MY MERCURY – Review by Timothy Niwamanya


The world owes a big debt of gratitude to the numerous nature conservationists on the planet. Their tireless efforts to fend off the devastating effects of human activity on various ecosystems often gounder the radar. My Mercury, directed by Joelle Chesselet and Pippa Ehrlich, casts a light on thevaliant efforts of one man in his attempt to maintain ecological equilibrium on Mercury Island off theNamibian coast. 

The film produced by Dogstar Films and Joji Films, plays like a visual diary of the life of its protagonist. The film that is based on the journal entries and home video footage of sea bird conservationist, Yves Chesselet, transports us back in time to his years of solitude as the main head-man on Mercury Islandwhere he took care of the breeding island’s gannet, cormorant and African penguin populations. 

Central Character and Plot 

Yves Chesselet is undoubtedly an extraordinary human being. As a 28-year old, he left the cozy confines of his life in Cape Town, traveled up to the port town of Luderitz in Namibia and found his way to Ichaboe Island in the late 1980s. The island’s extreme remoteness and austere living 

conditions were no match for his unbridled desire to preserve the seabird population of the island. With his video camera and diary as the only outlet for his thoughts on the narrow desolate rocky island, he candidly documents the day to day activities of his care and maintenance work and his thoughtful musings on nature and life. 

Yves Chesselet

Yves’ love for the birds of the island is unquestionable. His passion for the natural world can becompared to that of other legendary naturalists with other species. Like Jane Goodall and thechimpanzee. Or Steve Irwin and the crocodile. Or even Jacques Cousteau with marine life. Yves lives respectfully among the birds and pays close attention to their welfare. Over the course of the film, one is able to see him develop a deep emotional connection to the island and the birds. One is alsoable to see him develop a deep bank of knowledge on the feeding and breeding patterns of theanimals of the island and the ramifications on the surrounding ecosystem. He documents thedevastating effects of climate change on the bird and seal populations as well. 

The writer and co-director of the film, Joelle Chesselet is Yves’ sister. She uses this film and her access to her brother’s video archive and journals to frame his obvious eccentricities and idealistic worldviewwith empathy. The documentary also shows the main character’s most turbulent period on the islandwhere his mental fortitude was pushed to its absolute limits. All in all, the filmcaptures its protagonist’s love for adventure and non-conformity in his bid to leave his mark on the natural worldin his own little corner of the earth. 


Mercury Island is a small remote Atlantic island 800 meters off of Spencer Bay on Namibian Diamondcoast. It has also been historically known as Skeleton Bay. This is because of the whale and seal bones that littered its shores at the peak of the industrial whaling business. It is also home to a number of famous shipwrecks like the Otavi

Ichaboe, Mercury, Halifax and Possession are a network of islands off the desert coast of Namibiacalled the Guano islands. Ichaboe was discovered by American whaler, Benjamin Morrell in the early 1800s. The seabird breeding colony was, according to Morrell, covered at least 25 feet deep in birdmanure. This later set off a European “guano rush” with early harvesters retrieving hundreds of tonnes of guano from the islands in the mid nineteenth century. 

The character of Yves who served as head-man on Ichaboe and Mercury islands, follows in a long lineof conservationists first posted to the islands in the late 1800s after the wilful exploitation of theisland that left it bare, disrupted the sea birds breeding and nesting habits leading to dwindling populations. This, luckily for the birds, led to less substantial guano deposits on the island. 

Thanks to the work of numerous head-men like Yves, Mercury island in particular, is home to at least 16,000 African penguins, 5000 cormorants and 1200 gannets. It is also recognized by BirdLifeInternational as an “Important Bird Area” for its importance as a breeding site for vulnerable andendangered bird species of the south Atlantic. 


The main theme of this documentary is nature conservation. Throughout the film the audience is confronted with the question of the impact of human economic activity driven by capitalismon thewell-being of the world’s animal population and the environment we share with them. The filmalsohighlights the imbalances in the dynamics of intra- and inter-species conflict with the seal andpenguin populations on the island, best exemplifying this in the film. This is used to highlight thenecessity of human intervention. The brutal but sometimes necessary policy of animal populationcontrol is explored in the film’s most gut-wrenching sequence. The importance of the interconnectedbird and sea life to the balance of the ecosystem of the region is also touched on. 

The more intimate elements in the film’s narrative briefly delve into Yves’ childhood and upbringing with an abusive father. This had a clear effect on Yves and the man he grew up to become. The filmalso examines the mental health and addiction challenges Yves had to overcome following his many years of isolation from humankind and the repetitive and unforgiving nature of life and work on theisland. 

Film Style 

Stylistically, one could draw parallels between this film and Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary classic, Grizzly Man. Like Herzog’s film, My Mercury is based on the main character whose enthusiasm

and undying love of nature led them to live unconventional lives in obscure places. They also did quitea bit of self-chronicling while in these spaces and their own home video footage was used to tell their stories that would be hard to believe if not for the proof. 

The film’s sound design is commendable with the sparse orchestral score serving as an unimposing supplement to the cacophony of bird and sea sounds on the island that create an entrancing andimmersive experience. The documentary is also interspersed with picturesque underwater cinematography that further draws attention to the beauty of the island’s neighboring ecosystem. 

Emotional Impact 

The story at the heart of My Mercury is a heart-warming one. It speaks to everyone’s ability to findaniche in the world that will allow them to contribute meaningfully to their society and the world at large. It also calls to attention how far we should go to achieve our goals in life in whatever field youmay operate. Yves’ cutting himself off from the world and the people he loved is a testament to his single-mindedness and determination to carry on with his conservation work even if it did have its negative side effects. 

The film also clearly re-emphasizes the necessity of robust conservation efforts carried out by peoplelike Yves and his colleagues. The endangered African Penguin population in the south Atlantic, inparticular, is so low today that the species is estimated to be functionally extinct by 2035. This is aworrying trend for anyone conscious about the environment and the impact extinctions have onanimal ecosystems. This film is a rousing call to action for more concerted effort in the conservationof these sea birds. 


The film could have explored more of Yves’ life prior to working and living on Mercury island. Although patterns of parental abuse are hinted at, they do not paint the full picture of howYves became who he was with his teens and young adult years left largely under-explored. One might alsodeduce that he is neurodivergent and that perhaps also influenced his non-conformist lifestyle. Drawing the connecting lines between his early life and adult life could have made for an even moreilluminating character study. 


In a world used to dwelling on the negative, My Mercury delivers an uplifting and inspiring portrait of a man who has dedicated most of his adult life to ensuring the sea birds of the African south Atlantic can enjoy one of the few parts of this planet that they can truly call their own. While heroes like Yves Chesselet are rarely as celebrated as they should be, this film serves as a historical record of theselfless contributions he has made to the field of sea bird study and research. 

Yves continues his work in sea bird conservation to this day. More of us should ask ourselves aquestion he asks the audience at the end of the film. “Should we observe the outcomes of our folly, or is it our responsibility to step in?” This is the poignant and timely question that many audiencemembers will leave the auditorium with on their mind as they step back into a world in need of moreenvironmentally-conscious people. 

The documentary that runs for just a little over one hour and thirty minutes, is sure to leave viewers captivated and inspired in equal measure.

The film’s poster 

Catch the film at the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival:

Author: Timothy Niwamanya

This review emanates from the Talent Press programme, an initiative of Talents Durban in collaboration with the Durban FilmMart Institute and FIPRESCI. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (Timothy Niwamanya) and cannot be considered as constituting an official position of the organisers.

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