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Black Coral
Black Coral movie poster

Black Coral Movie Review

Review by Rachel Aronson, Designed Science Friend™ of FilmJabber (B)

The directors of Black Coral have put together a portrait of a vanishing way of life which will be of interest to anyone who likes "Deadliest Catch." Black Coral, as it turns out, is not actually about coral, but rather a look at the men (and it’s all men, apparently) who are part of Maui’s close-knit black coral harvesting community.

Told through talking head interviews and in-water reenactments, it is the tale of the hui, or family, of self-proclaimed “pirates” who took a swashbuckling approach to diving for the precious coral. The divers spin sea yarns of daring trips to the seafloor with little concern for the deadly combination of time and depth that awaited them. Any diver who has been through PADI-style training will shudder a little bit to see how far these fellows go with extremely basic dive gear. Very brave, more than a little bit stupid for all the divers who never made it up (and there are plenty of them in this film). You have to at least tip your Panama hat to the guys who were willing to risk it all, even if it means swimming to the next island over in order to survive being swept away from their boat.

With a quick “eh, it’s good,” Black Coral cursorily dispenses with the question of harvest sustainability and government regulation of coral harvest (no credentials are shared for the token scientist, but he’s filmed in front of a science poster, so he must be legit! It’s Dr. Daniel Wagner, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For more science from Dr. Wagner, see the bibliography at the end of this review. Yes, this review has a bibliography. That's what you get for asking Designated Science Friend™ to review a movie.). Then the filmmakers move on to the juicy stuff, like close encounters with sharks and nitrogen narcosis. Underwater diving scenes to reenact the stories are a little stilted, but also help paint the picture for viewers who might not be familiar with the waters off Maui.

Yet so many questions are left unanswered about the eponymous coral! The filmmakers only briefly address why people would actually want the coral (enter the film’s only woman, a jewelry salesperson), and no time is spent in any way explaining what a coral actually is (despite the black coral being called “trees” in the film, coral is a colony of tiny animals, and the “black coral” is their shared skeleton), what makes these corals unique, or how the corals fit into their underwater ecosystem. Who buys these corals and why? How will the coral harvesting industry be affected by the spread of better and safer dive technologies, such as mixed-gas diving and rebreathers?

Well, it doesn’t matter, because now it’s time to tell a story about being run over by a whale.

As an examination of an aging community addicted to the extreme limits of diving, the film is a success. The interviewees are mostly charming raconteurs who seem amazed that they’ve survived to tell the tale. Captain Robin Lee gives some of the more poignant interviews, acknowledging many fallen comrades and his own inner voice that says it’s time to stop diving.  The film ends with an acknowledgement of Captain Lee’s death and says that black coral diving is over in Maui. (Really? It’s that valuable and now no one is harvesting at all? Why? No answers here from the Black Coral directing team.)

The film suffers a bit from some poorly executed editing and an overly synthy soundtrack, but at roughly 70 minutes, it makes for an interesting visit with an underwater tribe.

For more science on black corals, I recommend:

Wagner D, Opresko DM, Montgomery AD, Parrish FA (2015) An Update on Recent Research and Management of Hawaiian Black Corals. In: Hourigan TF, Etnoyer PJ, Cairns SD (eds.) The State of Deep-Sea Coral and Sponge Ecosystems of the United States: 2015. NOAA Technical Memorandum X. NOAA, Silver Spring, p 6-1 – 6-15, https://deepseacoraldata.noaa.gov/library/2015-state-of-dsc-report-folder/Ch6_black_coral_Wagner.pdf

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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