Friday, April 16, 2010

This Rugged Coast: The Coral Labyrinth

My new favourite album, which I have mentioned previously on this blog (and to anyone who'll listen to me), is Inner Space by Sven Libaek. I found out a while ago that moves were afoot to release a DVD version of Inner Space - the Australian oceanic documentary series from the seventies for which Libaek's brilliant soundtrack was scored. But while we're waiting for that, there is currently a piece of vintage seventies marine documentary film-making brilliance being shown on free-to-air tv which is well worth seeing. Ben Cropp's This Rugged Coast can be seen on Channel Seven at 12:00am on Tuesday mornings (or 12:00am on Monday nights depending on how you want to look at it) and is an amazing glimpse into a world of high contrast oceanic cinematography, scantily-clad Aussie scientists (and that's just the blokes) and a beautiful undersea world framed by coral and inhabited by a myriad of sea creatures.

The crew is lead by Cropp perpetually standing alert at the helm in nothing but skimpy bathers and a beard, smoking a pipe and continually lifting his binoculars skyward and scanning the horizon for anything film-worthy. The watery, blue depths are his domain and he presides over them like a tanned Antipodean Neptune. He is joined by Hal the fearless sea-snake expert with a perplexing accent and thick-rimmed glasses, a crew that seems to consist mainly of beach-belles in bikinis (it wasn't clear at first what their capacity on-board was, but Lynn was credited with 'sound' so I can only assume the other girls are equally technically equipped), guys with beards who look like they know a thing or two about boats and of course the ship's cat, Skipper. In tonight's episode, our crew are venturing around a treacherous maze of coral reefs called 'The Coral Labyrinth' (the name is repeated at every opportunity by the voice-over guy who pronounces it 'Lab-ee-rinth' with a faintly rolled 'r'.)

The sequence where Ben and Hal are trying to tag sea-snakes was particularly illuminating. I don't know much about sea-snakes, but the one thing that I do know is that they are extremely venemous. Presumably this film was made in the dawn of sea-snake research before this fact was widely known because our intrepid scientists handle the snakes like they are kittens. In a shock twist, Hal has a bit of a scuffle with one of the sea-snakes and thinks he has been bitten. The quickest way to diagnose this, we are informed, is to mix a venom indicator with a urine sample which will turn red if venom is present. The next scene bizarrely features Hal proudly brandishing a jam-jar full of his own urine to the amazed crew for several minutes. Entertainment is surely scarce on these missions. "No colour. Looks like I didn't get bitten" explains Hal. Ben quips: "Looks like you could do with some new kidneys though!" Laughs all round. Oh, you scamps.

I feel almost naive to admit that I was a little shocked by the lack of conservation values amongst the Rugged Coast crew. At one point in their journey through the labyrinth, the anchor is stuck under a section of reef. The anchor is simply hauled up until it smashes through the coral. We are shown the underwater perspective and it's not insignificant damage. There's a constant juxtaposition between a genuine love for the ocean environment and an overarching carelessness. We see one of the girls shoot a spear right through a large reef fish for their dinner - practical certainly, but still enough to cause a child of the nineties to wince a little - to which the voice-over guy just chuckles and glibly states "They make it all look so easy". Later on Ben and the girls go on a field-trip to a colony of gannets located on a tiny, isolated island where they proceed to tease the young chicks and generally disrupt the nesting adults. Maybe I should just chuckle along and look nostalgically back at a golden era when you could hassle marine life for kicks and no one would think less of you. (Cropp has been hailed in recent years for his conservation efforts, so perhaps it was just a product of its time.)

If any of this sounds interesting, you'll be happy to know that even if you miss this show on its late-night broadcast, you can actually contact Ben Cropp through his website and get VHS tapes and DVDs of his many documentaries - and he'll even sign them! Unfortunately, he isn't offering this particular series for sale, but you'll be happy to know that I'm going to start taping them every week from know on and I'm more than happy to furnish you with a copy (signed, obviously).

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