April 22 Reef Fest Film Night To Feature Local Productions on Leatherbacks, Grouper, Lionfish

“The Leatherbacks of St. Croix” features rarely seen footage of baby hatchlings just out of the nest, above. Photo by Steve Simonsen.

St. Joh residents can catch a glimpse — and perhaps a greater understanding — of the rarely-seen phenomena occurring beneath Virgin Island waters this Thursday at St. John Film Society’s first Reef Fest Film Night.

As an awe-inspiring kick off to the 2010 Reef Fest and Earth Day celebrations, the free film night will air three brief films about protecting resources in the Virgin Islands on Thursday evening, April 22, at 7 p.m. on the third floor of The Marketplace, including St. John photographer and filmmaker Steve Simonsen’s never before seen documentary.

“This film event perfectly reflects our mission, which is to inspire appreciation for the history, culture and oceanic environment of our U.S. Virgin Islands,” said Rea McQueen Roberts, marketing and outreach director for the St. John Film Society, which has partnered with the National Park, the University of the  Virgin Islands and the Friends of the V.I. National Park for the event. “When we were approached by the Friends to participate in this year’s Earth Day and Reef Fest activities, we felt that we could do our part in reaching out to a larger audience through the medium of film.”

Simonsen is headlining the evening with the debut of “The Leatherbacks of St. Croix,” his riveting in-the-works documentary about the conservation of Leatherback sea turtles at Sandy Point Wildlife Refuge on St Croix.

“To have something this primordial occurring each year on the shores of our neighboring island is an unbelievable spectacle of raw nature a kin to seeing the Grand Canyon or Bioluminescent Bay in Vieques,” Simonsen said. “Everyone should see this and that’s my job.”

Working alongside members of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the West Indies Marine Animal Research and Conservation Service, Simonsen hopes the film will help raise awareness of the endangered creatures to help protect, recover and sustain the threatened and endangered marine animals of the West Indies.

“We are fortunate enough to have Steve Simonsen debuting a portion of his work-in-progress for our first Reef Fest Film Night, something we are hoping we continue for years to come,” McQueen Roberts said of the upcoming mini-film festival.

“Seas of Change: Spawning Aggregations of the Virgin Islands,” the 2006 educational documentary by Tim Kelly and Perry Pickert about science, management and socio-economic aspects of spawning aggregations in the USVI and the disappearing Nassau Grouper, will follow Simonsen’s documentary.

“The film takes place largely in St. Thomas and includes recent footage of fisherman in Frenchtown who have fished these waters for many, many generations,” McQueen Roberts said. “This is a really local film and we will get to see interviews of St. Thomas fisherman giving their feedback and opinions.”

To conclude the evening, Karl Pytlik of the Friends and Jessica Hornbeck of NPS will provide an update on the invasive lionfish posing a threat to the Virgin Islands underwater world.

“They will show a film clip of lionfish footage and Jessica will have a preserved specimen to observe while Karl will show people how to make a lionfish marker,” McQueen Roberts said.

The free movie night is open to every one, and while The Marketplace is providing the space and chairs for the event, McQueen Roberts is encouraging people to show up early for prime seating.

“We have consistently had 50 to 100 people at our free screenings,” she said. “And we expect a good turnout because we know many people will be curious to see Steve Simonsen’s footage so it would be a good idea to show up a bit early.”

Island students will also be able to learn how they can help protect the reefs at the 2010 Earth Day Environmental Fair this Friday, April 23, at the National Park ball field in Cruz Bay where St. John Film will air educational and entertaining short films from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.