Souls of the Vermilion Sea – a blog post

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Sean Bogle, a videographer and Project Director of the documentary series Eyes on Conservation. Check out his bio at the end of the post and a link to the documentary he talks about in this post!

When I was younger I wanted to be a cowboy, being from Texas. The thought of trotting across vast landscapes alone, surrounded by nature, with streaks of yellow and orange in the sky struck me as “the good life”.   However, this dream became no more than a dried up hoof print when I learned that the life of a cowboy involves shoveling horse manure.

Being a child, I quickly moved on to another dream. I gravitated towards the birth of video technology when my father purchased an early edition two part video system – one part being the video camera, and the other part being a condensed VCR with a strap. This interest was considerably less filthy than being a cowboy and I could be as creative as I wanted.

Time went on, life went on, and now the two dreams have collided: I am now a wildlife researcher and filmmaker. I suppose my early goals were actually foreshadowing for my chosen career. Now I am lucky enough to be able to conduct wildlife conservation research while also documenting my efforts and the efforts of other conservation enthusiasts to share with the rest of the world. These are rare circumstances, but I have only focused on enjoying this combination.

Even more rare than the opportunity to combine conservation and filmmaking is the subject of my current project: the vaquita porpoise. With less than 100 individuals remaining, the vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal on the planet. After having worked on many marine mammal research projects for the past 5 years (specifically pinnipeds, such as Steller sea lions, Northern elephant seals, Hawaiian monk seals, Northern fur seals), I had a personal interest in this issue, and I wanted to address it. I thought that since I have a talent for filmmaking, an interest in wildlife research and conservation, and the passion to make a difference, I had to make a film that would not only spread awareness of the vaquita’s plight, but would also document the dedication of those on the front lines of the fight to save this species.

the vaquita porpoise

The subject of my current project: the vaquita porpoise. Photo credit: Tom Jefferson.

Female Steller sea lion with pup.

Female Steller sea lion with pup. Images were collected pursuant to NMFS Permit #14326.

Since the middle of 2014, I have been investigating the issues facing the vaquita. I have learned what the major threats to the vaquita are, who is on the front lines of this issue, and what needs to be done to prevent the extinction of this unique species. The most direct threat contributing to the decline of the vaquita is the use of gillnets. Gillnets are commonly used to harvest an array of fish species from the Upper Gulf of California. Vaquita get entangled in these nets, which prevents them from surfacing for air and ultimately results in death by suffocation. The use of gillnets for fishing is driven partly by the demand in the US for blue shrimp, which is considered a delicacy, and the demand in China for the swim bladders of the endangered totoaba, which is thought have medicinal qualities and is a symbol of wealth.

After about a year’s worth of developing relationships and making plans, it is now time to jump in and start helping: recently, we began filming for Souls of the Vermilion Sea, a Wild Lens documentary about the vaquita. Ideally, for a project of this magnitude, funding would be secured before moving forward, but in this case, waiting is not an option – the vaquita has very limited time. Current predictions suggest that this unique mammal will be extinct by the year 2018. Time is of the essence, and I believe we need to unify our efforts so we have the greatest impact in saving these creatures.

Filming Souls of the Vermilion Sea in the Sea of Cortez.

Filming Souls of the Vermilion Sea in the Sea of Cortez.

It hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing getting to where I am now. To make a good film, I had to build strong relationships with those on the front lines of this story – and trust takes time to establish. However, working at these relationships paid off – these experts have been so generous with their knowledge and hospitality. I would have not made the progress that I have without their help, and I owe them all a great deal of gratitude. I also have depended greatly on the supporters of Wild Lens, this vaquita film project, and the protection for the vaquita. This support is crucial in creating change. It is refreshing to know that there are people out there that are dedicated to preserving the planet’s integrity by protecting its biodiversity.

 

Filming in the field is in many ways very similar to working on a research project. Communication with others is important, so that efficiency can be maintained and protocols can be followed. Weather can be an unpredictable factor that influences productivity, so you need to adapt and be flexible and know how to use the time you do have. This particular issue has already arisen several times as I have been filming down in San Felipe, Mexico, where the vaquita story is unfolding. We recently had the remnants of a tropical storm brush the coast, which did not make for good filming weather! But in the end, the storm provided an opportunity to catch up on organizing gear and the footage that I have captured over the last 3 weeks. These are moments that are well embraced.

Northern fur sea l pup.

Northern fur seal pup. Images were collected pursuant to NMFS Permit #14327.

And of course, there is never enough time to do everything you want to. As I move forward with this film project, I am also mentally preparing for my next field season on the Pribilof Islands, where I am a long term assistant on a Northern fur seal project. In less than 3 weeks I will have to switch from flip flops, t-shirt and shorts, to Xtra-tuffs, thermals, and rain gear – which may be a tough shift! I sometimes have a panic moment, wondering whether I will be able to make the transition from filmmaker to scientist. But then I remember that these roles are not so different after all, and how lucky I am to have a chance to combine them!

Sean Bogle has been a part of Wild Lens since 2011, when he first became involved as a videographer documenting the conservation efforts of the Maasai giraffe in Tanzania. Following this contribution, he became the Project Director of the documentary series Eyes on Conservation. He works closely with biologists in every stage of production to tell their story. Prior to his involvement with Wild Lens, he worked on the front lines of conservation conducting research studies on a spectrum of species from fish and small mammals to charismatic megafauna like pinnipeds. He is currently creating a documentary film, Souls of the Vermilion Sea, telling the story of the struggle to save the most endangered marine mammal on the planet. Check it out at http://wildlensinc.org/eoc-single/souls-of-the-vermilion-sea/ and visit their kickstarter page if you want to contribute!

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