Interview with award-winning ocean filmmaker Ulf Marquardt

By Hannah Schartmann.

Hi! A warm welcome and thanks a lot for the interview. Can you tell me a bit more about you? What is your background?

Hello and thank you for having me here. Since I watched my first Godzilla movies in local cinema as a kid, I was interested in filmmaking, and when I left the theatre after watching the premiere of the first Star Wars movie, I decided to start a career as a director of blockbuster movies. Well, this didn’t work out so well. Instead, I studied journalism many years later and during this time I got my first jobs as a radio reporter and presenter. Then I tried many things to find out, what I would like to do for a living, I wrote articles for magazines and newspapers, I was gag writer for a German late night show, I was editor-in-chief of a monthly magazine for computer gamers, I worked as a political journalist for radio stations. But I found out, all this was not what I really wanted to do. So I started to work for science programs in German non-commercial TV with a special focus on marine biology, climate change, overfishing and conservation. 

One day, we filmed on Majorca and made a story on the importance of seagrass beds, posidonia oceanica, and the cameraman filmed under water, came up and told me, what he filmed. I thought, well, that’s not how to direct a film. Shortly after that shoot, I certified as a SCUBA diver, and a year later I made my first own underwater film, a short segment on the Reefcheck program. Since then I filmed many documentaries about sharks, dolphins, manatees, coral reefs, ghost nets in the North Atlantic and many more.

Is the COVID-19 crisis affecting your work and in which way?

Oh, yes, my work is based on travelling. I lost all my jobs that were planned for 2020. Four weeks of filming on the Fiji Islands were cancelled, filming in the Red Sea was cancelled, right now I should be live on stage with a show about dolphins – but of course that was cancelled. I even couldn’t film a wildlife documentary here in Germany, because you can’t leave the kids alone when they are homeschooling and let your wife do all the work. But I was lucky enough to be able to produce other documentaries which didn’t take as long as wildlife documentaries.

You are working more than 20 years as a freelance journalist. What are you currently working on?

Usually, I work on a couple of documentaries simultaneously, but right now, most projects are on hold. One reason is the pandemic, but late autumn and winter are always more or less quiet weeks for me. It’s the time for creating new ideas and writing proposals. One of the projects I want to finish next year is a wildlife documentary about how nature copes in a densely populated counts like Germany and how animals find their niches in a n industrial and agricultural landscape with only small protected areas. Well, that sounds depressing, but in fact it will be an inspiring documentary with some great footage.

Last year, you were the film director of the movie “The whale rescuer of Campobello Island”. Campobello Island is situated at the border of the United States and Canada. What was this film about?

The film was a kind of a hybrid. On the one hand, it was a portrait of this little island on the entrance of the Bay of Fundy and it’s inhabitants. But the island is also home to the Canadian Whale Institute and the Campobello Whale Rescue Team. The greatest threats to whales are ship strikes and the entanglement in fishing gear. The members of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team risk their lives by trying to free entangled whales mostly from the gear of lobster fishermen: Lobsters are caught with lobster pods on the bottom of the sea. Attached to them are long ropes with buoys at their ends. Whales cannot see those ropes. They entangle themselves, the ropes cut into their bodies and cause deadly injuries. The main concern is that those entanglements speed up the extinction of the North Atlantic right whale. There are only 344 animals left on the planet.

Do you know many whales died in fishing nets each year in Campobello Island?

I think, the exact number is not known – nobody cares for whales that are still abundant, like the minke whale. Nobody counts the casualities, and only few people will help – disentangling a whale is a very risky business and rescuers generally don’t take this risk to save an animal from a species that is not threatened. In 2017, the so-called “Summer of Death”, 17 right whales were killed by ship strikes and entanglements. The number of dead stranded whales exceeded the number of calves. Additionally, 12 free-swimming animals with severe injuries were found. The situation is better now, because speed limits for vessels were declared and especially Canada is very fast with banning all kinds of fishing activities when right whales are around.
But nevertheless, the situation was so catastrophic for the right whales that NOAA declared the deaths of the right whales an “Unusual Mortality Event”. The good news: In 2020 not a single right whale died in Canadian waters – due to strict regulations and the co-operation of parts of the industry.

What was your best moment during your work and was there a situation that particularly scared you?

It’s hard to find an answer – filming wildlife is so rewarding, so satisfying, it is nearly impossible to pinpoint the very moment which made you happiest.

When we filmed the documentary “Adopted by Dolphins” in the Red Sea, the dolphins accepted us – believe it or not – in the middle of their pods. We were diving like dolphins among dolphins, which is very exhausting because even when they sleep, they can easily outswim a human diver. On some days, I was so exhausted that the prospect of swimming with those dolphins once again, made me shiver. But it was like a miracle: Whenever I had such a bad day and I brought myself to go into the water again, the dolphins did something exceptional: For instance, they presented a newborn baby to us or the showed us a new behavior. I don’t believe in magical powers, but these co-incidences where really astonishing and it was impossible to stay untouched.

What are your goals and plans for the future? 

Due to circumstances, my work shifted a little bit from the oceans to the main land, so my main goal is to return to the oceans as soon as possible. There are so many stories to tell and some landscapes – like the high Arctic or tropical coral reefs – are changing so fast, it’s urgent to cover their beauty before it’s too late.

Therefore, on of my next projects will be a two-hours-documentary about the Red Sea, because the coral bleaching which hits the Pacific Ocean so hard, doesn’t affect the Red Sea too much. 

Do you have any message to the public regarding the conservation of the ocean?

The destruction of the oceans and the life in it is extremely underestimated by most people. Overfishing, the devastation of gigantic areas of the seabed by fishing trawlers, coral bleaching and acidification of the seawater caused by man-made climate change, the loss of mangrove forests, the annihilation of vast coastal areas through building development, the dimension of what we lose every day, simply is unimaginable. The catastrophe is so enormous that nearly nothing everyone of us can do – eating vegetarian, reducing plane flights, re-use plastics and so on – can stop any of the disasters mentioned above. To really make a difference, we need a common knowledge about the dimensions of the destruction and we need worldwide political basic conditions that aim to stop the destruction of the oceans. There’s one thing we can do to save the oceans (and the rest of the world): Elect and support the right people. This is the best thing we can do.

https://www.ulf-marquardt.de/english/

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