The documentary filmmaker talks about his film on California sea lions
Avast, mateys! ‘Tis been too long since me last post. The good ship Something Fishy, she been a’travelin’ far and wide to find ye the juiciest sea-worthy stories yet untold. This week, I introduce you to Alan De Herrera, a documentary filmmaker whose latest work, Sea Lions: An Unforgettable Encounter, delves deep into the lives of California sea lions.
Circus veterans for more than a century, California sea lions are entertaining animals, and as a result, are one of the most widely recognized marine mammals in the world. But De Herrera’s more worried about their reputation as pests — venturing into marinas and climbing aboard boats; following commercial vessels to all the best fishing holes and then pilfering the catch; even maneuvering onto fish ladders to trap salmon on their way upstream.
“[People] just think they’re stinky, dumb dogs with flippers that want to go rape and pillage all the fish out there, and that’s simply not the case,” De Herrera says. His 45-minute film, narrated by former hobbit Sean Astin, aims to show the public how intelligent and playful the animals are and illuminate the threats they face from humans. (One in five sea lions rescued by the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif., have carcinoma — a cancer linked to chemical exposure — and another 20 percent suffer from gunshot wounds likely caused by angry fishermen.) “It’s not in any way going to be beneficial for human society to eradicate these animals,” De Herrera asserts.
I caught up with the impassioned filmmaker between promotional screenings at the Seattle Aquarium earlier this summer to chat about de-villainizing the charismatic mammals, protecting their West Coast habitat, and educating the next generation of fishermen.
What is your background?
Photography major originally in college back in the early ’90s — seems so long ago! [Laughs.] I always had an interest in wildlife, in animals. I went into photography with an emphasis on nature, and I got into normal filmmaking — commercial work, music videos; I shot and directed a handful of different short films and theatrical-type of productions. But in 2000, I really got an itching to get back into nature-themed material, and I decided to do a film and get into scuba diving. I started trying to find a story that I could tell in my backyard in Southern California about what was going on in the ocean.
And I found out that sea lions were getting shot by fishermen and there was all this blame on them as being the culprit for ruining the fish stocks in California. So I went out there and actually dove with these animals and had a one-on-one encounter with one in particular in the water — a really special type of moment. I knew there was something really, really unique about this animal. I tried to find a video — a documentary or something out there on them and nobody had ever made a film about sea lions. They’ve been featured in a lot of Discovery Channel stuff, and National Geographic has featured them in some things, but never a film that really encompassed the entire animal — the ecology, the research, all the things happening to them as far as the positive and negative effects that humans were having. So I saw there’s a story that needs to be told.
There are just a lot of misconceptions because people aren’t informed. When people see my film, they’re like “Wow, I didn’t realize sea lions were intelligent.” They’re just as smart as dolphins. [The research in the film shows] that sea lions, dolphins, and chimpanzees are the only three animals that can classify objects into abstract categories. They have that ability to learn beyond just an object equals a fish. And sea lions have been found to have the longest memory of any animal in the animal kingdom … literally, after ten years they remembered something they had learned — longer than elephants.
Sea lions are sort of known as these acrobatic animals — being in circus shows and aquarium acts — how do you feel about that?
It’s a great question. You have to take it on a case-by-case basis because there are some aquariums and zoos in the U.S. that don’t do a good job of taking care of their marine mammals, and some of them can get sick or injured or even die.
But I think for the most part, sea lions and seals adapt really well to captivity. I would rather not see marine mammals in captivity, but these days, in the U.S., marine mammals are not caught as wild animals anymore. They all have to be captively bred. So any sea lions now in captivity were either bred in captivity or are sick or injured sea lions that have been rescued and can’t be rehabilitated and released back into the ocean for whatever reason, and now they’ve got a second chance.
It’s great for the public to be able to get up close and see the seals here [at the Seattle Aquarium] underwater swimming and see what they’re really like and hear them — without having to go way out to these islands. Because most people are never going to go underwater; they’re never going to dive with them. Here’s a way that they can see that.
What factors are affecting their survival out in the wild?
The California sea lion in particular — their populations are very strong, increasing anywhere from five to ten percent, in some cases, per year. So they’re doing very well, whereas other species, like Northern fur seals and Stellar sea lions, their populations are declining drastically. And that’s attributed to sea lions being very inquisitive animals and very intelligent animals, meaning that they can utilize their intelligence to find food — like at the Ballard Locks, like following fishing boats to great spots where they’re gonna catch the types of fish that a sea lion likes.
[California] sea lions can eat over a hundred different types of fish, whereas Stellar sea lions only eat about nine types of fish. So they’re much more resilient than most other pinniped species, [which include seals, sea lions, and walruses]. If one fish stock is declining or is not around, they can immediately switch to quite a few other different types of fish to survive. They can live in the harbors — in the congested areas where humans exist, whereas for most seals, it would have a detrimental effect on them if there was that kind of noise pollution. A [California] sea lion can haul out right in front of 1,000 people, and he’s OK. There are very few other pinnipeds that could do that. Stellar sea lions are very shy animals — you’d never see them at the Ballard Locks. California sea lions … if there’s food, they’re gonna go.
But they’re living right alongside the humans so then they also have to deal with the runoff, the pollutants in the water …
That’s the problem. It’s a catch-22. They can coexist with us, but because of that, they’re more susceptible to contaminants. Another thing that affects them, besides the contaminants, is the overfishing. Sea lions drown in fishermen’s nets a lot. Fishermen shoot them all the time; there have been quite a few sea lions washed up on the shores of California, Washington, and Oregon with gunshot wounds. And as far as other threats, they do get picked off by orcas, or killer whales, and great white sharks, but that’s part of the normal ecosystem. The biggest threat really is just pollution, but it’s not affecting the population — the population is still growing, which is a good thing.
What was it like shooting footage of these animals?
It was fun. It was exciting. Very challenging in some ways. Very easy in other ways.
Do they have different personalities?
Yeah, they have different personalities, so a lot of times we’d be filming sea lions underwater, and we’d have like 20 or 30 of them in front of us. And there might be a bunch of them behind us, and we’d turn the camera, and it was like those ones didn’t want to be in the film — they’d scatter. So some wanted to be in front of the camera and show off, and some didn’t. You’d have animals that would come down and go inverted, upside-down, and open their mouth, and put it in the camera, and blow bubbles. You know, they really like to entertain, and somehow they knew that … it was a camera or something. Because they act totally different when a camera is on them than if a diver is just looking at them.
Even the ones in the wild?
Yeah. These animals are always up for a good time. They’re all about play — you saw them [in the film] bodysurfing, the pups playing with us in the water. They seem to play even more than they feed. They’re always in the water playing, jumping out of the water, doing little flips, chasing each other in the water, wrestling … I mean it just seems like these animals just play, play, play all the time.
What other films are you working on now?
Island of the Seals, which is about all four species of seals — harbor seals, California sea lions, elephant seals, and the Northern fur seals — in the Channel Islands, so that’s gonna probably be out by Christmas. And that will be a feature-length film, kind of like March of the Penguins. There won’t be any people in the film. It’ll just be more like a traditional natural history storyline. We’re trying to get James Earl Jones to do the narration for that. And then we’re working on a Channel Islands documentary, which will be about all the animals out in those eight islands, including the animals on land — birds, foxes, and such.
And you’re continuing to tour with this film?
Yeah, I was just in Michigan, in Detroit, and we’re going to different zoos around the country. We went out to Massachusetts. We work with different organizations to fundraise, so we’ll sell tickets and share the proceeds. And we’ll get out and just educate people with the film.
Has it been on television?
Not yet. We have a distributor that just picked it up that’s putting the film in five different languages. It’s going to be distributed internationally on DVD and then hopefully some television. Maybe Animal Planet will pick it up, and we’ll get it on TV. And different televisions stations in Europe and Asia and Latin America. We hope to go really far with the film. We’re going to get it into gift stores in zoos, aquariums, marine parks, etc.
So as your film is gaining wider audience, what do you want the take-home message to be?
I want people to appreciate pinnipeds. In particular, I want people to fall in love with the California sea lion, and therefore want to protect the sea lion’s home, which is the Channel Islands per se, or the Western coastline. But more importantly, to have an interest in seals and sea lions and realize that they deserve to be respected, protected, and admired for their unique qualities and their intelligence and charisma.
I think film is a really powerful tool to get that message across to the masses, and that’s why I go out of my way to travel with the film. I do it because I want to get out to these communities — particularly the coastlines, but it’s equally important to go to places like Michigan where there is no ocean — and tell people what sea lions are like.
And why they should care.
And why they should care. And children are the most important audience members because, you know, that little kid in [the screening room] is probably four or five years old … he might be a captain of a fishing boat in 20 years. So if he falls in love with sea lions and he thinks they’re really cool, by the time he becomes a fisherman, and he’s out there and some sea lions come up to his boat, instead of pulling out the shotgun and blowing them away, which happens a lot, he may say “You know what, that’s a cool animal. I learned about those animals when I was a kid. I saw a really cool movie.”
So hopefully the next generation of fishermen will have a different appreciation and see them more as an animal that we have to coexist with than an animal that we have to eliminate as competition. There are a lot of fishermen out there who have no problem shooting a sea lion point-blank, but they think dolphins are amazing and would never hurt a dolphin. So we have to break that discrimination view that they have.