From the dolphins of the Bosphorus to the colorful corals of the Aegean, Turkey is rich in marine life and marvels of the sea. There is a special kind of alchemy that takes place under the water, blending the rich biodiversity of the sea with the cultural heritage of those whose lives depend on it. Mert Gökalp is a marine biologist who has dedicated his life to the fascination of the sea through photography and videography. He is also a storyteller: his first début film İrme was about süngercilik (sponge-diving) and the last of the sponge divers, and now he is premiering his new documentary Prince of the Bosphorus (about the endangered migration of bluefish) at various film festivals, including most recently at Slow Fish Genoa.
WHAT COMPELS YOU TO TELL STORIES ABOUT LIFE UNDER THE WATER?
I think it is because I have spent my entire life in the sea, nearly spending more time underwater than above. As a scientist and an artist, I can act as a guide for those who are not able to enjoy such an intimate connection with the sea. I see, feel, observe, and research life under the sea and then I try to translate all the visceral emotions into film.
IN ALL THE TIME YOU HAVE SPENT UNDERWATER, WHAT WERE THE BREAKTHROUGH MOMENTS IN WHICH YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF THE SEA CHANGED?
I once had a dangerous encounter with a shark in a remote location. I had my first ever experience of terror in the water, which left me with a greater sense of awe for the sea. We must learn to respect the sea again. Currently, we seem to think we adore the sea, but in reality we just exploit it. My study of sponges has convinced me of this even more. Once you realize the sheer number of creatures living within the chambers of a sponge, you realize you are looking at a living, breathing spaceship. It is so small and yet so big. If one sponge can be so full of life, imagine what this means for the rest of the sea!
UNDER THE WATER DID YOU KNOW?
The title of Gökalp’s debut film İrme refers to a long, narrow path so surrounded by dense vegetation that it is almost unpassable and sunlight can’t penetrate it. It is an old Turkish word that Gökalp has applied to the dense forests of seaweed at the bottom of the sea, where süngerciler (sponge divers) must search for natural sponges.
YOUR WORK GOES HAND-IN-HAND WITH VARIOUS ENVIRONMENTAL CAMPAIGNS THAT TRY TO RAISE AWARENESS ABOUT SAFEGUARDING OUR ECOSYSTEMS. WHAT PROJECTS ARE YOU INVOLVED IN?
I am currently working with the WWF and the Underwater Research Society on my documentary Dusky Grouper, and I am working with Greenpeace and Slow Fish Türkiye for my documentary about lüfer (bluefish), called Prince of the Bosphorus.
The reason for these documentaries is indeed to raise awareness. Currently, there is not enough marine research being done on these animals, so there are many issues that are left unaddressed. These films are instruments through which to give these issues a voice and the voice needs to be loud enough to reach those of us who live in denial about the damage done to our seas through overfishing and marine pollution.
DID YOU KNOW?
There are seven names for bluefish in Istanbul, depending on the size of the fish when you catch it. From smallest to biggest, these fish are called in Turkish: defne yaprağı, çinekop, kaba çinekop, sarıkanat, lüfer, kofana, and sırtıkara. It is illegal to catch fish smaller than 14 centimeters, but fish do not reach maturity until they are over 24 centimeters in length. Similarly, there are eight names for bonito fish.
IN YOUR FILMS YOU ARE INTERESTED IN THOSE WHOSE LIVELIHOODS DEPEND ON THE SEA, AND WHO NOW ARE FACING AN END OF AN ERA. WHAT IS THE LINK BETWEEN ENVIRONMENTAL DEVASTATION AND CULTURAL ERASURE?
We are letting an ancient culture of seamanship slip through our fingers. Traditional sponge diving is a dying occupation, and we are losing the fascinating stories that go with it. I think sponge diving deserves a proper museum in Bodrum, or at least a sponge diver’s boat for people to explore. It’s no coincidence that Turkey’s best underwater archaeology museum is in Bodrum.
We are encountering the same story with the artisanal fishermen of the Marmara Sea and the Bosphorus. There is a history and tradition of fishing and a seafood culture that stretches back 3,000 years. Istanbul has a deep connection with the sea. I am talking about waters so rich with fish that people didn’t need to use fish hooks, they were collecting the fish from the shore with buckets. As the species of fish become extinct, so too are the livelihoods of the fishermen threatened. Now it seems the only environment that people have any interest in becoming one with is cement.
WHAT WILL SHOCK OUR GRANDCHILDREN MOST ABOUT THE WAY WE HAVE MISTREATED OUR UNDERWATER ENVIRONMENTS?
I am struggling to pick one thing… maybe the ways in which we poison our seafood with industrial pollutants, deplete the waters between the Marmara and the Black Sea of oxygen, or how we deplete our fish stocks without hesitation. For instance, for every 1 kilogram of whiting fish we intend to catch, we also accidentally catch up to 10 kilograms of other sea species that are then wasted. We also fish juvenile fish before they have a chance to reproduce, further depleting our stocks. This is why the lüfer campaign to encourage fishermen and chefs to avoid catching and cooking bluefish under 24 centimeters (spearheaded by Defne Koryürek of Slow Food Türkiye) has been so significant. We have already lost bluefin tuna from the Marmara Sea, as well as lobsters, marlin, mackerel, and monk seals. Istanbul has borne witness to the mass deaths of dolphins from scarcity of food resources and the destruction of their natural habitats… we have put so much stress on the creatures of the Bosphorus, we don’t want to lose the lüfer too.
We asked Ergem Şenyuva — member of the lüfer campaign and founder of Yeşilist, an online network for environmental causes — what changes in the Bosphorus she has witnessed:
When I was a kid, it was possible to swim in the Bosphorus, but we have mistreated our waterways and it is no longer possible. We use the water for transportation, but we don’t know what lies under the surface: polluted seas, a poorer variety of fish, and a dying ecosystem. Redefining our relationship with the water is key to sustainable living in this city. Otherwise, I can only imagine that at some point our grandchildren will turn around and accuse us of being extremely irresponsible for depriving them of what we had. I think we have a duty to take action, not only for ourselves but for our children.