Filmmaker Q&A: Sheraz Sadiq

Into the Deep with Elephant Seals is a story that highlights the use of high-tech tools to plumb the secrets of the northern elephant seals. Northern elephant seals are marine mammals that can weigh up to 4,500 pounds, spend most of their lives underwater, and can dive a mile deep into the cold, dark waters of the Pacific Ocean. The story begins at Año Nuevo State Reserve, a jagged stretch of coastline in San Mateo County where Professor Dan Costa and his team of students at UC Santa Cruz retrieve satellite tags and take measurements of seals returning from months out at sea to breed and give birth. Despite the high-tech digital surveillance to better understand where the seals forage and what they eat while out at sea, many questions still remain about these charismatic, bizarre giants of the deep. What was your inspiration for creating the film?

My colleagues and I had been interested in creating a story on elephant seals because there are thousands that migrate twice a year to rookeries in the Farallones, Año Nuevo and Point Reyes. They are also extreme in just about everything they do: from the depths to which they dive in search of prey while holding their breath for up to two hours; migrating 21,000 miles a year and fasting for a month while breeding; giving birth; and weaning their pups. Although many stories have been produced on northern elephant seals, we wanted to focus on the scientists in the Bay Area who pioneered the study of elephant seals and who are continuing to do cutting-edge work to study the seals for the roughly eight months they are out at sea.

What was the most challenging part of creating the film?

The greatest challenges in creating the film were of a logistical nature. The story was approved in December 2010 and then I had to coordinate getting access to Professor Dan Costa’s team of graduate students as they recovered tags from a female elephant seal in mid-January. In addition, Professor Costa was preparing for a research trip to Antarctica to study another species of seals and his hectic schedule afforded only one day of filming with him in his lab before his departure. I also had to gain the necessary permit and approval from Año Nuevo State Reserve to film the elephant seal colony as the students located the female seal and sedated her so that they could take measurements of her health and retrieve the satellite tag. The wrinkle here was that the recovery procedure could change at the last minute, pending the location of the seal and the ability to reach her. Despite the logistical challenges, the film was immensely rewarding to produce and I am indebted to the assistance of Professor Costa and his students; Professor Burney LeBoeuf, a pioneer in early studies of elephant seal behavior; and Terry Kiser, a park ranger at Ano Nuevo.

What do you want to impart on your film’s viewers?

I would hope that viewers gain a keener understanding of the amazing physiology and behavior of elephant seals when they’re on land and out at sea. In addition, there are a couple of things I love about this story which I hope similarly resonates with viewers. Firstly, I think the comeback of the northern elephant seal from the brink of extinction at the turn of the 20th-century, thanks to the efforts of the Mexican government, is a remarkable conservation story. The roughly 170,000-strong northern elephant seal population today can trace their lineage to 30 individuals which survived on a tiny Mexican island and grew after the Mexican government passed legislation to protect the island from poachers. Secondly, I hope viewers get a glimpse of the dedication and passion which fuels the hard work of the scientists and future scientists to further unlock the physiological and behavioral mysteries of the animals.

What was the most enjoyable part of creating the film?

For me, the most enjoyable part of creating any QUEST story is the ability to talk to and interview, visit ahead of the production shoots, and the labs/work environments of the scientists and experts featured in my stories. In essence, we’re storytellers, albeit working in the realm of non-fiction to craft a compelling narrative from interviews, footage, animations and audio. As exemplified with this story, I found it very gratifying to hear firsthand the passion and dedication of Professor Costa and his students who represent the next generation of pioneers in marine mammal behavior. I also relish brainstorming with my experts, scenes that I can film to help illustrate the work they do and the tools they use to solve the mysteries within their scientific fields.

Who (or what) is your inspiration?

My inspiration is the crop of smart, skilled and talented colleagues I have the great pleasure to work with every day. My Series Producer, Amy Miller, in particular has been invaluable in helping me to streamline and refine the production process. At the heart of this has been the ability to differentiate between what to film, how much of it to film and the most efficient way to make use of limited time and budgetary resources. I also can’t help feeling some inspiration from the scientists featured in my stories. They’re clearly brilliant, motivated and passionate individuals. Although I will never know how to run an isotopic analysis on a whisker sample or some other complex scientific procedure, I derive inspiration from the thoughtful attention to detail and perseverance, which underpins scientific research. These attributes can also help fuel a documentary that is well thought out and well executed.

How or why did you begin creating ocean-focused films?

QUEST features stories that address nine topic areas within science and nature. Biology is one such topic area and our proximity to majestic, vital bodies of water allows us to produce at least one television story relating to the San Francisco Bay or the Pacific Ocean each season. It’s important for us to do so because of how vital the Bay and the ocean are to our health, commerce and iconic beauty.

Why did you choose to submit your film to the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival?

QUEST has had several films showcased at the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival over the years. This story seemed like a natural fit because it focuses on a marine mammal species, which spends most of its life in the ocean. Furthermore, the scientists featured in the story are exploring new aspects of the elephant seals’ marine habitat and how changes within this habitat, precipitated by climate change, may impact the ability of these hardy creatures to forage for food and manage their resources in an ocean under increasing stress.

Is this your first time participating in an ocean-focused film festival?

For me, personally, yes this is the first time that I’ve had a story featured in an ocean-focused film festival. It is truly an honor and a privilege to make this film available for screening here.

What was the most memorable moment in creating the film?

I would have to say that the most memorable moment came during our filming within the elephant seal colony at Año Nuevo State Reserve in mid-January 2010. My production crew and I, including QUEST TV Series Producer Amy Miller (who graciously offered to take production stills during the shoot), were standing a few yards from a pair of slumbering male elephant seals. Without warning, one of the seals decided that the other had gotten too close and lifted its massive head in the air, bellowing a challenge to the other that a fight was imminent. The crew and I froze in our tracks, not knowing if we should run forward or back and also realizing that any decision would have to be coordinated in a split second, since the boom microphone was attached to the camera and the video monitor I was holding in my hand was also attached to the camera. Fortunately, the state park ranger with us had the presence of mind to tell us to slowly step back, as the contest between the male seals was about to unfold. Luckily for us, the smaller of the two males backed down and the bigger male with his territory once again secured, slumped down and snorted a grunt of satisfaction. Frankly, the seals weren’t interested in us, but being caught in the middle of these blubbery giants is a situation I certainly don’t care to repeat.