It was a knock on the door that set filmmaker Peter Young on a decade-long journey.
There, on Peter’s doorstep was an American photographer with an intriguing invitation: travel to Antarctica to film wildlife and help save the world’s last pristine marine ecosystem, the Ross Sea.
Peter, who now lives in Point Wells, reckons he wasn’t really a greenie but he was excited at the prospect of visiting Antarctica again. He’d spent a summer at McMurdo Station in 1985, washing dishes and falling in love with the place. He studied the Ross Sea at broadcasting school before spending almost two decades making documentaries for the likes of Country Calendar, the BBC’s Blue Planet National Geographic and Natural History New Zealand.
Once back on the ice, Peter again fell under the spell of the Ross Sea. He calls it the “Serengeti of the South” because of the abundant wildlife: penguins, Weddell seals, killer whales, and the bottom-dwelling, antifreeze-producing Antarctic toothfish, about which little is known.
It was a living laboratory, the last opportunity for scientists to study a healthy marine ecosystem without pollution, over-fishing or invasive species. But the integrity of that ecosystem was under threat from commercial fishing, in which New Zealand was—and is—a major player.
“When you’re down there, it’s so compelling,” says Peter. “It just struck me that it was pure unadulterated nature. Protecting it was a no-brainer.”
So Peter became a trustee of the Last Ocean Charitable Trust, alongside the American photographer, John Weller, and US-based ecologist Dr David Ainley. Their mission was to have the Ross Sea internationally recognised as a Marine Protected Area with a complete ban on commercial fishing.
So began his foray into the world of campaigning, geopolitics and big business. “The issue was never sustainability or how well we fish,” says Peter. “It’s about what we value. So much is still unknown about the Ross Sea. It has far greater value as an intact ecosystem than as a commercial fishing ground.”
Despite his political pedigree—his father Venn Young was a minister under Muldoon, brother Jonathan is MP for New Plymouth and sister Audrey is political editor of the New Zealand Herald—Peter never had political aspirations.
But he, John and David travelled the length of New Zealand and right across the United States, from community halls to the finest New York restaurants, talking to scientists, policy makers and people on the street about the Ross Sea.
Peter captured the journey in the self-funded documentary feature film, The Last Ocean. He and his partner Tracy Roe, with whom he runs production company Fisheye Films, were then living in Christchurch and running the campaign from their garage, while producing back-to-back series of Coasters and Hunger for the Wild with restauranteurs Al Brown and Steve Logan, for TV One.
The city was in post-earthquake chaos in 2013 when Peter took the film on a crowd-funded tour of international film festivals across the US and Europe, ahead of a meeting of the 25 Antarctic nations. Along the way, it collected a slew of awards and attracted the attention of then US Secretary of State, John Kerry.
Returning to their central city home after weeks on the road, Peter was struck by the remarkable creative spirit emerging from the urban rubble. A Dance-o-Mat, guerrilla gardening initiatives, peddle-powered cinema and open-air bars had popped up in derelict spaces, while street artists were transforming exposed concrete walls into vivid murals.
So he picked up his camera and started filming. The result is The Art of Recovery, an award-winning feature film and a portrait of a city in transition, the healing power of creative expression and the desire of the people to influence the recreation of their own city.
“It was urbanism unfolding in this really organic way,” says Peter. “Thank goodness we took the time to make the film, because it was so transitional and before long the collective memory will have forgotten.”
In 2014, Peter, Tracy and their boys Matai (9) and Harper (8) made a long-planned move north to be closer to family, exploring in a campervan before settling in Point Wells.
“We love it here, the community is fantastic,” says Peter. “It’s been great to share our work and receive such local support.”
Late last year, the Last Ocean project took a massive step forward when the 25 Antarctic nations created a 1.55 million kilometre Marine Protected Area—the world’s largest—in the Ross Sea. The couple celebrated with sold-out screenings at Matakana Cinemas in November.
It wasn’t a complete victory—the sanctuary excludes the sea’s most productive and heavily fished areas. But Peter is pragmatic about the diplomatic challenges involved in convincing countries like Norway, China, Russia and Japan to come to the marine conservation table. There’s a catch in his voice as he describes the MPA as “an awesome result”.
So what’s next for Fisheye Films? They’re busy creating promotional and music videos and working with New Zealand Trade & Enterprise to help exporters share the stories behind their products. And they’re excited about the possibilities of virtual reality and 3D technology to take viewers to previously unreachable landscapes, like the Ross Sea.
Tracy and Peter also see other feature films in their future. Ideas are always percolating, but there’s no rush. As Peter says, “you only make the stories that you want to tell.”
Besides, you never know who is going to knock on the door.