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Conversation With Students

A conversation about This Living Salish Sea with students in 2020

Watch the film here:
https://vimeo.com/272886759

Recently, I had the very special experience of being invited as a guest speaker to a Zoom conversation with a school class of mixed grades of more than thirty students. I had originally been contacted by a parent who had seen my film and was part of a school committee helping to organize the children’s learning activities. This parent facilitated contacts with the teachers of this group of children, who were in grades 7-9 in the Home Learners Distributed Learning Initiative. 

In preparation for the Zoom meeting, the teachers sent me a list of questions that the children had posed after having watched two of my films- Washed Up, and This Living Salish Sea. Reading the questions, I was very impressed and moved by the concerns of the students and responded in writing as best I could, prior to the Zoom meeting. Needless to say, the meeting itself was more in-depth and broader than what is indicated below, but nevertheless, I thought it was very worthwhile to show what these young people today are concerned with and thinking about.

STUDENT QUESTIONS/THOUGHTS AND MY ANSWERS:

Q: (About the) Washed Up (film):  What is the most common waste you see on the beach? (examples: plastic bottles, styrofoam food packages… etc…

Watch the film here:
https://vimeo.com/382990602

A: I see petroleum by-products, which is what all that “stuff” you mention is; the point source being petroleum. These products have become just another way of marketing crude oil. Sadly, young people now see all this and it is very common, (sort of a toxic “new normal”), but when I was  young, there were very few plastic items around, and certainly not all these single-use items. What happened was slow, incremental change; year by year there were gradual increases in plastic production and intrusions into every aspect of our lives. Slow, gradual, incremental change is very insidious; it sneaks up on you while you are busy with something else.

Q: This Living Salish Sea:  How will the pipeline affect sea life even if here is no spill?

A: Noise from the increased shipping can seriously harm the threatened Southern Resident orca population; this was acknowledged as a threat by the official (National Energy Board) hearings, but they rationalized it as being justifiable in light of the (supposed) economic benefits. But make no mistake, there have been spills in the past, and there will be ones in the future. No technology is fail safe and human error is part of life.

The death of the orca J-34, scene from the film.
Photo- Sarama

 Q: Are all (or most) of these clips yours, specifically the ocean clips? If so, did you have to travel anywhere to get these clips or are they just from near where you live?

A: Most of the scenes are ones that I shot myself; that is why it took more than five years! Yes, other than when I travelled to the Tar Sands in Athabasca/Alberta to document that and the Healing Walk event there in 2013, all the scenes were shot around various locations in the Salish Sea basin, which is a pretty big area; from Quadra island in the north, down to Orcas Island in Washington State, U.S.A., along the east coast of Vancouver Island, and between Victoria and Port Renfrew in the Juan de Fuca Strait, and of course, all over the Sunshine Coast right here too!

Q: Have you ever been to an un-peaceful rally? What I’m trying to get at is that  in the past, peaceful rallies have turned to violence and bad mouthing trying to express their views on controversial subjects (this can, but not always, have something to do with the police), if you’ve ever been in a situation where this had happened, what were your thoughts about how the people rallying acted by stooping to violence?

All the rallies/marches that I have attended/documented were peaceful. The biggest one had between 7-10,000 people participating. However, one thing that one must be aware of and careful of is what is known as the “agent provocateur.” These are agents that can and do sometimes introduce themselves into a gathering to provoke trouble and, if they are effective, they can incite others to violence. That is why organizers of these mass rallies are extremely careful of discipline and have very strict rules of peaceful conduct. This is an extremely important point to remember; especially if you are watching news footage of events, it is always good to question, “What is really going on here?” Good news sources and journalists will ask those questions and do investigations, rather than just relate a superficial impression. That being said, I did witness violence at the protests at Burnaby Mt. (which was neither a rally or a march), and I can honestly say that it was from police forces against citizens who were questioning and challenging political decisions that they did not agree with.

Healing Walk in Athabasca, (Tar Sands), 2013
Photo- Sarama

Q: Are you an optimist?

A: It depends on what day you ask me; so, yes, and no. But I guess the film came from a place of hope, if you want to look at it that way. Otherwise, why bother going through all that work?

Q: Do you think we can make a comeback from the messes we’ve made, and how much of a comeback, enough to put off our future that we’re heading to if we don’t do something, or a comeback that is sustainable for the next ever so many generations? 

A: Hmm, you know, these are very profound questions. I think humans do have the capacity to do truly amazing things. Think of Germany; it was a country that created some of the most sublime art that we have ever heard, like that of Mozart and Beethoven. But we are all too aware of some of the very worst things that happened there too. Humans have the ability to create great ugliness or great beauty. It is entirely our choice what we create. One thing I do know is that we will create our reality, and we all have it in our power to participate to make that the very best reality that it can be. It is up to each and every one of us to make our unique contribution. In the end, what is important is to try, to grow and to learn as a human being and to be able to say to oneself, I did my best. We all have to live with our own conscience; that is all you can do. You can’t be responsible for the acts of others, only your own. But you must never underestimate how powerful a simple act can be. We simply don’t know what ripples we cause in the space/time continuum that can be a positive tipping point.

Q: How long did it take to make the film?

A: A little over five years. 

Q: What was the most incredible sea creature you saw?

A: Free diving with a grey whale! 

Q: What was the deepest you have ever dove down to? 

165 ft., or about 50 metres. 

Q: What first encouraged you to make the film?

A: The beauty, diversity, and vitality of life in the oceans. 

Q: How often do you swim?

A: Not often enough! In the summer, as much as possible. Not so much right now… 

Q: I saw you got really cool shots of animals like seals; how close were you to them? And what was the closest you ever got to a sea animal like that?

A: The best is when a wild creature is curious and comes to investigate you, not the other way around. The closest was once when I wasn’t even aware of it. I was free diving near a beach, and I had my camera with me. My wife and friends were on the beach and saw a river otter pop up right beside me, maybe only one meter away. But, I didn’t see it! If I had just turned, I could have a had an amazing shot. But animals are like that. By the time I realized it was there, it was gone…

Comment: I learned that the RCMP are bad; I knew that they were not too good, but now I understand that they are BAD. eeek

A: Some RCMP officers are individuals with serious problematic issues. But I have also met some officers who are really good people. I feel that the problem with the RCMP as an organization, is that there is a systemic culture that must be fundamentally changed to something more constructive. 

Q: My question for him is how did you get all the footage from the film, did you take it all?

A: I think I shot about 95% of the scenes that you see in the film – the aerials, underwater, and all the activist stuff, like the interactions between concerned citizens and the RCMP on Burnaby Mt. But some scenes I did not take, and these were important contributions from others, which I acknowledge in the credits section. This is why it is important to pay attention to film credits! For a full list of all those who contributed to this film, please sea the film credits listed on this website.

Q: 1. Which sea animal interests you most?

A: Tough question! There are so many. But I find the octopus really fascinating. How is it that an animal that only lives 4-5 years can have such high intelligence? Usually we associate high intelligence with very long lived animals. And octopus are so very different from other animals. Copper based blood? How did that happen?

Randy Parker, photo of octopus
Octopus in Puget Sound,
Photo- Randy Parker, www.waterloggedpfm.com

 

Q: 2. Why do you think Justin Trudeau approved the pipeline development when it is so threatening to our environment?

A: Good question! That is something I just don’t understand. It was such a monumental blunder, and the more that time goes by, the worse it is proving to be. It was clearly a decision based on a questionable political assessment, despite his claims of a science and evidence-based approach.

Q: 3. Is the plankton you showed in this film the ones that glow in the water at nighttime? (phosphorescence)

A: Some plankton does have bioluminescence, but I cannot tell you which ones those were of the ones that I showed in the film. We certainly do have them in our waters, and I’m sure you likely have seen them here? 

Q: 4. How come pulp mills do not have regulations for the chemicals that they are putting in our ocean?

A: They do, (now) at least more so than in the past. But the terrible outputs that happened in the past were not regulated adequately. Why? In some cases at a certain point, it was a lack of knowledge, but it could also be argued that industry has been very good at lobbying legislators to protect business interests first and foremost. Political will needs to be asserted by the general population, who must be sufficiently aware, to elect people who will do what needs to be done to protect public health and the health of the environment that sustains us.

Pulp mill in heavy smoke
Photo- Sarama

Comment: I learned so much more about our ocean, climate change, the pipeline, and the animals from watching this film. One thing that really stood out for my mom and I was that golden-eye rockfish that lives for 120 years! We were so surprised it lives for such a long time! Sadly, its species is going extinct. Overall, I really liked this film! Thanks!

A: Thank you for your kind words. Yes, it is really amazing just how old some of these fish will grow, if given the chance. Most people have no idea.

Q: Where does he mostly film and study his research?

A: For this film, please see the answers above that reference this about where I shot scenes. But also, I do travel and I like learning about other cultures and the whole planet. When I was nineteen for example, I hitchhiked with a friend on a trip that took us overland from Canada to the south of Argentina, I learned so much on that trip! As to research, there is a wealth of knowledge in our libraries, and also online. But you have to be careful online, because of the influence of misinformation. It is important to check sources, and to check, check, and check again the accuracy of reports, to verify that research or reports are true and credible. It is a great deal of work involving a huge amount of hours.

Q: Did he go to school studying marine life?

A: I wish, but no. 

Q: Hello! these are my questions thank you, how long did this whole documentary take you?

A: When all was said and done, that is – research, shooting, writing, editing, re-writing, re-editing, about 6 years.

Q: What, in your opinion, is the most dangerous creature you have seen underwater? 

A: People! I’m sort of kidding, (but not really). I would be very wary of being around a great white shark, or a tiger shark, a komodo dragon, a leopard seal, or a saltwater crocodile, but I have never encountered those. Others have, though, and they were OK. But  my bottom line is that I have a lot of respect for large predators, so I prefer to stay out of their space.

Q: … and what is the most interesting fishlike creature you have ever seen?

A: Seahorses and bay pipefish are pretty amazing little fish. They are related to each other. You can see bay pipefish around here along shorelines, amongst the rocky reefs and weeds if you are careful and know what you are looking for. What is really interesting about this tiny fish is that it is the males who carry the young in a special sack on their tummy, and they are the ones who take care of the babies. Some fish are really big and flashy and aggressive, but not seahorses or bay pipefish; they are very shy and timid. I love them for being so gentle.

Gravid bay pipefish at surface.
Photo- Sarama

Q: My question- Have you actually been to any of the protests and protested? And my dad is wondering how much time you filmed for? 

A: All the scenes you saw in the film, of the protests and/or rallies, and marches were shot by me, up close and personal; it took many months over several years. The worst was up at Burnaby Mt., shooting for 16 hours a day, in the cold, when it was pouring down rain all day long. That was pretty miserable, but good to get the shots. It wasn’t easy though.

Yes, I have been to many protests over many years. All this was volunteer work, in addition to having a job earning a living. But and as so often happened, people would shout at us, “Hey, get a job!” Many years ago, for example, back in the 1970s, I and quite a few other people were arrested for trying to stop the B.C. Ministry of the Environment from dumping 2,4-D herbicide into Okanagan lake. (They were trying to control the spread of eurasian milfoil weed, which had “escaped” from someone’s aquarium). I was involved with so much activity over many years. I was also very active in the movement to bring about the moratorium against uranium mining in B.C. Did you know that B.C. is the only jurisdiction in Canada that does not allow uranium mining? We did that.

Climate march, Vancouver
Photo- Sarama

Q: Two Questions I have for Sarama are:

1. Have you seen any changes underwater in the last few years due of climate change, and if you have, how do you think it is affecting the underwater animals?

A: Yes, I have seen changes. Specifically, there were two things that I showed in the film that dealt with this. One was about the pathogen that killed the sea stars, and the other was about ocean acidification and the risk this poses to shellfish. 

Q: 2. Besides the beach clean-ups and protected sea areas, how else have people helped the Salish Sea?

A: Hmm, I’m not sure that people have helped the Salish Sea. Maybe if we just left it alone? We need more marine conservation areas. We need more public education, so that people understand and respect this environment. One advance that I can point to is the discovery and recognition of the rare and endangered glass sponge reefs. That is an amazing story and truly a rare treasure that exists only here on the B.C. coast, as far as we know.

Q: Something I have learned is how dangerous it is having the oil ships going through our harbours.

A: Yes, it is an activity that has high inherent risk, but the entire process is fraught with problems, starting at the point source. 

This Aframax class tanker is carrying a load of tar sands diluted bitumen, just loaded at the Kinder Morgan Westridge terminal in Burnaby.
Photo- Sarama

Comment: I really enjoyed how in detail the movie was and i also really liked the underwater photography at the end!

A: Thank you! 

Q: Where did he get the salmon  footage what creek/river?

A: I shot some of the footage in a river by Campbell River, (actually in the Campbell River). This was a run of pink salmon, in beautifully clear water; a wonderful experience! I also shot in Chapman Creek, here on the Sunshine Coast. As well, a short clip that is near the opening of the film briefly shows salmon fry in a very tiny stream called Goosebird Creek, here in Gibsons. (If you go online on the Coast Reporter newspaper, you can see some of the background story surrounding Goosebird Creek, since there was some development controversy about it). Also, some footage was provided to me by a friend, Roy Mulder, who shot footage of sockeye salmon in the Adams River.

Pink Salmon in the Campbell River
Photo- Sarama

 Q: What year did you make the film?

A: 2013-2014-2015-2016-2017 

Comment: I had no IDEA our COUNTRY LOOKED like THAT!!!!!!!!

The OIL SANDS are a DISGRACE!!!

 It looks like it covers the entire WORLD!

A: The aerial footage of the Tar Sands that I showed in the film was provided to me by Greenpeace. (I did a deal with them, and traded some of my underwater footage for the right to use some of their footage. The footage that they provided to me were shots that were not used in a film that Greenpeace produced. It is a very good film to watch, called Petropolis.)  One thing that does not come across in the film is the smell. You can smell the place a very long time before you get there. All the toxic gases and vapours that are being released cover a very wide area. You know that smell when a paving crew is laying fresh asphalt, (bitumen), or they are working on a tar and gravel roof? That is the smell all over that area. The tar sands are bitumen deposits. Industry and government like to call them the “oil sands” for public relations purposes. But this is not oil, it is bitumen, which is tar. What they are shipping through the pipelines and on the tankers is not oil, it is diluted bitumen, (called “dilbit” by the industry.)

Q: How long did this take to film?

A: Between 5-6 years

Q: 1) I would like to ask Sarama:

a. How do you tell the age of a rock fish? The video pointed out one that was 160 years old.

Hey, good question! Scientists discovered that rockfish have a tiny bone in their ear. This bone is called an otolith. They discovered that when they cut open an otolith, it shows growth rings, similar to the annual rings on a tree. Of course, they can only do this on a dead fish, sadly.

Q: b. Do you know if the sea star wasting disease has improved?

There have been reports of some individual sea stars, but the population has not recovered. Not all sea stars were affected equally. The giant sunflower sea stars were one of the most affected.

Q: 2) I learned that Kinder Morgan’s pipelines are dangerous. I was surprised at how much damage it can do to the environment if there is an oil spill or a fire.

A: Yes. Unfortunately our Canadian government bought the TransMountain, (ex-KinderMorgan) pipeline in 2018. So now we own it!

Comment: I learned what bitumen is and that it is not good. I was sad for the animals covered in it and eating it.

A: It is not so much that bitumen is bad, or good. It is what we do, and how we do it, that makes it so. 

Comment: It was interesting to see so many sea urchins when the eco system was out of balance.

A: Yes, I remember the first time I saw this and it took me a while to understand exactly what I was observing and what it meant! 

Green urchins consuming kelp, after the mass sea star die-off
Photo- Sarama

Comment: My favourite part of the movie was the under water camera videos.

A: Thank you. It is a truly magical world that lies just under the surface! 

Kelp in currents, backlit with sunlight
Photo- Sarama

Q: My questions are: do you think that people will be able to save the earth? And have you been in a protest yourself?

A: I don’t think we can “save the earth.” But let me explain what I mean by that. The planet is billions of years old. We, modern humans, have been around for less than two million years. Long after we are gone, the earth will be here, and life will keep changing and adapting. But, and this is a very big BUT. What we can do is try to do less harm than we have been doing. I  think of the motto that the physicians have  – “Do no harm.” It is a very good motto to have! By learning more, caring more, understanding how precious and beautiful all life is, and giving respect to all living things, we can lessen our impact on the environment, and learn to live in balance. We can lessen the amount of suffering that we are causing to each other, and which we will cause to future generations, and which we cause to our fellow amazing beings that live on this earth. So, those are things that are entirely within our power to do; we just need to do it!

Comment: This is what I learned: I learned that the government will change laws, arrest people, and lie just for profit from things like oil.

A: When you study human history, this has been going on for thousands of years. But now, it is highly amplified by technology, by over-consumption, and by our very numbers, which I believe are far beyond what is sustainable – if we truly respect that there should be space given to wild creatures that also have a right to exist.  

Q: Did Sarama make the movie himself and how long did it take him?

A: Yes, it was very much a one-person production, which is unusual when making a film. Usually, there is a team, and often, a very large team, sometimes hundreds of people involved with making a film. The reason I had to do it myself was because there was no budget, no funding, (no money) to pay people to help. Most people cannot work without being paid, since they need to pay the rent, a mortgage, food, etc. etc. That being said, even though I had to push the whole project along by myself, it did not mean that others did not contribute. There were many people who stepped up – music was donated by several artists, and one musician, Michael Lacoste, contributed many songs. The soundtrack composition was made and donated by Wayne Harjula. Extra footage that I did not have was donated, the animation artist who did those interesting underwater animations was a student who contributed his work for only a  very small fee, and  people did contribute money too, to help out with the production costs. (Even though there was “no budget,” it did not mean that it cost no money.) And, the biggest help I had was from my wife, who is a teacher; so while she taught school and made an income, I was able to continue work on the film!
Please see the full list of film credits on this website to see all those who contributed to make this film. 

Filming plankton under the microscope
Photo Sarama

Q: Where in B.C. does Sarama live and how long has he lived there?

A: I have lived in Gibsons, since 1997. 

Q: Is there a chance that Sarama might make another movie; if so what would the topic be?

A: Of course! I have already started shooting some footage for a new film, one that is more of an art film than a documentary. But I can’t say too much more about it at this point.

Q: 1: Out of all the documented orcas, how many are children compared to adults?

Good question. The answer is, I do not know exactly. I know of reports that say there have been a couple of new births in the Southern Resident orca population in the last year, so that is the good news. But they have been away from this area quite a lot. Maybe they are looking for food elsewhere? (A good site to find answers is: https://www.whaleresearch.com )

Q: 2: Do you have any updates on the Kinder Morgan expansion?

A: It is now known as TransMountain, and because Prime Minister Trudeau and his government bought it, we now own it. They keep pushing the construction ahead, but there is still resistance from communities and First Nations. They, (industry and governments), seem to be taking advantage of the fact that people are having difficulty assembling to protest the construction, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (But it is apparently OK for industry workers to assemble together to build the pipeline?)

Q:  What is going to happen to the streams, rivers, lake and the ocean if this keeps up? And what can we do to help? I learn more about sea life in our back yard. I so learned more about the Kinder Morgan pipe line.

A: Keep learning. Keep caring about everything. But don’t be overwhelmed by the problems- take care of yourself too! Take time to have fun. It is important to maintain balance. There are many things each of us can do; sometimes they are very simple things, like sharing your thoughts and concerns with your friends, and the community. There is a group on the Sunshine coast which is on Facebook, that is called Stream Keepers, I believe. A very nice lady, who is very involved with this, lives in Roberts Creek, and her name is Shirley Samples. They are doing work on restoring habitat in our streams and creeks. Maybe there can be a youth contingent in this effort?

Comment: I forgot to add detail on my “what did you learn” questions, so here I go, starting with the first one, I learned more about the different plant and animals in our oceans, what roles they play in the food chain in our ocean and more about the animals and plants themselves. For my second question, I learned how the pipeline will hurt and destroy habitat and animals from how much more carbon dioxide will be released into our lands and oceans and will eventually destroy our world and every animal and plant on this planet because there will not be enough oxygen in our atmosphere 

A: Our impact has not been very good, but it is not quite as bad as you have put it. Yes, it can be quite depressing when you pay attention to the destructive things that humans do. But people also do good things. Were this not so, things would be very, very much worse than they are. There are many people who are trying really hard to have a “light footprint” on the earth. We have to amplify this effort and this message.

Q: 1) is there any more current updates on this story, seeing as how it was made four years ago?

A: Yes, (please refer to my answer to a similar question, above.) 

Comment: 2) this movie taught me so much. Not only about the dangers and precariousness of the oil industry and tankers, but also of the strange and wonderful beauties of our own sea. I never would have guessed we have octopi 4 metres long!

A: I am very happy to hear that you learned from this film. I included all of the amazing things and beauty that there is, because we have to remain focused on all of that, since it is what is so precious, and can be lost if we are not more careful.

Tube snout fish school in sunlit kelp
Photo- Sarama

Q: What has happened with the Kinder-Morgan Pipeline since?

A: They keep pushing ahead with the construction, (please see my answer above, to a similar question.) 

Q: Have the sea stars regenerated at all since the disease?

A: Some have, others, like the sunflower sea stars, not as much. 

Q: Did he take all of the herring footage himself? I learned how green the ocean turns! That was pretty incredible.

A: Some of the herring footage was provided by two filmmakers who live in Powell River, Terry L. Brown, and Jeremy Williams. But most of the footage I shot myself. The high magnification macro footage was especially interesting to shoot, and I was absolutely amazed to discover that I could actually watch the heartbeat of a baby herring embryo while it was still inside the egg sac, especially since the eggs only measure a little over one mm in diameter!

Herring hatching with kelp in background

Photo- Sarama

Comment: How many animals can die in a small oil spill. How many animals can die in a large oil spill.

A: Yes. And the impacts can be far reaching and last a very, very long time. The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 is still impacting the environment today. 

Q: What is something that I can change about my every day life to help the earth?

A: Keep learning, keep growing as a human being. Become active with your concerns. Constructive actions are very empowering! Get involved with others who share your concerns. Reach out in the community. As I mentioned above, there is a local group called Stream Keepers that is doing good work. Also, protect the forest, since everything is connected. In nature, there are no divisions.

Comment: What I learned/ comments: If we start right now we have a chance at saving the earth especially by thinking about how the thing that we are doing could impact 7 generations away from us.

A: Yes, long term thinking is so important. Our current social and corporate culture is dominated by short-term thinking that is predicated on quarterly profit margins and dividends. This has to change! First nations culture still holds value in this type of long term thinking, and we have to understand the importance of this.

Comment:  (I learned) That many toxins are stored in fat.

A: Yes, this is true. The scientist that I interviewed, Dr. Robert MacDonald,  was so excellent and really explained that well. 

Thank you all so much for your interest, your caring, and all your great questions. I hope that I was able to answer them Ok. I look forward to speaking with you all tomorrow!

Footnote – There were questions about “What can I do,” and I tried to answer in a broader way. But regarding more practical specifics, in our life, we try to consume less and conserve more. We harvest rain water. We wash clothing in cold water and hang dry our clothing outside, under a deck, (we don’t have a dryer).  We have a special filter to trap synthetic micro-fibres, after the laundry washing machine, before they go down the drain and into the sea.

Micro fibres recovered from our laundry filter
Photo- Sarama

We conserve and use our articles and resources with care, to extend their use. We don’t eat meat. We walk more, take public transit and drive an electric car. We do intensive recycling. We avoid using plastics as much as possible, especially single-use plastics. We try to grow as much of our own food as possible and we compost. We do not waste food. We re-use and re-purpose as much as possible. We designed and built our own home to be a passive-solar design. We keep our home cool and wear sweaters inside during the winter, to consume less energy. We actively lobby our governments to make positive change.

Surf zone, a scene from the documentary film, This Living Salish Sea
Photo- Sarama

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