large percentages even here have been exploited.
What inspired the web series?
Me and Aaron Gekoski — who likes to be nicknamed Bertie, for reasons I don’t entirely understand (laughs) — we were working together for a long time and he started embarking on this web series that eventually became called "Borneo from Below."
It was basically little stories around Borneo that looked at the amazing dive sites, fantastic creatures you can find here, and the fascinating people who call this area home — whether it’s the scientists who work here, or the local people who live and benefit from and depend on the ocean.
We ended up doing 29 full episodes, from jumping off sides of boats to check the sex of turtles, to diving in some of world’s best dive sites.
One episode we did which became one of the most successful was “Galloping Extinction.” We ended up entering it into the International Ocean Film Festival in San Francisco, and it has gotten quite an enthusiastic response.
What got you interested in the fate of seahorses in particular?
Bertie was pushing to do a story about the seahorse trade. A lot of people know already about shark fin soup, that had a lot of exposure, along with things like turtle egg poaching.
But the fact that 150 million seahorses are caught to use in Traditional Medicine every year was just amazing. We thought, we’ve got a great platform here, with all this content on our doorstep, with these amazing interesting little creatures, who are so anthropomorphic as well.
The more we learned and saw firsthand, the more interesting, and in some ways sad, it all became.
You avoid judgment of the coastal residents of Borneo who are involved in the seahorse trade at the lowest level.
It’s a very complex issue. The use of seahorses in Traditional Medicine dates back centuries. It’s always difficult to change mindsets which are so firmly rooted in culture. And certainly it’s difficult if they are predominantly consumed by Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners.
So having two British people telling you what you should and shouldn’t do never works. But at the same time if we can raise awareness of this issue and get it through some sort of local legislation, people can be inspired to make a difference.
For example, with the shark fin trade there has been great progress to really reduce its consumption. A lot of educated Chinese, especially younger Chinese who are maybe getting married, they no longer serve shark fin soup at their banquets.
There’s definitely scope for a similar sort of campaign for seahorses. It just needs to be done in the right way so it speaks to the people rather than telling them what they can and can’t do.
The web-only format must be liberating. Many documentary filmmakers feel constrained by time format issues – they either have to make them too short or too long.
What’s brilliant is the web has opened up so many different platforms for filmmakers. You can make a movie on your iPhone and then put it on Youtube. Long gone are the days you had to have extensive equipment and huge amounts of money;
You can go out, tell a story, get some feedback, then make a bigger film next time.
The world is moving away from TV. We wanted to speak to people who don’t want to go sit down in a movie theatre for 90 minutes and watch at times a depressing documentary about the state of the ocean.
“Borneo from Below” isn’t depressing to watch at all – it’s quite entertaining.
We use what Bertie calls a “fun-servation” approach. I wasn’t so keen on the phrase at first, but it’s growing on me! It basically means taking a topic like conservation which is often seen as hard to make interesting , and do it in a fun way. And hopefully reaching people who otherwise wouldn’t be interested.
If you don’t give a call to arms or any faith that those watching can do anything about it, it feels pointless to do the documentary at all.
We all know our oceans are in a bad way and lots of amazing animals are under threat. But if you don’t convey that story in a way which inspires rather than depresses, then I just don’t see the point.
In the episodes, you occasionally give very specific technical advice on how to photograph underwater. Why do you do that?
That plays into our hands of myself as a videographer and Bertie’s as a photographer. Where’s the harm in showing other people a few tips now and again to improve their own photography? It’s a great way to get people into the ocean and go and see stuff if they have a passion for photography.
The way you can get someone to care about something is for them to really learn about it. Through photography you can develop a real passion for your subject.