Mysteries of the Great Lakes at Carnegie Science Center | Program Notes
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Monday, August 24, 2009

Mysteries of the Great Lakes at Carnegie Science Center

Posted By on Mon, Aug 24, 2009 at 7:38 AM

The first IMAX movie I ever saw, some 25 years ago, was about skydiving. But quite a few of these large-format spectacles have taken up themes of nature and the environment. Perhaps it's something about how the domed screen suggests the sky.

In any case, my second IMAX was about beavers (10-foot incisors, comin' at ya!), and takes on our imperiled oceans, the power of hurricanes and the like include this one that opened Aug. 13, about pollution in the five huge fresh-water bodies to our north. (Note from the film's press preview screening: Avoid arriving early unless you're prepared to hear the Science Center's sound system play two verses of Gordon Lightfoot's Great Lakes-themed folk-rock epic "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," looped continuously.)

While the film is structured around efforts to save the threatened lake sturgeon from extinction, the "mysteries" thing is a red herring, a nod to Native American lore, buttressed by a biologist's reverential visit to some Indian rock art. (No living Native Americans are featured.) The film blames the lakes' problems on the "systematic ravaging" of the ecosystem by human industry from the mid-19th century on.

The sturgeon is Exhibit A: This magnificent fish, which can grow to length of 7 feet and attain 300 pounds, is 150 million years old, a contemporary of the dinosaurs whose skeletons we pay museum prices to see. But Westerners first considered the fish an inedible nuisance -- they burned the massive bodies like logs, for fuel -- and then hunted it relentlessly, for its roe, which we call caviar.

Dirty water, of course, is another culprit: industrial effluent, agricultural runoff, discharges of raw sewage.

The film empathetically portrays the Wisconsin state wildlife biologist who's leading efforts to repopulate the sturgeon through a breeding program. But its handling of the larger environmental issues it raises is slightly dubious.

Take two issues. One involves the trouble caused for the sturgeon by hydroelectric dams, whose prevalence can keep the fish from its spawning grounds. The film notes that some dams are working to accommodate the spawning runs -- but ignores that any dam necessarily and permanently destroys thousands of acres of wildlife habitat. Even more jarring, in this 45-minute film, is a five-minute digression into the marvels of hydroelectric power itself, which is touted as "clean," a designation many environmentalists question.

Likewise the infiltration of the lakes by nonnative species like the lamprey, whose presence is shown to be indirectly responsible for the renewed poisoning of the once-resurgent bald eagle. (Some eagles feed their young the lampreys, which accumulate especially large amounts of toxins in their flesh.) The film reports that invasive species are often carried in the bilgewater of cargo ships. But its claim that shipping companies are working on this problem probably engenders a false sense of security: Invasives can cling to hulls, too, one of many routes international trade affords them.

None of this is too surprising, given that the film's prime sponsor is the global megacorp Unilever, which despite its attempts to raise a green profile is at least indirectly repsonsible for many of the eco-ills the film cites, agricultural runoff in particular.

Still, far from fabricating a happy ending, Mysteries leaves the fate of the sturgeon unsettled. That's one of the ways the film could perhaps raise consciousness about that "systematic ravaging," mixed messages or no.

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