Embracing the virtues of the nature documentary Blue Water, White Death requires a bit of time travel. When the movie was released in 1971, neither Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel Jaws nor the smash 1975 film adaptation of Benchley’s book had been released, so audiences were not yet accustomed to seeing images of great white sharks. Nonetheless, even though Blue Water, White Death is very much a product of its time—and even though great whites don’t appear until the last 15 minutes or so—the documentary is still interesting to watch. Somewhat like Steven Spielberg’s film of Jaws, the doc spends more than an hour building drama and suspense. Therefore, once great whites finally appear, viewers—to say nothing of the documentary’s onscreen participants—have been primed to appreciate the creatures’ awesome ferocity.
Originally filmed in 1969 throughout waters off Africa, Australia, and India, the doc follows the Terrier VIII, a 158-foot steamship loaded with diving cages, scuba gear, and other equipment. Led by the unlikely figure of producer, cowriter, codirector, and expedition chief Peter Gimbel, heir to a department-store fortune and a onetime Wall Street big shot, a small group of explorers travels from one section of the world’s oceans to the next, trying to get the elusive great white on camera. The first stop is grisly. Off the coast of South Africa, the explorers trail a whaling vessel, watch the whalers harpoon a giant victim, and then dive in the water to watch sharks feast on the whale’s corpse, which lingers in the water for hours before the whaling ship returns to tow the remains into port. Although no great whites appear in this scene, watching the carnage inflicted by smaller sharks—which gnash at the whale’s flesh in a feeding frenzy—is sobering. So, too is the ensuing sequence that depicts workers butchering the giant corpses of whales in a gristle-strewn factory setting. As Gimbel’s cameras capture all of this nautical gore, conversation and narration reveal facts about the great white, including disturbing stories of sailors and swimmers who were attacked.
The style of Blue Water, White Death is uniquely cinematic, with gorgeous widescreen 35mm photography and lyrical editing; adding to the mystique of the piece are songs written and performed by folksinger Tom Chapin, who served as an assistant cameraman on the expedition. Others on the crew include Aussie daredevils Ron and Valerie Taylor, who later gained fame by shooting real footage of great whites for Spielberg’s movie. In one of the film’s eeriest sequences, the divers hit the water at night to survey a feeding frenzy around another whale corpse. Watching sharks dart in and out of the feeble beams cast by underwater lights creates a frightening effect that the filmmakers accentuate with hissing musical stings from synthesizers.
The final sequence, in which the explorers finally lure great whites to their cameras by chumming the water with blood and meat and oil to simulate the presence of a whale corpse, is as alarming as it is amazing—there’s nothing quite like seeing the massive open jaws of a 16-foot great white rushing toward you, with only the meager bars of a diving cage for protection. And when one hungry shark starts banging away at the cage, causing the bars to give way . . . Yikes. Inspired by true curiosity and powered by a gentle environmentalist message, Blue Water, White Death is both a celebration of nature’s wonder and a reminder of the real-life horrors that gave Jaws its bite.
Blue Water, White Death: GROOVY