Scientists and filmmakers are making “Waves” together

This post contributed by Austin Gallagher, a fish biologist and filmmaker from Boston, MA.

Even though most of my face was covered by neoprene, acrylic glass and rubber, I could still feel the whiskers of the harbor seal rub against my skin as he repeatedly kissed my face. Believe it or not, the harbor seal wasn’t the only marine organism that was showing me the love during a morning of scientific diving in a marine reserve off the coast of Catalina Island, California.

Sheephead wrasses, garibaldi, and other temperate reef fishes had been swarming me all morning, frequently coming right up to my mask and looking me in the eyes. It was as if the kelp forest had officially accepted me into its family. I tried to focus on the task at hand: data collection for a pilot study on Southern California marine protected areas but could not believe what was happening all around me. I couldn’t help but keep telling myself, “Wow, people have to see this for themselves.” The next day I brought underwater video equipment with me and began filming. Sixth months later a documentary was born. Even since then, communicating science through film has played a major part of my role as a marine researcher.

The ocean is a strange and wonderful place, and I savor the ability to share my experiences in it with others. By utilizing the internet and the advent of social networking, I was able to post videos of my various projects online. As my videos received more and more views, they caught the attention of some other scientists. Emails were written, phone calls were made, and we came up with some interesting ideas surrounding science and film. How could we get a group of scientists and filmmakers together in the same place and highlight this topic?                     

In March 2010, marine scientists will meet in Wilmington, North Carolina for an annual conference known as the Benthic Ecology Meeting. Like any other conference, attendees will share their recent scientific findings by giving oral presentations and poster presentations. This year’s conference, however, will bring a new addition into the mix: a film festival—something I have wanted to create since I began my graduate studies.

Aptly titled the “Beneath the Waves Film Festival,” the goal is to bridge the gap between research and film and break the sometimes rigid perception of scientists by showcasing the creative efforts of researchers and filmmakers from all over the world.

“The idea of a film festival at a scientific conference is a novel approach to communicating science. In some cases it can be difficult to explain to a non-scientist the value of what we do, and using a visual medium like film eases that communication and engages people in a new way,” says Dr. Erin Burge, a participant in the inaugural event.

Sure, everyone has seen the Blue Planet or Planet Earth series and tuned into Discovery Channel or National Geographic at one point. While these programs are undoubtedly informative and impressive, there is something special about having a scientist film their own research and then personally bring it to the public for explanation. This progressive sentiment is actually becoming more common, especially with the availability and accessibility of reasonably-priced consumer-level video equipment combined with the popularity of websites such as Youtube. 

It was a goal of mine to incorporate the opinions and works of professional and amateur non-scientific filmmakers in “Beneath the Waves.” In addition to the work of students and accomplished scientists, we are lucky to feature the work of several conservation-minded professional filmmakers.

Filmmaker Edward Snijders, for example, is traveling from the Netherlands to show his film “Dipole,” a story about the ongoing efforts for marine conservation and re-growth of an Indonesian archipelago that was subjected to a devastating earthquake (see above video). Remarks the Dutch filmmaker:

This festival appealed to me because it is the only one in this field. I hope to exchange ideas and cooperate with other filmmakers at the event, while receiving some constructive feedback from scientists and maybe planning for new projects.

Gary Hawkins, a filmmaker out of Southern California, brings a truly unique story to the event this year. His film, “Squidilicious,” documents how recreational divers and scientists from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography successfully cooperated to monitor the annual squid spawn in San Diego. He says:

We hope the successful collaboration between the recreational dive community and the scientists portrayed in this movie will encourage others to explore such cooperation. Many recreational divers are very aware of the ocean environment and want to help understand and protect this tremendous resource for the future. While recreational divers cannot undertake scientific research without specific training, they can provide valuable anecdotal evidence that researchers can use to better formulate their own studies.

While the event will showcase accomplished filmmakers and well-established scientists, young scientists and student filmmakers will also be on exhibition. For example, Erica Staaterman, a crustacean biologist from Massachusetts, created a film about her lab’s global pursuit of several species of stomatopod.

Ashwin Bhandiwad, a former master’s student from the Three Seas marine biology program at Northeastern University, explains the importance of synergy between science and film:

Science and conservation, as important as they are, are deeply rooted in data. The presentation of this data is unintuitive to us, and is sometimes hard to grasp. Visual aids such as film show us what’s at stake in a way that the presentation of data simply cannot.

This year’s event also features a handful of scientists that have been a part of the unique graduate program. Says Dr. Salvatore Genovese, director of the Three Seas Marine Biology program at Northeastern University: “This is a great opportunity for young scientists to showcase their ability to communicate their science to the general public in an easily consumed and well received format.”

The “Beneath the Waves Film Festival,” will be held on March 11 and 12, 2010, at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. It will feature 18 unique films that cover everything from natural disasters to electrical fish to shark finning.

Austin Gallagher holds a Master’s in Marine Science from Northeastern University and specializes in the biology and physiology of sharks. Contact him at

Author: Katie Kline

Moderator of EcoTone and ESA's communications officer.

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