Diver and environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau, like his famous father Jack, believes that “you only protect what you love.” His documentary Wonders of the Sea sees him lovingly trace his father’s flippers across the globe, marveling at some of the titular wonders, and reminding us to care of the waters that harbor us. It won’t necessarily blow your mind, but it’s refreshing to have a gentle, hopeful ode to our oceans, in contrast to all the “doom and gloom” environmental docs that come out these days.
After delivering an inspiring message about the preservation of our oceans, Arnold Schwarzenegger(!) introduces the film. “Let’s get started and fall in love with the wonders of the sea,” he exclaims. The heavily-accented actor/ex-California-governor/activist consequently provides intermittent narration, sporadically interjected by Jean-Michel’s diving-obsessed children, as well as the French icon himself.
“Wonders of the Sea sees him lovingly trace his father’s flipper steps across the globe, marveling at some of the titular wonders…”
With marine biologists, ecologists, and cinematographers in tow, the Cousteaus head out on a voyage of “over 8,000 miles to explore major habitats”. Their journey begins in Fiji, where “the pulsating heart of the ocean,” the coral reef, zig-zags its way through the warm waters. They then proceed to the coast of Southern California to observe dolphins, kelp and a “squid frenzy,” a “reproductive ritual Jean-Michel used to observe with his father.” After a visit to the “fabled Sea of Cortez in Mexico” and its resplendent mangrove trees, the aquatic family finishes their adventure in the Bahamas, where Fabien, who loves sharks, filmed his very first documentary on the finned predators, and where Jean-Michel awaits a very special “rendezvous.”
Wonder of the Sea plays less like an episode of Planet Earth and more like the vintage Jacques Cousteau shows I grew up on – not entirely to its detriment, mind you. While new technology is utilized to great effect, it’s not quite on the level of that nature show giant’s. The Cousteaus narration is more “throwback” and earnest than Sir David Attenborough’s, their odd, off-screen verbal interplay intermittently (and jarringly) “spiced up” by Schwarzenegger’s chucking about the silly “sea lobstah.” It would’ve been nice to see more of them actually chatting to each other on their journey.
“…offers a chance to take a minute (or 80) and meditate upon our treatment of the oceans that harbors us.”
That said, there are expectedly gorgeous images aplenty: vibrant coral reefs, Christmas tree worms, giant clams, deep-sea turtles, surreal Mexican cacti fields, and endangered sharks. The Cousteaus make sure to reiterate the significance and delicate nature of coral reefs and plankton, “the most delicate animals in the world”; they promote sustainable squid harvesting and remind us how we are the shark’s enemy and not the other way around.
It may move at a glacial pace, and its presentation may not be anything new, but Wonders of the Deep offers a chance to take a minute (or 80) and meditate upon our treatment of the oceans that harbors us. “There are big puzzle pieces missing,” Jean-Michel says, “but they are not lost forever. The ocean is forgiving.” Here’s hoping.
Wonders of the Sea (2019) Directed by Jean-Michel Cousteau and Jean-Jacques Mantello. Narrated (mostly) by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Featuring Celine Cousteau, Fabien Cousteau, Jean-Michel Cousteau.
6 out of 10