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Klaus Thymann and Radiohead star Thom Yorke unite to save the manatee

An award-winning filmmaker goes cave diving to highlight the plight of this threatened mammal

From the series Manatees Discovery

Klaus Thymann is the Danish photographer and filmmaker who projected the words of Greta Thunberg onto the United Nations building during the 2019 Climate Action Summit. His work can be as high profile as it is innovative – his toolbox includes journalism, image-making, mapping and exploration. Thymann wants you to sit up and take notice. Then he wants you to act.

For his latest film, Flows for Manatees, Thymann explores a network of underground caves in the Yucatán Peninsula to document the plight of a threatened mammal. Working with local diving instructor Luis Leal, he spent weeks filming a manatee and her calf in an ecosystem stretching from the Caribbean Sea to Mexico.

The result is a moving and unsettling journey into a little-seen subterranean world, with music by Radiohead singer-songwriter Thom Yorke and Danish DJ Kasper Bjørke. 

The cave system explored by Thymann and Leal runs between the Caribbean Sea and an inland lagoon in Mexico. While the Caribbean Sea is marine protected, the lagoon is not, leaving the manatees’ habitat exposed to the effects of infrastructure projects, tourism development and sewage and nutrient deposits. If the flow of seawater to the lagoon is interrupted by developments such as marinas, says Thymann, the water can become stagnant and starved of oxygen, with only bacteria and jellyfish able to survive. 

Thymann has dedicated much of his career to highlighting the impact of the climate crisis. His charity Project Pressure, founded in 2008, has commissioned leading artists and scientists to conduct more than 30 expeditions around the world, creating works shown together in the exhibition MELTDOWN.

Here, he explains why he was determined to highlight the plight of the manatee in one of his most challenging projects yet.

Why was it important for you to make the film Flows for Manatees?

The film shows how we cannot treat the environment as a collection of individual entities. We need a modern approach to our current environmental issues and looking at water as a system and not separate bodies is important. It is obvious when you are on a manatee or cave dive that the inland lagoon is connected to the sea but when you look at this from the air, or a map, the connection is invisible. Visualising the invisible is important. 

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From the series Manatees Discovery

What were the challenges involved and how did you overcome them?

Oh, where do we start? Flows for Manatees is made underwater and I had to cave dive to get to the manatees so it is fairly challenging already, but I have extensive training and experience. The manatee and calf were extremely shy, not like the Florida manatees that are used to people, so I started using a rebreather diving system so I could dive without bubbles and thus not make noise underwater, which helped me get the incredible images.

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From the series Manatees Discovery

What is the role of filmmakers and photographers in conservation?

Visualising the invisible is important and mapping is for me a first logical step in conservation. Without maps we cannot navigate and if we don’t even know what we have, it’s impossible to protect. With that said, I want to add that in other fields we don’t need more awareness and here filmmakers and photographers have to step up. We don’t need more awareness around climate change, for example – we need action; we don’t need more awareness about plastic pollution. So when developing and working on projects with such subject matters it is not enough to want to create more awareness, it has to have an actionable component.

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From the series Manatees Discovery

How did you secure the involvement of the Radiohead musician and songwriter Thom Yorke?

I have worked with Thom Yorke before on the first Flows film I did, so it seemed natural to continue, but I am very proud of the piece Kasper Bjørke composed. He did an amazing job that really sets the mood for that scene.

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From the series Manatees Discovery

You have orchestrated and collaborated on major international initiatives including Project Pressure and MELTDOWN. You authored the words from six activists, including Greta Thunberg, projected onto the side of the UN building for the project Voices for the Future. What do you see as your biggest achievement?

I don’t know. Simply because I am not sure what the parameters are. Is it enough that a project looks good or is it the impact that matters?

Having worked with the subject of climate change for 15 years it is clear that we are failing – sure, I authored words we put on the UN building – including [those of] Greta Thunberg – but it did nothing. On the other hand the first Flows film created change in Mexico – there was impact. It changed how the system was viewed.

Maybe my biggest achievement is that despite working around environmental issues I continue to fight for something I believe in and I completed a degree in environmental science in 2015 while working full-time.

2009 Klaus Thymann Cotopaxi Ecuador Project Pressure

‘Cotopaxi, Ecuador 2009’ from the series Project Pressure

All images by Klaus Thymann

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