The 5 Best Ocean Films of all Time

I am attending The Blue Ocean Film Festival and Conservation Summit this week in Monterey. In attendance are some of the world’s best ocean filmmakers, explorers, researchers, and conservationists

Oscar-winning Director James Cameron is here, along with explorer Don Walsh, filmmakers Greg and Shaun MacGillivray, oceanographer Sylvia Earle, NOAA Director Jane Lubchenco and Jacques Cousteau’s son Jean-Michel Cousteau.

There is something about ocean films that bring me back to my childhood. Maybe it was my love for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island or being mesmerized by Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Add the wonderful memories of watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau on television with my family and I’m a sucker for anything to do with the sea.

In honor of the Blue Ocean Film Festival, here is my list of the top five ocean films of all time.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

1. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) 

A highly eccentric homage to Jacques Cousteau with a little bit of Fellini thrown in, The Life Aquatic features Bill Murray as washed up ocean explorer Steve Zissou who searches for the elusive Jaguar shark to revive his career and avenge the death of his longtime friend and partner Esteban. The film also stars Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Angelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum and cult favorite Bud Cort. The cast partakes in an underwater odyssey and madcap adventures on Zissou’s research vessel The Belafonte. In The Life Aquatic, director-producer Wes Anderson creates a funny and unique film that is a love letter to our romance with the sea. Mark Mothersbaugh, formerly of Devo, provides the ultra cool soundtrack.

famous poster

2. Jaws (1975)

With Jaws, director Steven Spielberg launched Hollywood into an obsession with action-packed high-concept blockbusters and furthered the legend of the Great White shark.

While the mechanical shark doesn’t hold up, who could ever forget the dazzling brilliance of Robert Shaw as the maniacal sea dog Quint. The suspenseful scene in which Shaw tells the tale of being surrounded by sharks after surviving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during World War II while Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss listen on and the shark silently closes in is still riveting. Based on Peter Benchley’s bestselling book of the same name, Jaws destroyed any opportunity to educate the public about the critical role that sharks play in maintaining the health of ocean ecosystems and made the ocean a scary place for people who don’t know better.

Cover of

3. The Cove (2009)

The Cove is Ocean’s Eleven meets Flipper, an action-packed, emotionally charged, caper film that is so well made it received an Oscar for Best Documentary. Director Louis Psihoyos tells the tale of dolphin trainer turned ocean activist Rick O’Barry as he tries to uncover the brutal and unnecessary slaughter of dolphins in Tajii, Japan. Unfortunately the massacres in Tajii continue, but Psihoyos and O’Barry with The Cove provide a clear understanding of why the world needs ocean conservationists.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

4. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

In Master and Commander, Australian director Peter Weir does an incredible job of translating Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey series of books into a wonderfully romantic and epic ocean film that deservedly received an Oscar for Best Cinematography. Russell Crowe stars as Captain “Lucky Jack” Aubrey who commands the HMS Surprise to pursue the French privateer Acheron around the New World. The scenes of exploration in the Galapagos Islands are breathtaking, and the depiction of field surgery and the travails of trans-oceanic sailing remind us of how lucky we are to live in the modern age. This is an intelligent and beautifully made film suitable for the entire family. An added bonus: a boat used in the film, HMS Surprise, is part of the San Diego Maritime Museum.

Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian in a screens...

5. Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Has there ever been an actor more magnetic than Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian and a villain so unlikable as Charles Laughton’s William Bligh? Laughton’s depiction as Bligh is a precursor to Darth Vader—a brilliant, flawed and evil servant of the empire. This Ocar winner for Best Picture tells the story of the HMS Bounty’s two-year voyage to Tahiti in 1787. The 1935 version of Mutiny of the Bounty is a romantic and classic example of old-school Hollywood at its best.

What are your favorite ocean movies? Share in comments.

Other notable ocean films include: Titanic, The Abyss, Das Boot, Hunt for Red October, The Big Blue, The Little Mermaid, Pirates of the Caribbean, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Wind, The Secret of Roan Innish, White Squall and Captains Courageous.

Mexico’s election: Citizens seek to succeed despite government

Here’s my op-ed from the San Diego Union-Tribune from Sunday’s paper on June 24th (web-published June 23rd)

The campaign poster on a wall in Tijuana of Mexican presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, referred to as “Bombon,” or Eye Candy, for his preppie good looks, displayed the candidate grimacing while awkwardly hugging a much shorter, darker, Indian-looking woman. The odd ad might be the only kink in Peña Nieto’s seamless campaign about nothing that is designed to earn the trust of Mexican voters who have forgotten the economic disasters and semi-authoritarian rule the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) imposed upon Mexico for more than 70 years.

Enrique Peña Nieto, político mexicano.

The specter of the return of the PRI to Los Pinos, Mexico’s White House, is the reason that the polls show leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who is called AMLO for short, closing in on Peña Nieto, who until recently had a commanding lead (Josefina Vázquez Mota, the National Action Party (PAN) candidate is given little chance of winning). The victory of either Peña Nieto or AMLO on July 1 would mean a new but uncertain chapter in Mexico’s evolving transition to democracy. Both front-runners represent Mexico’s semi-authoritarian past in which the state plays a key role in the economy, press, culture and everyday life with little or no oversight and accountability.

El Lic. Andrés Manuel López Obrador en confere...

Although the 12-year rule of Presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón, who governed under the mantle of  the PAN, was a victory for the expansion of electoral democracy and the rise of a more robust civil society, it failed to create a political culture of transparency. Calderón’s war on narco kingpins has been a tragedy and a failure.

In my own frequent forays into the bustling cities and forgotten corners of rural Mexico to promote coastal conservation, the bedlam of the narco-war and absence of government is a sharp contrast to the entrepreneurial people I encounter and work with who are carving out a new Mexico that represents the emergence of an authentic civil society. This has resulted in a new optimism and sense of purpose that is propelling Mexicans forward to identify and solve their problems without asking permission of the once-omnipotent government.

Last spring while in Acapulco to host the Blue Ocean Film Festival, more than 30 people were murdered prior to and during my stay. As a result I assumed that our free film screenings would be sparsely attended. So I was surprised to find the restored art-deco cinema in the city’s seaside plaza packed with working-class families and beach lovers. Parents and their children sat rapt at the beautiful films and eagerly joined an open forum afterward about solving problems of beach pollution and coastal access.

In the Chontal indigenous village of Barra de la Cruz in Oaxaca, I met with residents fending off proposals to turn their coastline into a walled-off fortress in which they would be unwelcome guests. “We aren’t interested in development,” Pablo Narvaez, a fiery and articulate community leader told me. “We are only interested in receiving training to help us run our eco-businesses. If we have strong businesses, we’ll have a strong community.”

In Tijuana, the city’s new beacon of hope is chef and surfer Javier Plascencia, the proprietor of the elegant yet unpretentious Mision 19. While eating lunch with Javier recently, I was struck by his quiet and determined focus to create something new in the face the dark forces that should have caused him to flee his hometown. Javier’s pride in Tijuana and his driven creativity is changing the face and fate of this once embattled but now secure border city and inspiring a renaissance in music, art, architecture and gastronomy in Baja California and throughout Mexico.

It is the boundless enthusiasm and passion for life that I encounter in Mexico that will sustain our southern neighbor beyond the inadequacies of the current slate of presidential candidates. That is why so many Mexicans, although outraged at what they perceive to be the media-engineered campaign of Peña Nieto or the old-school paternalism of AMLO, are buoyed by their fierce desire for normalcy and the realization that “papá gobierno” is now an absent parent that always seems to let them down and lead them astray. Their future depends on staking out their independence from the government that has little connection to the ordinary citizens who make Mexico a marvel of contradictions, chaos and energy.

My Wild Sea and BlueOcean Film Festival Tour of Mexico

I’ll be in Acapulco, Zihuatenejo, Troncones and Saladita this week in Guerrero, Mexico to host the Blue on Tour: Blue Ocean Film Festival in Mexico and talk about my book Wild Sea. I hope to be tweeting and blogging all week about our adventures (depending on web access).
Ocean Film Festival presented by WiLDCOAST, La Fortaleza Lounge and Guardianes del Mar.


Where: La Fortaleza Lounge, Acapulco’s Zocalo, in front of the Cathedral.

When: Tuesday, March 15th, 2011 at 2:00 PM

Additional Mexico tour dates:

MARCH 16: Zihuatenejo, TBD

MARCH 17: Saladita, Lourdes Bungalows @ 7pm

MARCH 19: Troncones, Roberto’s Bistro, @ 7pm

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