Tim Watters and Eliza Muirhead, founders of Melbourne-based media company Fair Projects, had spent years on board Sea Shepherd expeditions off the Kimberly and Gulf of Mexico before they were called to produce a documentary on the Great Australian Bight.
The 2016 Sea Shepherd expedition across the Great Australian Bight, known as Operation Jeedara, came as campaigns ramped up in opposition to BP’s since abandoned plans to drill for oil in the area.
BP’s image had tarnished following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which amounted to what the US government estimated to be a total discharge of 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
In the wake of the disaster, Watters and Muirhead’s job description for Operation Jeedara was straightforward: document the beauty of the Great Australian Bight to showcase what South Australia would stand to lose if it let BP drill there.
“A lot of people don’t know what’s out there so it was our duty and our response to go to the Great Australian Bight, document what’s there and then bring it back to the land to show Australian and international audiences what’s happening,” Watters tells InDaily.
“Before we went we researched these areas and we looked up photos or footage of the islands that we were going to and there just wasn’t anything.
“Now if you search the islands a lot of the photos that come up are the photos that we took on that trip.”
Muirhead had previously participated in the 2013-14 Sea Shepherd expedition to the Gulf of Mexico before setting off on the Steve Irwin vessel to film the Operation Jeedara documentary.
“It was interesting to work on a campaign where I was looking at the after effects of an oil spill in a hugely industrialised Gulf of Mexico and then to go to a place where we were documenting it to help protect it,” she says.
“At the same time we had in the back of our mind that this might be the last time we’re here documenting this pristine environment before it becomes industrialised.”
The voyage, supported by Sea Shepherd, The Wilderness Society and Bob Brown Foundation, travelled to places including Pearson Island, the Isles of St Francis and Nuyts Reef.
“A lot of these areas are not inhabited by people and are rarely explored because they are impossible to get to without a ship,” Muirhead says.
“You see these little islands on a map but I didn’t realise they were going to be these crazy little ecosystems with these animals especially endemic to those little islands.”
Much of the footage from the documentary was shot while the Steve Irwin docked at the islands, however the filmmakers say their time spent on the islands was often limited due to temperamental weather conditions.
“Despite having quite a lot of time all up on board the ship – three weeks – we actually only got a little bit of time on each island,” Muirhead says.
“We were stuck in storms for a few days where we were just kind of floating around trying to avoid the weather.
“We got some really good footage but there’s so much out there still that’s yet to be explored and yet to be documented.”
Aboriginal elder and songman Bunna Lawrie, who comes from Mirning country in the Nullarbor, joined the expedition.
“He went to see these islands that he knew about and his people had a long history with, but he had never been to some of these places on his own. That was an essential part of the documentary.”
The documentary features interviews with politicians including Kangaroo Island mayor Peters Clements and South Australian federal senator Sarah Hanson-Young, as well as shots of the islands and mainland.
“It was a multi-faceted approach; half of the film was to just document these areas and to show people what we stand to lose if there is an oil spill on the Great Australian Bight.
“The other half was to speak to people to hear about why keeping the Bight free from industrialisation is so important to not only the ecosystems but the local communities,” Watters says.
Muirhead and Watters have just returned from a second expedition to the Great Australian Bight on board the Steve Irwin, where they filmed scientists studying underwater marine life.
“With the first film we showed people that this place is beautiful, that it shouldn’t be destroyed with oil, but this second film is a factual follow-up to show what’s actually under the water – what’s really special about this place,” Muirhead says.
Watters says regardless of where people sit on the “greenie spectrum,” South Australians should make the effort to see the film Operation Jeedara.
“Even though BP has since bailed on its plans to drill in the Great Australian Bight the threat is ongoing, there are still other oil companies that are interested in drilling,” he says.
“If nothing else watching the film is an opportunity to see these areas that are part of South Australia documented so you can become aware of what’s out there and you can make up your own mind if you think it should be a place that should be open for off-shore drilling or not.”
Operation Jeedara is screening at Mercury Cinema on May 27 as part of Transitions Film Festival, which begins this Friday.