From the marine documentary 'Wild Ocean'

From the marine documentary 'Wild Ocean' (tba, Orlando Science Center / March 18, 2009)

Large-format nature films rely a lot on the WOW factor, eye-popping images that are even more so when you're seeing them on a screen eight stories tall. Wild Ocean, the latest from the team that made Pulse -- the big-format movie about the dance ensemble Stomp -- grabs you with seas boiling with sharks, dolphins, gannets and seals, stunning underwater photography that takes you into "bail balls," the swarms of small fish who move in unison to avoid predators.

The film, opening today at the Orlando Science Center, is a generic "circle of life" nature film about the rugged, sparsely populated east coast of South Africa, the TranskeiÖ , where the waves crash into craggy shores of towering cliffs and escarpments. Here, where the cold waters of the Southern Ocean flow up into the Indian Ocean, the sea is teeming with life, especially when the sardines are running. Oil-slick size shoals of them pass close to the coast on their way north. And the predators follow.

This is one place on Earth where you can "glimpse what the oceans of the world looked like hundreds of years ago." Fish under threat by vast industrial fishing practices and global warming are pursued by plunging sea birds (gannets) and everything else in the carnivorous food chain.

Filmmakers Luke Cresswell and Steven McNicholas Ö show us native fisherman who harvest fish when they come close to shore. And they give us a sardine can's-view of this fishery, showing how that abundance is threatened by pollution, over-fishing and global warming. As the seas heat up, ages-old migration patterns change. The sardines may move to colder water farther off shore, away from South Africa's marine preserve protection.

That caution and a somewhat vague "take action" step ("It is time for a sea change") are the message of this movie, that more of the oceans need to be off-limits to fishing so that species can recover, and that global warming needs to be combated with greater urgency.

But the wow factor is a doozy in Wild Ocean -- deep focus shots of those bait balls of fish as seals, "superpods" of dolphins, sharks and gannets shoot through the frame in pursuit of a snack. It's enough to make you hope that the answer to the "Can we control ourselves just enough" question posed here is "Yes." Even if you love sardines, in the Transkei, you're not the only one.