So maybe Life of Pi didn’t take the whole Oscar cake (forgive me, father, for my puns). But the movie was definitely a winner – best director, best visual effects, best cinematography, best score. It was also the highest-grossing Oscar nominated film … in India last year, where it took in a reported $17 million.
That’s all good news here at Nat Geo, because Pi is a very Nat Geo kind of film. There’s a tiger, a zebra, and a teenager in a lifeboat (spoiler alert: one of them gets eaten), and various other natural wonders, mainly re-created through the technological wonders of CGI.
If you were a fan, or if you’re curious about the movie’s depiction of the natural world, you may wonder: How true-to-life was “Pi?” For answers, we turned to ace reporter Sasha Ingber:
1. Forced to share space in a small lifeboat, the teenager known as Pi avoids being attacked by the tiger known as Richard Parker. That would be a real feat if the tiger is indeed ravenous. But it’s not beyond the pale. “A tiger would be more likely to leave someone alone if it had plenty of food, was busy doing other things, or was too weak to move,” says Philip Nyhus, associate professor of environmental studies at Colby College and a tiger guru. But please, don’t try to “pet the kitty.”
2. Richard Parker dines on the decomposing body of the zebra on the boat. Like vultures, tigers will eat rotten meat. They’re just not as picky when it comes to eating as we are: The striped cat possesses only about 500 taste buds compared to a human’s 9,000. “Tigers may spend a week or more eating a large carcass they have killed, and in the tropics where it is hot and moist, meat starts to decompose in a couple of days,” says Nyhus.
3. One glorious day, flying fish rain down upon the starving Pi and Richard Parker, who use their hands and mouths to catch the unexpected meal. Flying fish are commercially fished in Japan, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, and Barbados, which is nicknamed “the land of the flying fish.” In some places, such as the Solomon Islands, the fish are caught while in flight with nets. They are attracted to the light of the fishermen’s torches, especially if there is little moonlight.
4. Pi and Parker land on a lush island that becomes carnivorous by night. What the what? Well, it’s not so far off from the truth. According to University of Colorado ecology professor John Patrick, “In the good old day, we could split things into plants and animals,” but now we know about flesh-eating algae [Pfiesteria]. It emerges from sediments to prey on schools of the foraging menhaden fish. Reports of fatigue, headaches, diarrhea, skin rashes and memory problems among people exposed to the algae can be traced back to the 1990s. The carnivorous algae has been found as south as the Gulf of Mexico and as far north as the Delaware Bay. Scientists debate the algae’s feeding strategies; it may release a toxin or devour skin by sucking out the cellular content (known as “cellular vampirism”).
5. Pi shares his story of survival with men from Japan’s Ministry of Transport who question its validity. They begin by doubting his description of a floating raft of bananas, but they themselves are wrong. Bananas will float in water because water is denser than bananas.
6. Pi spent 227 days adrift at sea. Is that even possible? Hey, not only is it possible, it’s nothin’. In the 19th century, Japan’s Captain Oguri Jukichi and two crew members survived at sea for 484 days. In 1813, his ship was bound for Edo (now known as Tokyo). A storm damaged the vessel on the Japanese coast; the men drifted in the Pacific until an American ship rescued them along the coast of California in 1815.
7. How long could Pi last without water or food? National Geographic interviewed Duke University Claude Piantadosi on this very topic in 2009. Your body loses about a quart of water a day and it must be replaced. If not, you probably wouldn’t last a week. And you could probably make it for about 45 days without food, but if you drop a third of your body weight, the Grim Reaper will likely come calling, perhaps aided by disease that can take a toll on a weakened soul.