Paul North wants you to know that Antarctica's fate could be decided by krill.
"Something either eats them or eats something that does," he says. "There's iron in whale feces, and krill use that to build themselves, to grow, which then feeds the whales, which then continues the iron in the feces to continue the cycle. And that's just one example of how krill do their thing."
Inspired by the krill decline—in 2016, Scientific American reported that populations of adult Antarctic krill had decreased by 70 to 80 percent in some areas—and the ravages of climate change, North decided to direct Winter in Antarctica, a short film about the southernmost continent starring out-of-work Cirque du Soleil performers. It's a fundraiser for his educational nonprofit Meet the Ocean—and a visceral fusion of footage from Antarctica, dancing filmed in Las Vegas, and psychedelic costumes designed by Wrara Plesoiu.
North is also a playwright, a polar diver and the host of a podcast, also named Meet the Ocean. He spoke to WW about conceiving and creating Winter in Antarctica—and why COVID-19 hasn't stopped him from fighting to raise awareness of the need for marine protected areas.
"We do not have the capacity to measure [Antarctica], and thus we assume its bounty," he says. "We assume it's forever. And that's just not true."
WW: Is it fair to say that diving is an experience that takes you out of yourself?
Paul North: I think the problem is that our narrative [in conservation] tends to highlight the rock-star creatures—the things that are large or have large eyes that we can associate with, make an emotional connection to. But how do you make an emotional connection to a crustacean? What I needed to do to sort of settle a score in my own mind was be like, "OK, I might be the only polar-diving playwright. This pandemic has opened this weird window of opportunity, and I'm going to walk through it."
Knowing the possibility of our timeline, I set these clear parameters, almost like it was a play. We begin at a water column and then we are off to the bottom of the ocean, which is known as the benthos. Then we're at the surface and Act 3 is essentially krill worship—to key into the [audience's] mind that this is the hero of our story.
When was all of the Antarctic footage shot?
That was filmed over the course of about two years. A majority of the underwater stuff was filmed by me. Specifically, to hunt down the krill footage, that was the hardest part—and that, for me, is the most intense part of the film. That is where we land the punch, when the trapeze artist is doing all that she does, and we blend it so it becomes a visual painting of krill and humanity.
Obviously, you have a huge theater background, but this must have been a different kind of experience for you.
I had no part in the costumes or the choreography. That was all trust. Wrara picked me up when I went to Vegas and immediately brought me to the performance gym where everyone practices and rehearses. And obviously, there was a lot of emotional processing. I think I cried the most ever in the last two months. That's because it's beautiful, and when you're making things, you have to be vulnerable.
Do you worry that in the midst of the pandemic, there's not as much focus on the environment as there should be?
Every second of every day. And what I have seen—what I have found myself in front of and underneath the creatures that have chewed on me—it all wraps up into the story of our planet for me. I've spent thousands of hours underwater watching animals be animals, watching humans not recognize the value of most things. I think about pursuing another career where I would have secure income…or I can go to bed at night knowing that I've introduced the world to krill in a way that no one else could.
SEE IT: Winter in Antarctica streams at winterinantarctica.com. $15.