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Undersea is under siege

Film details coral reefs in peril

The undersea world of coral reefs may seem timeless, but the clock is running even in the tropical twilight.

Divers Howard and Michele Hall just finished exploring reefs across the Pacific Ocean for 'Coral Reef Adventure,' an Imax film playing at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

And the news is not good.

'Damage to the coral reefs was much more substantial than we expected,' says Howard Hall, 53, from the couple's home in San Diego. 'They're really dying at an alarming rate.'

The Halls spent 14 months shooting for MacGillivray Freeman Films, the Imax movie company that also produced the Academy Award-nominated 'Dolphins' and the superb 'Everest.'

The couple traveled to Australia's Great Barrier Reef for two weeks, made three one-month trips to Fiji and then took a seven-week journey to French Polynesia in a chartered 95-foot boat.

Hall acknowledges that their timing wasn't good as the pair followed the 1999 El Ni–o effect, which devastated reefs across the Pacific.

'Warm water in the eastern Pacific killed a lot of coral,' Hall says, 'though there were places on the Great Barrier Reef that looked the same as 20 years ago.'

Overfishing and clear-cutting the rain forests has compounded the problem, he adds.

'Normally, the coral would grow back, but so many things were impacting it, that's been hard for it to do,' Hall says. 'When coral dies, it becomes covered with algae. Normally, fish eat the algae and the coral grows back Ñ but if there aren't enough fish, that doesn't happen. Deforestation of the rain forest causes siltation, and that smothers the coral.'

The Philippine reefs are the most endangered, with about 70 percent having died Ñ mostly because of deforestation. But Hall thinks that overfishing is a more pervasive problem.

'I've been making underwater films for 25 years, and even in California it's easy to see what's happening to the fisheries,' he says.

'When we started, we used to film blue sharks off the coast,' he says. 'But 20 years of drift gill-net fishing has decimated the blue shark population. There's less than 10 percent of what there used to be. The bigger the fish, the quicker they're removed.'

One good thing about filming underwater is that the 250-pound Imax camera is easier to carry than if you're climbing Mount Everest, though its waterproof cover makes it as big as a diver.

'The camera is just massive, it's like swimming with a parachute,' Hall says. 'It carries 1,000 feet of film, but that only lasts three minutes. So the issue is getting down, finding the animals, getting a good shot, then having to go back up and dismantle the camera to change the film. It's an inefficient format.'

The Halls were diving at depths of up to 370 feet, which brings its own danger.

'I did get a case of decompression sickness,' Hall says. 'That's part of the film, and it's certainly a traumatic experience. Luckily, I got through without lasting effects.'

But the upside of working so far down is that the couple got to see fish they'd never seen before.

'One of our goals was to document new species, and ichthyologist Richard Pyle documented five species Ñ including one that's bright red with yellow spots like nothing I've ever seen.'

Contact Paul Duchene at

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