Peter Young on “The Last Ocean” and the Politics of Antarctica’s Ross Sea

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Image from the documentary The Last Ocean, directed by Peter Young

Peter Young’s The Last Ocean explores Antarctica’s Ross Sea, the last “living laboratory” in the world.

Read a recap of opening night at the New York WILD Film Festival »

I had the opportunity to interview Peter Young, the director of The Last Ocean, despite the 18-hour time difference between Brooklyn, New York, and Christchurch, New Zealand. A veteran of outdoor cinematography, Young ironically began his filmmaking career while working on a fishing boat.

He first visited Antarctica 25 years ago, working as a dishwasher at the McMurdo Station — “And I kind of fell in love with the Ross Sea back then, way before I was a filmmaker. I was just working there, and I thought, ‘This is a special place,’” he said.

Young spoke with me about the current politics surrounding the Ross Sea’s conservation, his continued work with “The Last Ocean” campaign and the most important thing aspiring filmmakers should know.

POV: Could you briefly describe The Last Ocean?

Peter Young: The film is about the campaign to protect our last untouched ocean from humanity’s insatiable appetite. So it’s a problem that we’re all a part of. I’d first been to the Ross Sea seven or eight years ago to film the wildlife. At that point no one really knew about this issue, and whether we can stop it or not was irrelevant.

What I wanted us to know as a planet — as humanity — was that if we were going to destroy this last pristine place, I wanted it to be a conscious decision. I wanted them to know this is where we are at. This is the state of the world’s oceans, and this is the cost, the real cost of eating that fish. Currently there’s a proposal on the table that would establish a very large marine protected area in the Ross Sea, and if it goes through, then that would be fantastic. It would be the world’s largest marine protected area. But fishing will continue, and we will destroy this last vestige of untouched ocean.

It’s not just the fishing industry; it’s the long reach of our global economy. You know, the fishing industry are the people are at the very forefront of it, but it’s really the push by, you know, our Western society, and as I say, the insatiable appetite for fish. We love fish, and we’ve got to realize that there’s not enough fish in the ocean to feed us all now.

POV: There’s nothing left? Nowhere else to go?

Peter Young: I grew up as a surfer, and I used to look out at the ocean and just see this infinite resource. I never ever dreamt, when I was a young man, that we would get to the bottom of the ocean; literally, you know, in the sense of what it offered us. But we are there; we’re there right now. And these are the times that we face and that our children are definitely going to face. And I’m sure that we are going to see enormous changes.

POV: The film premiered in 2012. Have there have been any developments in policy regarding the Ross Sea since then?

Peter Young: CCAMLR (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) works on consensus, so you need all the parties to support a proposal. Both New Zealand and the United States have presented this proposal for a large marine protected area in the Ross Sea, and CCAMLR have been trying to reach agreement on it for the last three years. Now, they’ve had three meetings. They’ve got 23 nations supporting this proposal, but two nations holding out — Ukraine and Russia. So they’ll keep on going back until they reach agreement. And they’re hoping that that agreement will happen in November of this year, and that we will get this huge marine protected area, established in the Ross Sea.

POV: Will it be protected if this agreement passes?

Peter Young: Well, large parts of the Ross Sea will be protected, but the fisheries will still be able to exist. That’s a trade-off.

POV: But could it possibly slow the rate of at which fish are being removed?

Peter Young: No, it won’t slow the rate. You know, places as special as the Ross Sea should have no fishing there whatsoever. When we are at the point where we are now, in terms of the world’s oceans, we’ve got to guard these last places and treat them as the treasures they are, as the jewels they are. Because in generations to come, we need to be able to look at what the oceans used to be like. We have no idea because without the unaltered oceans we do not have that baseline, that living laboratory. And they’re essential. We have no idea how valuable those places will be in a couple of generations. Right now, it takes a lot of foresight. Empty pockets and a bank deficit are not very good for foresight. It’s the same as every problem we face — it’s short-term gain as opposed to the long-term benefits.

POV: What do you envision for the future of the campaign? Are you developing any other media projects or are you continuing to give lectures?

Peter Young: In terms of The Last Ocean, it’s just wonderful that the film’s having such a long life. And the film will be relevant as long as this issue’s around. And until we have a large marine protected area, until we’ve protected the Ross Sea, this film will be relevant, and it’s just going to be out there.

POV: You mentioned that you were not originally a filmmaker, so I was interested in how you got into making documentary films.

Peter Young: After I washed dishes in Antarctica, I traveled to the States, where I lived for some years. And I ended up working on a commercial fishing boat, ironically, in Alaska, and the skipper had a video camera. It was one of the first video cameras, because it was nearly 30 years ago. And I just picked up the camera and started filming, and I just loved it. And I thought, “This is what I want to do.”

I was 27 years old and I went back to New Zealand and I re-trained and I’ve ended up doing a lot of outdoor, wildlife-y documentaries. I’ve always loved the outdoors. That’s how I got into it. I just picked up a camera and thought, “This is my path.” Before that, I just enjoyed people. I was curious, I was a bit of a rolling stone, you know, traveling a lot and having a look around the world. And I found it — I found my path on a fishing boat. And I went back and I’ve been doing it ever since.

POV: Is there any advice that you would give to emerging independent filmmakers as they try to get their films seen, or as they’re working to define their voice?

Peter Young: I think that you have to be very passionate. You need to find the stories that are going to burn inside you, because it’s like running a marathon, making any sort of long film project. The amount of people you have to get on your side is huge. You need that fire that burns inside to fuel your enthusiasm and your passion, and you have to believe in it. So, choose your projects very carefully.

Another advice is, if you don’t enjoy something, get out of it — don’t stay there for the money. Follow your heart, and you’ve got to do that. Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to take those big steps, but you can guarantee that if you’re truly following your intuition and your heart, that it’s going to be the right decision. And just do it.

Your projects are your calling card, and they’ll also take a year — or two years or three years — of your life. Don’t be discouraged. The reason why you have to believe in your project is you will have a lot of people doubting and a lot people not agreeing with it. Don’t be discouraged by that. You need to have that depth of passion to know that it’s the right thing.

POV: You were mentioning that it was really difficult at times to make the film. Were there any particular unforeseen obstacles that arose?

Peter Young: Oh, so many. Finding the funding is big. What happens is that I probably spent a third of my time actually trying to raise funding and support for this film… And it’s just going to these new environments — they’re always quite scary. People say, oh it must have been hard filming the Ross Sea — and ironically, it was the easiest part. It was doing the politics, and going to New York. I was really scared to go on to the streets of New York and do the street interviews, you know? All the things when you’re going out of your comfort zone, like going to the fish market in New York, are the most intimidating.

The Last Ocean continues to screen at festivals around the world and is available to rent or download. Visit thelastoceanfilm.com for more information about the film and campaign.

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Justine Goode
Justine Goode
Justine Goode is a 2014 Winter intern in POV's Digital department. A sophomore at Oberlin College, she studies Art History and American Studies, and hopes to one day pursue a career in journalism and design. Her favorite documentaries include The Up Series, Page One: Inside the New York Times, and Twenty Feet From Stardom.