“Saving Atlantis”: Oregon State Productions’ first feature -length film aims to show effect of coral reef loss on humans

OSU microbiologist Rebecca Vega-Thurber, Ph.D, and her team traveled the world for the making of “Saving Atlantis.”

Jade Minzlaff, News Contributor

Oregon State Productions, a multi-media production team aiming to communicate scientific research done at Oregon State University to the broader global community, recently released their first feature-length documentary, “Saving Atlantis,”  which focuses on how global communities are affected by the decline of the world’s coral reefs. 

The film was released on a limited-run last year, and was played in over twenty film festivals, but was only recently picked up by the distributors Amazon and iTunes, with the goal of helping the film reach a broader audience. 

“Saving Atlantis” follows OSU microbiologist Rebecca Vega-Thurber, Ph.D, and her research team on a four-year international research expedition to classify microbial life found on coral reefs, a project which was funded by a two-million-dollar grant by the National Science Foundation.

Via Skype call from the island of Mo’orea in French Polynesia, Vega-Thurber described the origin of her research project as a determination to investigate a prevalent “scientific-myth” among marine biologists. 

“For corals, it’s thought that microbes are involved in providing some sort of evolutionary resistance to disturbance. Corals have been evolving for about 600 million years, and they’ve been evolving with these microbes to provide them some buffer against the environment. Maybe a kind of metabolic buffer, something like that, and that was a long standing hypothesis in the field, but it was one that was never really given with any data. I like to say it’s like a ‘scientific myth’. These legends even among scientists, where people say these things, with very little data to support them,” said Vega-Thurber. “So I said that’s not acceptable, we’re in the business of proving hypotheses, not just making them,” Vega-Thurber said. 

This concept led to the grant from the NSF to conduct research that would come to be known as the Global Coral Microbiome Project.  

“We went on this huge expedition, for four years, around the planet, to collect corals from all of the different parts of the tree of coral life,” Vega-Thurber said. 

While on the research expedition, Vega-Thurber and her team communicated extensively with both the communities near the coral reefs, and with people living far from coral reefs who didn’t know how the science would personally affect the health of the planet. 

Vega-Thurber says she thought the Global Coral Microbiome project created an opportunity for science to be communicated to the general public. 

“I thought this is a great opportunity to document how science is done, but another thing I wanted to focus on, and that I thought people have missed the mark on when they talk about coral reefs, is that they often only talk about the corals themselves, and not about the societies and cultures that surround coral reefs,” Vega-Thurber said. During the filming process, human narratives of coral reef decline became the focus of the film. 

Daniel Cespedes, field producer and cinematographer for “Saving Atlantis,” said, “You hear more voices in this film than you typically do in what are usually categorized as science documentaries.” 

Cespedes said he communicating social and cultural perspectives represents the research’s impact more effectively than pure data. 

“It’s easy to get bogged down by facts and figures, and in doing that, I think you run a couple of risks. One is that people don’t listen, or they don’t internalize what the science means for them, and the other side is that you only hear part of the story,” Cespedes said.

According to Justin Smith, co-director of “Saving Atlantis”, and a founder of Oregon State Productions, the National Science Foundation grant’s outreach requirements were a driving force for the creation of the film. 

“You’re charged with creating content that can be used to communicate the importance or general idea of your research to the general public,” Smith said. “Everybody is affected by the decline of coral. We wanted to make sure that people across the globe realized that there would be an impact in their lives if we lose coral reefs, and OSU has a major part in investigating the problems that coral reefs face.” 

According to Vega-Thurber, the creation of the film has resulted in social, political and scientific impacts in the world of coral reefs. 

“One of the really cool things that came out from this was that [the filmmakers] actually started a documentary film program in Australia as a result of this. Dave and Justin actually go to Australia to the place where they filmed for this movie, every year, to help aboriginal kids tell stories on film about their connection to coral reefs, and they still do that. It’s been this legacy from the film,” Vega-Thurber said. 

Additionally, Vega-Thurber said she feels that the filming of “Saving Atlantis” prevented the destruction of the Varadero coral reef located in the Bay of Cartagena, Colombia.

“In Columbia they were gonna destroy this reef, and as a result of part of our film, they essentially stopped destroying the reef. So there were actually some political effects of the film on keeping that reef from being dredged. The film made a really big impact both scientifically and politically in the country of Columbia,” Vega-Thurber said.  

Oregon State Productions aims to use the film’s profits to benefit undergraduates at OSU. 

“Any proceeds that we make from the film go back to the students at OSU for scholarships on students interested in doing documentaries about the environment. All the money goes back to OSU students, not for anything else. We’re not in the business of making money,” said Vega-Thurber.

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