Scientists find a little to like in 'Bay' film

Jane McNeill in a scene from "The Bay."
Jane McNeill in a scene from "The Bay." (Roadside Attractions, Baltimore Sun)

SPOILER ALERT: This story reveals features of the plot.

Baltimore-born film director Barry Levinson has said his new eco-horror movie, "The Bay," about a Chesapeake Bay turned deadly by environmental abuse, is "80 percent factual."


Bay scientists and one activist who've seen it say the film, which opened Friday, does touch on some very real issues affecting the bay. But they say the artistic license taken with the facts and the gore that makes it a horror movie may overwhelm any back story about what's wrong with the Chesapeake.

"They got enough science to be dangerous," said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who has studied coastal environments around the world. The film accurately portrays the Chesapeake as in diminished ecological health, he said, and the creatures that deliver the horror are real enough.

"Beyond that, you have to be prepared to view this as a metaphor," he concluded.

The Oscar-winning Levinson has told interviewers that while he first intended to make a documentary about the Chesapeake's woes, he opted for fiction after concluding that public television had covered the issues ably. He said he decided to inject his horror tale with factual information about the bay to make it seem more believable and to alert more people to the estuary's troubles.

"What the hell is going on in the Chesapeake Bay?" one character asks in the movie.

Though filmed in South Carolina, the movie is set in a fictional Maryland town named Claridge, a name evocative of the very real Cambridge on the Eastern Shore. The story opens with a former television news intern recalling covering the town's Fourth of July festivities, complete with a crab-eating contest, parade and fun in the water.

All is not well in the water, though. At one point, a character comments that "40 percent of the bay is a dead zone" and mentions algae, nutrient runoff and a host of other contaminants, including mercury, endocrine disruptors and Viagra. In another scene, a scientist looks at a computer screen depicting a plume of poultry waste flowing into the bay. A pile of chicken manure by the water is shown, and there's also mention of a nuclear reactor leak.

Much of that should sound familiar to those who've followed developments in the bay. A massive "dead zone" forms every summer down the middle of the Chesapeake, where there's too little dissolved oxygen in the water for fish, crabs and oysters to survive for long. The size of the low-oxygen zone varies with the weather, but in the blistering summer of 2011, it did indeed take up nearly 40 percent of the bay, a record.

Nutrient pollution creates the dead zone, and state and federal officials say a major source is polluted runoff from farms. Poultry industry representatives dispute their culpability, however, and there's no easily traceable "plume" of chicken waste to settle the controversy, as depicted in the film. Nor have there been any significant radiation leaks reported.

Other things are backed up by fact. At one point, as doctors and health officials ponder what's in the water that's afflicting people, they show pictures of an ulcerated human leg and talk about how some people wading or swimming in the bay have gotten nasty skin infections from a deadly bacterium, Vibrio vulnificus.

"That's a real threat," Boesch said. There have been cases of serious vibrio illnesses and skin infections traced to contact in summertime with warm bay waters.

The monsters in this film aren't invisible microbes, though, but isopods, prehistoric-looking marine crustaceans with many legs. There are many species of isopod around the world, and some are parasites, commonly called "sea lice" and "sea roaches." Those found locally resemble earwigs and attach themselves to fish gills or inside fish mouths, according to Life in the Chesapeake Bay, a field guide.

Swimmers and waders will sometimes encounter them in the bay, scientists say, but they pose no real threat to people.

In the end, Boesch and other bay experts who saw the film say it skims so lightly and loosely over the facts while seeking to entertain that they don't think viewers will come away with much understanding of the bay's woes. The changes occurring here and in the world's oceans from climate change and pollution are plenty scary in reality, Boesch said.


"I would've put more science in it," said Margaret Palmer, a veteran watershed scientist and director of a University of Maryland-supported research center. "In a subtle way, I would've done more."

"I was hoping we could see a film we could use to jump-start a conversation about the bay, and what we can do," concluded Elizabeth Buckman, vice president of communications for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Annapolis-based advocacy group. "I'm not sure this is it."