Saturday, March 3, 2012

Director dives into Arctic mystery - What's killing Hudson Bay's Eider ducks?

Joel Heath's documentary sets out to discover what's killing Hudson Bay's eider ducks

Joel Heath doesn't mind being called a message moviemaker. After all, what's the alternative? he asks. A a movie with nothing to say?

"I think it's important to get important ideas out there to people, so we can make a change," says Heath, a marine scientist, and now accidental documentary filmmaker.

A graduate of Memorial University, Heath believed he'd spend his time as a researcher and academic until he ended up watching eider ducks on Hudson Bay.

Recruited to help the Canadian Wildlife Service study the die-off of thousands of the downy birds in the area surrounding the Belcher Islands, Heath says he was a lot like other white southerners when he first headed to the Arctic: arrogant and frostbitten.

Yet, after watching the ducks month after month, and eventually, year after year, he began to notice the world around him was changing, and he was changing, too.

He began to see a bigger picture that included every living thing on the planet, and the complex dynamics of a world that is both fragile and stubbornly adaptable at the same time.

"I think I had a lot of preconceptions before I went to Sanikiluaq," says Heath. "I was thinking about climate change, and how that was playing a role, but when we looked at the data, the area was experiencing a cooling trend. It wasn't making any sense."

Heath was determined to solve the mystery, and started watching the eider ducks on the surface and below.

Already an experienced wildlife photographer, he captured groundbreaking footage of the eider ducks grace-fully diving to the frigid ocean floor, where they feasted on urchins and mussels. The shots were so dazzling, he was inspired to keep shooting - and broaden the scope.

He started interviewing the elders in the hopes of understanding what was happening to the ducks, and in the process, learned the complex history of the local Inuit community, their relationship to the eiders, and the delicate balance of the Arctic ecosystem.

"When I first started talking with the elders, they all kept talking about Hydro-Quebec and the dams. They were sure the dams were responsible for the changing currents and increasing unpredictability of the sea ice. But I couldn't wrap my head around it," he says.

"I couldn't really grasp how dams and fresh water were creating such different conditions, but eventually, it all made sense - and became clear in a way that seems quite simple to me now."

Essentially, what Heath's research - and countless other important scientific studies - proved, is that increasing the amount of fresh water released into Hudson Bay during the winter has a drastic impact on sea ice.

"There's still some debate about river run-off versus ice melt, but there's no question that increased fresh water in the area surrounding the Belcher Islands was having a profound impact on the ducks."

Heath shows us what happens, in painfully sad images of the ducks dying a slow death from starvation as the clear patches of open water shrink, replaced by churning chunks of bro-ken ice that make it practically impossible for the birds to raise their young, or feed on the bottom without suffocating. "It's not just the ducks that are affected, either. It's the polar bears and belugas, too."

But it doesn't end there, says Heath. The story goes straight to the heart of the human experience, and how a few degrees on our thermostat can herald species Armageddon.

Heath was forced to witness a massive die-off first-hand, and, like every well-intentioned human, tried to help the struggling ducks by manually removing large chunks of ice from a small pool of open water.

It made him feel better, but accomplished little, other than extending the suffering of some - and saving a handful of others. He could have surrendered to cynicism, but that's not what the people of the North have traditionally done. Instead, they adapt and search for solutions.

"I think human beings love finding solutions to problems. So that's what I chose to focus on. I had no intention of making a doom-and-gloom documentary, because I am very hopeful we can find a solution that works for everyone," he says.

"I think there's a way for hydro to work with the seasons instead of against them."

Heath's film makes it clear we are changing traditional seasonal cur-rents, which, in turn, affects the entire climate of the planet and the future of every species that calls it home - including us.

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