Review: ‘Diving With Dolphins,’ starring Roger Horrocks, Didier Noirot, Tad Luckey, Joe Mobley, Laura Engelby, Angela Zillener and Paul Atkins

April 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Roger Horrocks in “Diving With Dolphins” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

“Diving With Dolphins”

Directed by Keith Scholey

Culture Representation: This Disneynature documentary is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the Disneynature documentary “Dolphin Reef,” with an all-white crew of filmmakers who worked in French Polynesia, Hawaii and Florida to make the documentary.

Culture Clash: The film crew sometimes had to battle the weather and unpredictable nature of ocean life.

Culture Audience: “Diving With Dolphins” will appeal mostly to people interested in documentaries about ocean animals, but it’s not essential viewing for people who see the “Dolphin Reef” documentary.

Didier Noirot in “Diving With Dolphins” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

Disneynature’s “Diving With Dolphins” is a “making of” documentary about the Disneynature documentary “Dolphin Reef.” And just like “Dolphin Reef,” the movie gives almost as much screen time to humpback whales as it does to dolphins. People who’ve seen “Dolphin Reef” don’t really need to see “Diving With Dolphins” because it seems more like a series of outtakes strung together by narration rather than a documentary with a fascinating storyline.

Directed by Keith Scholey (who co-directed “Dolphin Reef”) and narrated by Celine Cousteau (granddaughter of Jacque Cousteau) has a lot of the same gorgeous cinematography that “Dolphin Reef” has, but the movie doesn’t really give much insight into the filmmakers’ personalities. It’s kind of a tedious repeat of “get to a location, set up cameras, shoot some film, and then go to the next location.”

The documentary takes place in three main areas: French Polynesia, Hawaii and Florida. There are also separate shoots for the dolphins and the humpback whales. “Dolphin Reef” focuses on two bottlenose dolphins bottlenose dolphin mother named Kumu her 3-year-old son Echo), as well as two humpback whales (a mother named Moraya and her newborn female calf Fluke.

The people on the film crew include cinematographers Roger Horrocks, Paul Atkins, Didier Noirot and Jamie McPherson. They are accompanied by scientists Angela Zillener, Laura Engelby and Joe Mobley. And there are some skippers shown in the movie, such as Tad Luckey (whose Luckey Strike boat is in a lot of the humpback whale footage), Carl Ellington and Paris Basson, who’s a jet ski skipper.

Horrock has a clear preference for dolphins, which he’s been filming for decades. He says, “Dolphins are the probably most charismatic mammals that you can get in the ocean. They have a mammalian conscious, so we feel a kinship to them.” Horrock believes that dolphins are the “most welcome” animals he’s ever filmed and adds, “filming dolphins is the most physical because they’re constantly on the move.”

Meanwhile, Noirot, who used to be part of Jacque Cousteau’s crew, is described as someone who’s has more than 30 years of experience of ocean filming. He’s shown in the humpback whale film shoots. Noirot comments, “Hawaii is a good location to film humpback whales because of the whale population. You’re sure to see whales [and] crystal-clear water.”

Most of the filming was underwater, and the scenes that were film outside the water was done mainly by bot, by jet ski and by helicopter. Underwater, a scooter was used with a torpedo-like propeller to get some of the fast-moving shots. But there was a lot of down time during the film shoots, since it took several weeks to get close enough to a humpback whale and a calf to film for the movie.

Although scientist Zillener says that the crew got to know amore than 200 dolphins during the film shoot and that “to understand the animals, you have to be one of them,” there’s no effort made to single out any of the other animals (besides the four main stars) by describing their personalities in “Diving With Dolphins.” The movie would have benefited from more anecdotes about some of the animals who had standout personalities. In the movie, all of the animals appear to be generic. In “Dolphin Reef,” the some of animal personalities of the “supporting characters” seem to be crafted through creative editing.

The narration of “Diving With Dolphins” also tends to take on dramatic, hyperbolic tones, such as the description of the humpback whale courtship competition to become a female humpback’s chief protector: “It’s the most spectacular battle in nature.” Given all the wild animals in the world, that statement seems a bit too broad and subjective for a nature documentary.

One of the strengths of “Diving With Dolphins” is that it calls attention to the coral-reef crisis that desperately needs protection from human plundering and pollution that can cause climate change. The ocean is the foundation of almost every animal’s food chain, so it’s alarming that so much of the essential coral reef is disappearing due to climate change.  “Diving With Dolphins” mentions that in the three years it took to make this documentary, one-third of the film locations’ coral reef died. (More on this subject can be found in the excellent 2017 Netflix documentary “Chasing Coral.”)

“Diving With Dolphins” places a lot of emphasis on tiger sharks toward the end of the film, by saying tiger sharks are “misunderstood” and have an “overblown reputation as frightening and deadly predators.”  One of the reasons why French Polynesia was chosen as a location to film was because it’s one of the few countries that have laws protecting sharks, which are necessary for the food chain.

And cinematographer Atkins, who has more than 30 years of experience filming in the ocean, calls sharks “extraordinarily beautiful and graceful.” Atkins shows through a demonstration while being surrounded by tiger sharks, that giving them a gentle nudge on the face should do the trick in preventing them from attacking you. (It’s a lot easier said than done, and there should’ve been a caveat that only professionals with animal experience should try this tactic.)

Overall, “Diving With Dolphins” is kind of a scattered film that doesn’t reveal anything surprising about the making of “Dolphin Reef.” And the movie is much more than about diving with dolphins, since the filmmakers’ interactions with humpback whales and tiger sharks also take up a great deal of screen time.

Disney+ premiered “Diving With Dolphins” on April 3, 2020.