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Tuesday 12 November 2019

'You have to make an emotional connection' - underwater filmmaker Ken O’Sullivan says language is alienating people in battle to save the planet

Underwater film-maker Ken O'Sullivan tells Hilary A White why the use of language is alienating many people in the battle to save the planet

Call of the oceans: a blue shark. Photo by George Karbus
Call of the oceans: a blue shark. Photo by George Karbus
Ken O'Sullivan in action. Photo by George Karbus
Stories from the Deep by Ken O'Sullivan

'I hate the word 'environment'. Or 'biodiversity' or 'extinction crisis'. They're terrible words. What is 'the environment'? It's the world! It's the air we're breathing. This water we're drinking. That music we're listening to with electricity that comes through natural resources of the world. So why don't we call it 'the world'. And then it's harder for people to say you're a 'worldist', or you're one of these people putting 'the world' ahead of everything else."

Imposing of stature but mellow as they come, Ken O'Sullivan is suddenly steeling. "What's an extinction crisis?" he continues. "Or a biodiversity loss? It means killing loads of plants and animals. The way it's being addressed could've been thought through better because people feel alienated by this language."

The film-maker and underwater cameraman has been talking about a few worlds today on a visit to the capital from his home in Lahinch. His own, both the journeyman days living abroad for 13 years and that of resettlement back in his native Clare. That of his Fenit Island ancestry that can be traced back 250 years. The underwater one that he has made himself a name from documenting in TV series such as Ireland's Ocean and Ireland's Deep Atlantic.

But arching over all these things is the world, and if, like O'Sullivan, you tend to spend a lot of time out immersed in it, you may find yourself at the coalface of the damage we're doing. He recalls filming out on the Rockall Trough, the continental drop-off 65km west off the coast of Mayo. Using an overboard hydrophone to listen for possible sperm whales, they kept hearing an intermittent crashing sound. This turned out to be seismic surveying, in which underwater air blasts are used to map for oil and gas, something accepted as being very harmful to marine life such as the very ones he was in search of.

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Ken O'Sullivan in action. Photo by George Karbus
Ken O'Sullivan in action. Photo by George Karbus

There are the storms that now hold up filming for weeks on the west coast and take metres of shorelines away with them afterwards.

And plastic. So much plastic everywhere, from the shoreline to the ocean floor to the plankton that sustains deep-sea animal life.

"Sorry!" O'Sullivan says through hearty laughter. "I hate to depress people, but there are so many problems."

It's not the reason we're here today but if, say, you were interviewing a baker and global wheat crops were beginning to fail, it'd be strange not to broach it. O'Sullivan has had a conservation theme running through his film-making ever since he asked why, on an island nation, so few were documenting the marine life to be found here. These things and so much more he recounts in his new memoir Stories from the Deep. Slipping effortlessly between wildlife anecdotes, family history, life journey and even poetry, the book is a reflection of the diverse array of calls that O'Sullivan has answered during his lifetime. "Despite what it might seem, I'm very uncomfortable being the centre of attention," he says. "I never wanted to be a presenter for our programmes but I didn't have a choice. But I hope [this book] connects with people. I found it a hugely cathartic process. I'm saying to all my friends, you don't have to write a book, but do sit down and write a few pages about your mother because what you're doing is talking to somebody in a very trusting setting. I cried endlessly when I was writing this. Probably just as well I was in an office on my own."

Growing up, there were diversions into all codes of sport, with all-Ireland success in cycling the pinnacle, before hitting the road to New York as bassist and lyricist in a rock band called Shaving Moses ("I still play and write, I just don't subject anybody to it!"). Then there was London and mainland Europe working in electronics and IT. But the Clare coastline and the turf of family began calling ever louder.

"You never leave," he says, matter of factly. "The draw of the sea was always there. That's an ancestral thing. I would spend my summers on Fenit Island. It was a very unique experience in the 1980s because I had two uncles and an aunt who never married and lived pretty much as people had in the 19th century, other than electricity and a tractor. They had all this fantastic lore and stories and love of the coast, so that's where I got it from."

Having moved back and started a family with partner and fellow film-maker Katrina Costello, O'Sullivan began diving off the west coast. "Mesmerised" by what he saw, he purchased a camera and housing, and began teaching himself how to shoot in very wet places. In 2007, Sea Fever Productions, the company he and Costello set up, released a surf doc of the same name. TV and advertising commissions followed, as well as excellent feature-length fare such as The Silver Branch.

"Everything I'm trying to do is to make films that tell stories and increase awareness and education, but that's not enough. We know about global warming, but we're not really addressing it. You have to make an emotional connection with the subject. One of the things I'm really proud of is that sections of Ireland's Deep Atlantic are now in the Junior Cycle curriculum. So instead of reading a textbook about the importance of ecotourism for coastal communities, they can watch these video pieces."

He's happy to move on to the next thing now, namely a new ocean series that funding has just been secured for ("It'll probably be called Blue Atlantic, and we'll go further out"). With heavy emphasis in his voice, O'Sullivan insists that while his films can only go some way to making people reconnect with nature, that reconnection has to occur if we're to have any chance.

"Sixty years ago, the majority of Irish people lived within the country or very close to it; farms, small villages, we understood things like seasons. Today, it's no wonder we have quite a lot of confusion as a species. We live in the natural world for thousands of years, and then all that changes in a very short time and space, and we have to cope with it.

"The healing power of nature is so important to us, and if you extrapolate that argument, what we're really saying is we need to save the planet for ourselves."

'Stories from the Deep' by Ken O'Sullivan is published by Gill Books, €16.99

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