Rick Wood is a filmmaker who, along with Shari Macy, is currently collaborating with the Orca Network to tell the story of one of the world's most endangered marine mammals - the Southern resident killer whales (SRKWs) of the Pacific Northwest. The documentary is called Fragile Waters and it tells the story of this fish-eating orca population and of the people who are doing all they can to try and save them.
"Coastal Native tribes had a saying, 'No fish, no Blackfish,' which meant without Chinook salmon, there are no orcas - this is a story of connectivity, balance and finding solutions." – Rick Wood
Sam: Tell me a bit about yourself Rick, what is your background and is Fragile Waters your first documentary?
Rick: I was born in Germany and raised overseas, as my father was in the American army. When he retired in 1983 we moved to Orlando, Florida. Growing up in central Florida was fun. We had the theme parks - Disney, where my mom worked, and SeaWorld - and the beach was only a 30-minute drive from our house. Upon graduation from high school, I joined the Army and was a member of a helicopter crew with the 101st Airborne Division in combat, during Operation Desert Storm. Following my enlistment, I went to university and studied anthropology. However, my interests broadened and I never did complete my degree.
The world was a big place and I felt like I needed a better understanding of my place in it. That feeling led me to travel abroad for a year, more or less "backpacking" across Europe. In a seminal moment, atop a hill in the Alsace Valley, I came to a cathartic realization: every beautiful place on Earth is one catastrophic moment away from destruction. After then, my attentions turned to writing and photography. I guess I was looking to share some of what I'd seen with others, even then.
Much later, I became a journalist, which was prompted by the onset of Meniere's Disease in 2004. The effects of the disease include frequent vertigo attacks, profound hearing-loss and a loss of balance. I was working in some pretty physically demanding jobs before Meniere's, so, I had to readjust my career goals. For me, photography and writing still worked well. I was lucky and was hired into a newspaper staff position after only a year of freelance work. My newspaper work amounted to seven very enjoyable years of my life. During that time I would meet world leaders, cover the U.S. military as an "embed" during operations, photograph professional sports and write about environmental issues.
Sam: What led you to become a filmmaker?
Rick: It was actually my work, reporting on a criminal in Washington State, that led me to documentary film-making. In 2011, The Film Works Canada contacted me to work with them on a film about Colton Harris-Moore (aka the "Barefoot Bandit") and I spent two months alongside Adam and Drew Gray, the film's directors. We became good friends and they were happy to share with me some of the "tricks of the trade" for making documentary films. By the time my part in their film was coming to a close, I'd already decided to do my first film.
From 2011 until spring 2013 I created Journey Home: On a Mission to Save a Species, which was a 30-minute film that centered on sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation at a sea turtle clinic in South Florida.
Sam: Where did the idea for Fragile Waters come from?
Rick: After having lived for eight years in the Pacific Northwest, I was already well-aware of the issues surrounding the orca populations here. I started thinking about doing a film on the SRKWs back in 2012. I'd met Susan Berta (one of the founders of Orca Network), while I was a journalist in Washington State, and had kept in-touch with her after I moved to Florida and started work on Journey Home. For me, Orca Network was the only group I'd seriously consider doing the film with. Mostly because of the folks involved. No one knows more about SRKWs than they do.
So, I sent Susan and Howard Garrett (co-founder of Orca Network) a proposal for a film that would highlight the fragile relationship between Chinook salmon and the SRKWs. They were excited by the proposal immediately.
Orca Aware: You can read our interview with the Orca Network's Howard Garrett here.
Sam: You must have a huge passion for orcas - where has it come from and why orcas?
Rick: I have the same "first experience" with orcas as so many folks do. I was a ten year-old child, watching "Shamu" leap through the air in a stadium at SeaWorld. I was amazed at their agility, their size and the fact that they "seemed" to be having "fun". Back in the early 1980s they would have "Shamu" swim onto a shallow platform and invite a handful of kids to come "pet the orca". I did it once, actually I pet its tongue and - even then - I thought to myself, "why wouldn't Shamu just close its mouth on my arm?"
It would be another 21 years before I'd have a much different experience with orcas.
In 2004, my wife and I had recently moved to Washington State and we decided to go on a whale watching trip. It was a long and beautiful boat trip through the San Juan Islands. About three hours into the trip, we sighted our first whales; not orcas - minke. That was pretty exciting to us but it wasn't long after that we saw SRKWs. We'd really lucked-out, it was a "super-pod" of nearly all of the J, K and L pod members - about 91 orcas then - swimming by us. I was mesmerized - transfixed - and completely in awe.
As a journalist, I was able to write about killer whales a lot. And I found myself drawn to their struggles. The orca is an apex predator and yet they are endangered because of manmade threats and lack of understanding. There's a large part of me that's always been enraged by the ambivalence of some people; as if they think a population of 83 SRKWs is just part of the natural cycle.
Sam: How did you get the ball rolling with the documentary?
Rick: Orca Network signed on from the inception of that first proposal. I was still working on the sea turtle film (and had added a manatee web series) but I knew I needed to find a way to get back to Washington State and start working on the orca documentary. There really isn't a lot of time to waste. The SRKWs are in a dire situation and every second counts in the fight for conservation.
I had self-funded my first film and, to be honest, it bankrupted my family. We were living solely on my wife's income as a school teacher and it wasn't enough to keep us afloat. My family is here - in Washington - so, we made the choice to move back last summer. Once I knew we were going to do that I contacted Susan and Howard and they started planning for how to help me start filming.
Sam: Can you tell me a little about the crew that you are working with? How did they get involved?
Rick: I have the most amazing co-director. Shari Macy responded to an online advertisement I put out, looking for a production assistant for the film. Immediately, I knew she was going to be much, much more to the production. I think about a week into working with her I asked her to be the assistant director. Then, a few months later, once we'd been filming for a bit, it was clear: Shari and I truly craft this film together, as partners. So, now she and I share "directorship".
Shari brings to the film a deeper sense of spirit, since she is a member of the Skeetchestn Band of the First Nations (Native). Fragile Waters will include the tireless work of the Native tribes, who constantly advocate for protecting the animals, land and water.
Our whole crew is comprised of volunteers - Shari and I included. It's humbling to see the commitment and creative energy poured into this film by people who will never see a dime from it. It shows "why" we're doing it - not for profit, not for fame - for the Southern residents.
Sam: What was your experience like working with Josh McInnes of the Transient Killer Whale Research Project?
Rick: Transient orca researcher Josh McInnes (of the Transient Killer Whale Research Project) invited us out to Victoria, British Columbia, to go out on the water and look for orca with him. It was an amazing experience! First off, any trip out in the Salish Sea is amazing. That's the home of many killer whales - transient, resident - you never know what you'll see out there.
Paul Pudwell, of Sooke Coastal Expeditions, took us out with Josh on his boat, giving us an intimate and up-close view of the abundant nature in the Strait of Juan De Fuca. We saw elephant seals, stellar sea lions and were surrounded by 200 harbour porpoises at one point. We didn't see orcas - but, this time of year, they are very unpredictable and we knew it wasn't likely even before we went on the trip. We were hoping, though!
It was when we were able to sit down with Josh and pick his brain that we learned some very interesting things. He's very passionate about transients and he knows his stuff. The transients are enjoying an abundance of prey and a surge in population size, whereas SRKWs are on the decline, as is there preferred prey; Chinook salmon. That contrast actually helps us paint a wider picture of how critical the situation really is for the residents. As Josh said at one point, if the salmon stocks all decline, the transient population will be imperiled too. It's all about their prey having good food sources.
Orca Aware: You can read our interview with Josh McInnes here.
Sam: Are there any other collaborations that you will be making in the future?
Rick: Sure, we'll be working with Dr. Ken Balcomb, PhD, and the Center for Whale Research this summer. We also hope to get a chance to interview Conservation Canines and the Cascadia Research Group to get current information about the diet of SRKWs.
We already enjoy some awesome relationships with several whale watching tour companies, Native tribes and scientists throughout the region. It seems like, when orcas are involved, people just want to help.
Sam: What are you hoping to portray in the documentary?
Rick: Our central theme is simple: No fish, no blackfish. That comes from an old Native saying and holds true. The key to saving the Southern residents is to save the Chinook salmon, which accounts for more than 80% of their diet. We are telling this story by putting a spotlight on solutions rather than problems. We want to showcase "heroes", not "villains". At the end of the day, we hope viewers feel inspired, concerned - but hopeful.
Sam: You tell me you are attempting to do something that has never been done before - am I allowed to ask what, or is that a surprise?
Rick: [Laughs]. Well, I can't let too much out of the bag on that. Part of it is the story itself has never been done with an equal focus on orcas and salmon. We also have sources willing to be interviewed that won't likely go on-camera with other filmmakers. We've developed trust, relationships and respect that opens doors for us. I think because we're little - not a big Hollywood film crew - and we live right here, where the story takes place, people know we're committed to the issues and we're accountable.
But, what's truly groundbreaking is some of the footage we're acquiring (and will later film), which will be visually stunning...to say the least.
Sam: What can viewers expect to take away from the documentary?
Rick: Our hope is that they walk away with solid, meaningful information and a "battle plan", of sorts, on how to help.
With the issues being so inter-related - like pollution and water quality, salmon restoration and dam removal, bioaccumulation and marine mammal toxicity, to name a few - we want folks to know there really is no one "magic bullet" that'll fix it all. I mean, in a way, we all play a part in the degradation of the ocean and rivers through plastics and fossil fuel usage. No one can say that these things don't effect them or that their hands are 100% clean. Still, what matters most is that people become more educated about the issues. That's the only long-term solution to the conservation of the SRKWs.
Sam: The "Blackfish" documentary has been doing very well - have you seen it and if so, what are your thoughts on it and on orca captivity?
Rick: I don't mind answering these questions as an individual - not representative of our film, Fragile Waters, which has nothing to do with the orca captivity issue.
I watched Blackfish during its first airing on CNN here in the States. The film definitely hits viewers in the gut and exposes things that the general public knew very little about previously. It's a powerful film, for sure. I'd read David Kirby's book, Death at SeaWorld, a few months before seeing Blackfish. Again, his work, also annotated with page after page of verifiable sources, was powerful and shined a light on the marine park industry in a way that has people discussing the need for change.
My personal beliefs about captivity stem from the most innate things that make us human. It's intuitive to all people that captivity is bad. It is undeniably cruel. We all know this. If anyone doubts that innate belief exists in all of us, just look at the fact that - across all cultures and for all of recorded history - one of the strongest levels of punishment people inflict on people is to imprison them, to make them captive. If we didn't intuitively know it was a harsh and a "bad" thing to do, then going to jail would be met with high-fives and cheers, like you'd just won the lotto. So, there never was a point in my adult life wherein I thought otherwise. Any sentient being will feel captivity as punishment. Period.
Zoological parks and marine parks had a place back before the science had come in to educate us about animal cognition. They were the place where school kids could go to see animals that they were unlikely to ever see in the wild. But with the advent of the internet and through decades of documentary film work, there's no added value in standing in front of a cage and looking at a listless tiger. You can bring up beautiful footage of orcas, bears, lions and snakes right on your computer or tablet via YouTube in seconds. I know, my daughter does it all of the time.
Sam: And finally, what would be your advice for aspiring documentary makers who want to work in the marine environment?
Rick: I think new filmmakers - myself included - get really caught-up in wanting newer, better equipment. And, after filming Fragile Waters for the past six months, I've come to realize that it's simpler than people think. There are really great (inexpensive) cameras out there - like GoPro and Canon 7D DSLR - that can capture footage that rivals the multi-million-dollar productions. It all comes down to investing time in filming. Don't let yourself be satisfied with video that's "mostly good". Take the time, get "great" footage.
It really is about innovating with what you have. In a few years, I will not be surprised if a documentary shot with a mobile phone wins an Oscar. Even when the tools change, the artistry will make all the difference.
Thank you Rick for taking the time to share your story and the story of the SRKWs with us!