September 17, 2012

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By Mera McGrew

In a recently released four minute video, biologist Austin Gallagher takes viewers on a journey underwater to get up close and personal with sharks. With incredible images collected over three years from around the globe and through the evolution of his personal relationship with the ocean, Gallagher introduces the rest of us to the true coastguards of our planet — sharks.

“When you are so moved by something and truly love it, you want to tell the world,” Gallagher explained when asked what inspired him to make the film.

For many, sharks are associated with fear and Gallagher is on a mission to turn that fear into fascination. With local and global pressures threatening shark populations, Gallagher hopes to highlight the beauty, inquisitiveness and importance of sharks. By combining passion with a cause, incredible imagery, sound science and motivated people, Gallagher conveys the urgent message that sharks need our help while engaging the audience through storytelling and imagery.

Mission Blue recently caught up with Austin Gallagher.

Q: What inspired you to make this film?

Austin Gallagher: For me, this film was all about going back to basics. I would bet that a large proportion of people on this planet could identify a “shark” if you showed them a photo of one. For many, this association is a negative one…something that is ingrained into our psyche when we are young kids. The point is that we all start out this way, but it was my own personal experiences that truly made me see them differently. You’d be amazed what you can learn from the natural world by just sitting back and watching. For sharks, it has been no different for me. Coupled with the fact that many species are currently imperiled due to overfishing, it made for a unique story arc. When you are so moved by something and truly love it, you want to tell the world.

Q: What do you hope to convey through the film?

AG: Firstly, that sharks are amazing. By spending intimate time with them on their home turf, it creates a bond that transcends anything you can learn in a book or a scientific paper. Secondly, and more importantly, sharks need our help. To get there, we need to turn our fear into fascination. This creates a feedback loop that I think breeds positivity and motivates others. People connect with great stories, but the truth is that many people still don’t know the magnitude of threats facing sharks worldwide. By combining passion with a cause, sound science and motivated people, you have a movement. There are so many dedicated people fighting for sharks today, which is amazing. The strength of this awareness is growing, but so are the threats to the oceans.

Q: Where was the film shot?

AG: “Coastguards” is a story of an incredible group of animals. To do the sharks justice, I felt like I had to use a diversity of shots to represent multiple species. As such, this film contains footage that I have shot and compiled over the last 3 years, in locations all over the world. The majority of the shots were captured in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, New England, South Africa, and South Pacific.

Q: Do you have any funny anecdotes from the making of the film?

AG: There are so many funny stories from our expeditions. Many times, we are out on boats for so long, working all day, that by the end of the trips our team usually ends up laughing at everything and anything. More specifically, there are a couple of stories that stick out as especially funny and memorable. Last summer while studying and filming the white sharks in South Africa, our van was broken into and raided by a group of baboons…luckily they only took a load of bread. Also, in South Africa, I was trying to attach GoPro cameras to seal decoys and get footage of white shark breaches. To our dismay, we had several instances when the white sharks swam up to within inches of the camera/seal, only to pull back at the last second. I couldn’t help but marvel at the intelligence of those individuals, especially since research shows that many environmental variables must be right for a breach to occur. Perhaps they saw our cameras as something foreign, causing them to pull back and abort the breach.

Q: Do you have a favorite moment or story from the making of the film?

AG: My favorite story is actually a sequence you don’t see in the film. In April 2011 a few members of our research crew were moored up in the remote Berry Island chain in the Bahamas, waiting for the rest of our team to arrive a few days later. For days we were lucky to swim with wild tiger sharks and reef sharks. One afternoon 3 of us jumped in for a fun dive, and we had two massive great hammerheads appear out of nowhere. It was a fleeting encounter, but it felt so special since it was quiet, secluded, and an undisturbed habitat. They swam around us and came up to us for a few minutes, then bolted off, unimpressed by our presence. Wish I had my camera on me for that one, as it was the most unique wild animal experience I have ever had.

Q: How long did it take to put the film together?

AG: Once I settled on a narrative, finding and selecting the clips was a long process. I had to sift through hundreds and hundreds of gigabytes of files. Once the pieces were in place, editing and drafting took several weeks of dedicated time. Once those versions were proofed, I went back and re-edited. In total, probably over 100 hours were spent on this 3.5 minute piece.

Q: How many people were involved in the production of the film?

AG: This film would never have been possible without the help of so many people…it was truly a team effort. Between other researchers, conservationists, dive and ecotourism operators…even the pilots and boat captains who got us from point A to point B. For field assistance, I was (and still am) super lucky to have amazing support from Dr. Neil Hammerschlag from the University of Miami, Captain Curt Slonim from Curt-A-Sea Aquatic Adventures, and Joe Romeiro and Brian Raymond from Pelagic Expeditions. On the post-production side, my friend and creator of the Waterlust Project Patrick Rynne was huge, as he helped me craft the vision and provide an amazing platform for communication. Waterlust is doing some amazing things with ocean media and will be a strong voice moving forward.

The above Q&A was done over email and appears unedited.

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