This summer, many families had their first holiday abroad since the pandemic began. But as autumn sets in and the cost of living crisis deepens, that week or two by the sea may soon seem a distant memory. Perfect timing, then, for the Ocean Film festival’s UK tour. Nell Teasdale, the tour director, says audiences can “dive into a night of wild seafaring voyages and astounding marine life, without getting their feet wet”.
An offshoot of the Banff Mountain Film festival, the Ocean Film festival started in Australia in 2012 with the hope of inspiring people to enjoy, explore and respect the sea. This is the ninth year the festival has been touring the UK; over the next two and a half months, there are screenings at venues from Inverness in the Highlands to Truro in Cornwall. The tour will raise money for two charities that help to protect the oceans: the Marine Conservation Society and Surfers Against Sewage.
There is a programme of seven short films. Top of the bill is Circumnavigate (39 mins) by the director Will Reddaway. The film follows Brendon Prince, 48, from Devon, as he attempts to become the first person ever to paddleboard nearly 2,500 miles around mainland Britain. His is a gruelling 141-day journey, navigating tidal flows, offshore windfarms, shipping lanes and busy ports. Prince has close encounters with sharks, orcas and dolphins as he attempts to break five world records.
But it’s not all about getting into the record books. Prince’s main aim is to raise awareness of water safety. After witnessing three people drown off Mawgan Porth beach in Cornwall in 2014, he gave up his job as a PE teacher and set up the charity Above Water. “In this country, 600 to 700 people drown every year,” he says. “If my paddle strokes mean that one child listens and learns, then I can paddle for six hours. I can paddle for six days. I can paddle for 60 days.”
Next up is Mar (25 mins), an exhilarating – or terrifying – account of a big-wave surf competition on Portugal’s exposed north-west coast. We watch the surfer Alex Botelho face a life-or-death moment as he tackles “some of the most powerful and biggest ocean swells in the world”. Expect triumph and tragedy amid stunning big-wave riding sequences.
Rebirth (6 mins) is also about surfing. Benoit, a surfer from the Basque country, lost an arm in a freak walking accident. He has to relearn how to ride the waves and find freedom on the water again, in an inspirational portrait of the adaptive surf community. “For me, it’s like a video game,” he says. “You lose a life and you restart another.”
Meanwhile, the playfully named Tiger Shark King (7 mins) is the astonishing story of the conservationist and diver Jim Abernethy, who has spent 20 years removing thousands of fishing hooks from the jaws of tiger sharks in the Bahamas. His favourite is Emma, a 15ft shark that stays close to his boat and likes having its head rubbed – perhaps because he has removed four hooks from it over the years.
According to Abernethy, sharks are smart and have an “affectionate side”. “The tiger shark is really playful and they’re also very curious, kind of like dogs,” he says. He takes divers to safely encounter the sharks, and hopes to destigmatise them as mindless killers and safeguard their future.
Another diving film, I Am Ocean (9 mins), tells the story of the Australian diver, oceanographer and underwater photographer PT Hirschfield, who is on a mission to save the persecuted wildlife at her local dive sites, particularly stingrays. She was first diagnosed with cancer 11 years ago and finds that being in the ocean makes her feel “happier, stronger, more healthy, more alive … it has absolutely improved my quality of life”.
Also set in Australia, Eyre & Sea (10 mins) follows the entertaining Alan, who lives in Baird’s Bay, a town with a population of three (“Just about crowded,” he says), on the remote Eyre Peninsula. Alan takes visitors swimming with endangered Australian sea lions – and if the animals give swimmers a kiss or chew on their toes, “that’s cool. Don’t panic, they won’t hurt you.” The blue-ringed octopus, however, is another matter: “They bite you, you die.”
“My aim with these tours is for people to appreciate the animals, to enjoy them, to respect them, and hopefully go away with a better understanding of them,” says Alan. “And I’m sure most people do.”
The final film, If You Give a Beach a Bottle (5 mins), is by Max Romey, a film-maker and painter who mixes watercolours and videography. Romey heads to “the most remote and beautiful coastline” in his home state of Alaska in search of marine debris. He doesn’t expect to find much in such a sparsely populated place, but is shocked by the rubbish washed up on the beach from all over the world, and the complex problem of microplastics in the food chain.
“This really doesn’t paint the happiest picture but hopefully this is just a piece of the larger story,” he says. “If we can do something now, then maybe the next generation will grow up with a different picture.”
Tickets from £11.50 at venues across England and Scotland, selected dates until 2 December, oceanfilmfestival.co.uk. An online pass to watch last year’s festival films or the best films of the past five years is £10 from banff-uk.com