Video series features science and adventure in the Salish Sea

A new video series follows local scientists into the water, capturing the adventure behind the research. "Salish Sea Wild" is entering its second season and we interviewed the series host and producers. Among our burning questions: What's it like to have a Steller sea lion chew on your head? 

An image from "Salish Sea Wild." Video courtesy of the SeaDoc Society.
An image from "Salish Sea Wild." Video courtesy of the SeaDoc Society.

It’s the middle of the night somewhere between Jagged Island and the Giant’s Graveyard on the outer coast of the Olympic Peninsula. The "Salish Sea Wild" crew is bobbing up and down in eight-foot swells trying to get the perfect shot.

A few feet away, a team of scientists is swooping in to capture what they hope is an auklet or a puffin or some other seabird — they’re not sure which one — and series cameraman and writer/producer Bob Friel needs to steady the camera. 

“No one tell my mother!” Friel shouts as he leans out of the small, inflatable boat. A couple of biologists hold his legs to keep him from dropping into the 45-degree water and he starts rolling video.

The scientists have captured a secretive marbled murrelet, one the Salish Sea’s most endangered seabirds. It is only the second marbled murrelet caught in Washington state that year, exciting for both scientists and viewers alike. The bird is released after scientists gather a DNA sample that will shed some light on the bird’s health and will contribute to an inter-agency study of seabird declines in the Salish Sea.

In its first season, "Salish Sea Wild," which includes host and SeaDoc Society science director Joe Gaydos (Gaydos is an Encyclopedia of Puget Sound topic editor), along with the intrepid Friel and other members of the SeaDoc team, has had its share of adventures like this. The show has taken a submersible to the deepest parts of the Salish Sea. The crew has gotten into the water with giant Steller sea lions. They've swum with rockfish and watched seabirds "fly" underwater. The treacherous swells of the outer coast are just one more reminder that science often takes place in the wild, not just where it is convenient. 

To hear more about the series, I traveled to "Salish Sea Wild" headquarters at the offices of the SeaDoc Society on Orcas Island where I met with Gaydos, Friel and SeaDoc communications and marketing manager Justin Cox. They are already planning their second season, which is slated to begin this fall, and the team has been busy shooting new footage. 

I started out with a question I’ve been wanting to ask since I saw the first episode. In that show, the team dives amidst a group of Steller sea lions, which they compare in size and toothiness to the grizzly bear. In the course of shooting the video, several young sea lions enter the picture, getting closer than the divers might have expected. You can see one of them curiously nibbling on the hood of Gaydos' wetsuit. It’s just one of the remarkable shots that make up the series.   

EoPS: So let’s get right to the point. What’s it like to have a Steller sea lion chew on your head?
Joe: You know, if you’re expecting it, it’s incredibly fun. If you are not expecting it, I think it could be one of the most terrifying things of your life.
EoPS: You seemed to handle it pretty well.
Joe: The beauty was that we were prepped before we went on that dive. [We were told] ‘Don’t freak out. Just let them do it and realize that’s the way they sense the world.’
EoPS: That’s a 600-pound animal. Did they chew on your head too, Bob?
Bob: Oh yea. Lots. As I was filming Joe getting his head chewed on, they were chewing on my head at the same time. And what our guides didn't tell us and what you quickly learn is that some Steller sea lions, like some puppy dogs or other animals, have a sense of humor. They would take a real tiny bit of your hood until they could grab your flesh and actually pull it up. When Joe was putting the camera on top of his head, that’s what he was trying to protect himself from. They would do it until you reacted, and they would think that was funny.
Joe:  They know what they’re doing. They’re just messing with you.
EoPS: How did you end up going into the water with Steller sea lions?
Joe: The whole idea with Salish Sea Wild is to give people an insight into our backyard that they don’t see every day. If you see Steller sea lions above water, they look big and they look sluggish. But that’s not their realm. Seeing one of these amazing animals underwater is very different. Allowing people to see how cool these animals are — how they move, how agile they are in their own realm — was really the big goal.
Bob: Joe and I have probably at least a half dozen times gone by [sea lion] haulouts. One of us would say, ‘What do you think, should we get in the water with them?’ And then you look at these giant, massive creatures… We knew we wanted to do it, but we knew we wanted to do it with people who had had that experience [the team was guided by experts at Hornby Island Diving] before and could kind of tell us we weren’t going to die, I guess.
Joe: That’s our litmus test for everything we do [laughs]. Are we going to die? No? OK, let’s do it.

A still from an episode of "Salish Sea Wild." Image courtesy of the SeaDoc Society.
A still from an episode of "Salish Sea Wild." Image courtesy of the SeaDoc Society. 

EoPS: What’s the goal of the series (besides not dying)?
Bob: The goal of the whole series is to introduce and teach people about the wildlife and everything that is in the Salish Sea. The most exciting way to do that these days is with visual images and adventure. If you watch the shows, we’re sneaking in a lot of science as we’re having this cool adventure. So, you might learn something in the end.
Joe: [Laughing] Yeah, don’t tell the kids. This is not a science show. This is an adventure show.
EoPS: What gave you the idea initially to do this series and what made you think you could do it?
Bob: I have a background in television and when I moved to Orcas Island, Joe and I got to know each other through scuba diving. At one point I said, ‘Hey Joe, we should do a TV show. Wildlife vet in the Salish Sea! This would be great!’
And Joe said ‘No, no way!’ He said, ‘You’re out of your mind. I’m busy enough being a scientist.’ That was probably ten years ago. And I kept saying, ‘Joe, we should do a show, we should do a show!’ It was just about two years ago, he said ‘You know that TV thing? Let’s think about really doing that now.’
Joe: I came into this job almost 20 years ago as a scientist. And I was hired to do science and talk to people about science. Slowly over time, we realized that all the science in the world is not going to change things if people aren’t engaged and don't know what’s going on. So, I think that was what finally pushed me over the edge to say ‘Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s go for it.’

There are so many biologists that are out there right now studying the Salish Sea. And we just feel like we owe it to all those men and women out there to showcase the work that they’re doing because it’s hard work to do this. It’s hard work to get this information. — "Salish Sea Wild" host Joe Gaydos

EoPS: Who is your audience? The eight million people in the Salish Sea?
Joe:  Yes. That’s a very general audience. But we wanted to do something that was family friendly so kids could get into it, but also in-depth enough that there’s always something in there for the adults too.
Q. So you have a huge budget to do this, right?

Bob: So [the BBC series] ‘Planet Earth’ — they produced that for $70,000 a minute. And we won’t talk numbers, but let’s say that if we had that for a season, that would be great.  
EoPS: It sounds like you are having a lot of fun doing this, but I imagine it’s a lot of work too. There’s the bird expedition, for example. Take me through some of what you had to go through to get that footage.
Joe: The back story on that is we were working with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, US Fish and Wildlife Service and the University of Puget Sound. The original goal of that project was that we were going to capture tufted puffins and put on satellite transmitters. Those birds are in danger and we’re worried about where they go in the wintertime. Are they getting caught in nets where they’re going? And so that was really the scientific goal. But even though we didn’t capture a puffin while we were out there that week, we still had other things going on that Bob then converted into a story. I’ll let Bob and Justin [Justin Cox, SeaDoc communications and marketing manager] tell you about being on eight-foot seas every night and trying not to lose our dinner.  
EoPS: What was that like?
Justin: Bob was out with the teams buzzing around on inflatable boats looking for birds in the middle of the night. And I was there to be Joe’s right hand man and the person with the video camera on the boat. The boat is anchored, and the swells are coming, so you’re not even finding any rhythm with the water. You’re just kind of getting yanked and bounced. And It was a new experience for me, and I was just like ‘OK, keep it together.’ But then I’m watching Joe have to tell himself the same thing. So, it makes me feel better about it.
Joe: I was just trying to make you feel better.
Justin: It’s super fun and exciting and you get to know all these people really well, but you’re also trying to keep your dinner inside you.

A still from an episode of "Salish Sea Wild." Image courtesy of the SeaDoc Society.
A still from an episode of "Salish Sea Wild." Image courtesy of the SeaDoc Society. 

EoPS: It’s one thing to go out and do all this research. It’s an additional challenge to bring the camera into the picture. It’s a high wire act, right?
Bob: Yeah, we were on these 12-foot inflatable boats that were kind of smashing together in the swells. I was getting absolutely horrible footage, so I left my legs in one boat and I put my upper body in the other boat. Two biologists were leaning on my legs to keep me from falling into the 45-degree water in the middle of the night. Some of those shots, I look at them and think ‘Boy that shot looks pretty steady.’ 
EoPS: So, this is not armchair science.
Joe: No, it’s not at all. And that’s the beauty of it. There are so many biologists that are out there right now studying the Salish Sea. And we just feel like we owe it to all those men and women out there to showcase the work that they’re doing because it’s hard work to do this. It’s hard work to get this information. But the reason they’re doing it is because they care about this stuff. And so, recognizing that and showing what other people are willing to go through to take care of this place, I think that in itself is a really cool story. And hopefully that came out in the seabird episode. 
EoPS: What’s your next step?
Bob: Everybody was happy with the trial run, so we’re going full force for season two. We’re already starting to film that now. I think season two’s going to be even better than season one.

EoPS: What stories are you working on now?
Bob: Recently we went up into British Columbia and witnessed the herring spawn. There were 100,000 tons of herring spawning with huge herds of sea lions and transient killer whales and eagles and all kinds of birds. It was probably one of the most amazing biological spectacles — if not the most amazing biological spectacle — in the Salish Sea.
We’re also doing Salish Sea after dark which is going to take people underwater at night. Who would be crazy enough to do that?
EoPS: One of the things that has always struck me about the Salish Sea is that it’s basically a wilderness right on the edge of a bustling metropolis. All you have to do is step out into the water and suddenly you are in a completely different world.

Bob: In one of our episodes, we’re going to try to get everyone in the region — all eight million of them — to actually get into the Salish Sea. People who live here usually don’t think about going into the water because of the temperature. Maybe they walk along a dock and they go 'Oh look at the anemone' or something like that. But you show them things that they can see just two or three feet underwater, and they are blown away by the color and the life. You don't need 100 pounds of dive gear or dry suits. We’re going to show them the amazing things they can see without any of that, just by putting on a mask and putting their face in the water. That’s one episode we are really excited about.

Joe: I think it’s going to be eye opening and will probably get a lot of people into the water and see this place in a different way. It’s just right there. It’s wild. 

A still from an episode of "Salish Sea Wild." Image courtesy of the SeaDoc Society.
A still from an episode of "Salish Sea Wild." Image courtesy of the SeaDoc Society. 


Episodes of Salish Sea Wild are available from the SeaDoc Society at:

About the Author: 
Jeff Rice is the managing editor of the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.