Rick Rosenthal has seen things that most ocean lovers only dream about. For the past 25 years, this filmmaker has had front-row seats to baitball feeding frenzies—when small schooling fish swarm together to defend against hungry predators—sleeping sperm whales, and mating right whales. During a career that includes three Emmy Awards, Rosenthal has directed many natural history films and provided underwater footage to several of the most important wildlife documentaries including “Blue Planet,” “Great Migrations,” and “Life.”
Rosenthal’s newest film, “Superfish: Bluefin Tuna,” premiered this week on the National Geographic Channel. The movie, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, includes the first footage of wild, free-swimming bluefin and follows Rosenthal as he films these amazing fish around the Atlantic Ocean. As viewers tune in at home, I will be talking tuna with Rosenthal at National Geographic’s Washington, DC, headquarters, in a panel discussion after a screening of the documentary.
Rosenthal took some time out of his filming schedule to offer a glimpse into the life of a marine filmmaker and share his thoughts on the superfish, bluefin tuna.
Lee Crockett: How did you get involved in wildlife filmmaking?
Rick Rosenthal: After spending years working as a marine biologist, I felt the need to reach a wider audience than just my peers in biology. Publishing scientific papers is one avenue, but reaching a worldwide audience through film and television is, in my opinion, vital to a much bigger understanding of the natural world. So I slowly made a career change and got serious about photography. My break came during the so-called golden age of wildlife filmmaking. This was during the mid-1980s, and I started filming for the BBC/Natural History Unit in Bristol, England. Many projects and assignments have followed.
Lee Crockett: Why did you decide to make a film about bluefin tuna?
Rick Rosenthal: Actually, the subject for the film was suggested to us by Barbara Block, Stanford University professor and world-renowned bluefin scientist. I went along with the idea after the success of our last program titled“Superfish,” about the great billfish. Little did I know at the time how difficult it would be to film a 52-minute program on the behavior and natural history of the Atlantic bluefin! In short, several groups, including the BBC, had tried to film bluefin in the wild and had failed pretty badly. You need a lot of material for a one-hour program, and we made the decision from the start to film this entirely in the wild open sea. Yes, it was a difficult, but I like challenges, and my experience in open water and with fishermen certainly helped us along the way.
Lee Crockett: Your new film offers the first footage of bluefin swimming freely in the wild. What’s the biggest hurdle in filming wild bluefin?
Rick Rosenthal: Just finding the giants, where 15-20 years ago there were certainly more around. Also, unlike other fish, they move quickly and don’t hang around long, so getting up close is at times quite hard. Bluefin certainly get spooked by all of the fishing boats and activities going on, but for me to be successful, big close-ups are vital. Television is a tough medium—you either get the shot or you don’t. In addition, there are major issues with weather and getting offshore where the action takes place. Most days are not workable in the open ocean, even though you could go fishing or tagging. Fishing with a camera is always a difficult exercise!
Lee Crockett: Why should people care about the health of bluefin tuna?
Rick Rosenthal: In the film, I mention that bluefin are emblematic of a healthy open ocean, just like the sharks and billfish. These top predators really tell us a lot about the current state of the ocean. We need them for everything to be complete. Going into Africa without seeing lions, or heading into the wilds of Alaska would not be the same experience if brown bears were absent. My definition of wilderness has these charismatic animals as key components in the ecosystem. The bluefin is certainly on that list.
Lee Crockett: Rick, thank you for your time and for your continued efforts to help protect ocean wildlife. Your films are truly amazing. “Superfish” is definitely not to be missed.