Exploring Corals of the Deep

Off the California coastline, thousands of feet below the deep blue ocean’s surface, where the sun’s rays don’t reach, teems a diverse community of deep sea corals. Using unmanned submarines equipped with robotic arms, sensors and HD cameras, scientists explore this treasure trove of corals and the rich marine life living among them. Sheraz Sadiq’s Exploring Corals of the Deep provides a glimpse into this remarkable world of corals. We talked with Sadiq about his experience creating the film, which screens at 4:00 pm on Saturday, March 9, at the 2013 San Francisco International Ocean Film Festival.

What was your inspiration for creating the film?
The inspiration for Exploring Corals of the Deep came from a meeting that my production colleagues and I from KQED QUEST had with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). The MBARI has been conducting deep sea dives with remotely operated vehicles off the coast of Monterey for over a decade. They have amassed a treasure trove of breathtaking footage from these dives, revealing a menagerie of strange, ethereal corals and animals living thousands of feet below the ocean. It seemed like a perfect story for QUEST to produce.

What was the most challenging part of creating the film?
Since deep sea corals cannot be reached without multimillion-dollar robotic rovers, all the footage featured of them had to be acquired. Fortunately, our series has a fruitful partnership with MBARI, the pioneering marine research institution that has captured the most breathtaking and extremely rare footage of deep sea corals off the California coast. The challenge was to then sift through the copious amount of footage–and to be sure that when a researcher in my story talked about a species of black coral that I was, in fact, showing that type of coral and not another. In addition, I had to acquire footage of deep sea trawling activity that required inquiries to various organizations, including Greenpeace, who was tremendously helpful on this front.

KQED_SherazSadiqWhat do you want to impart on your film’s viewers?
I want people to be captivated and surprised when watching deep sea corals. This should be easy, given the gorgeous shapes, strange colors, and ghost-like appearance of these strange animals amid the freezing, pitch-black depths of the ocean floor. Also, how many people know that there are long-dormant underwater volcanoes, called seamounts, where these corals thrive, and furthermore, that one such seamount, which is eight miles wide and 26 miles long, lies off the coast of Monterey? Beyond the “wow” factor of deep sea corals, I hope the footage of the deep sea corals being trawled by huge fishing nets makes people realize that not even these denizens of the deep are immune to the devastating reach of human activity.

What was the most enjoyable part of creating the film?
As a storyteller, the most enjoyable part of almost every film I’ve made is the ability to shine a light on the passion of the brilliant and dedicated people I’m fortunate enough to meet during my shoots. I love hearing their stories and seeing the commitment and discipline that their scientific and personal journeys entail. In addition, most of these people are striving to make more lucid our understanding of the world around us, even if it’s a world thousands of mile deep, as is the case with deep sea corals off the coast of Monterey. With this particular story, I got to travel down to Monterey and talk to one of the world’s most eloquent and charismatic marine biologists: Stephen Palumbi. It’s not a bad way to spend a work day.

Who (or what) is your inspiration?
It’s hard for me to answer this question. Inspiration comes in so many forms. Each story has aspects which inspire me and if not, then the looming guillotine of the deadline is inspiration enough to get the work done.

How or why did you begin creating ocean-focused films?
The waters of the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean are of paramount and iconic importance to all of us who live in the Bay Area. Moreover, climate change is inexorably impacting the health of marine environments. Most people would want to know, I imagine, the implications of a warmer, more acidic ocean. We’ve made strides in tackling airborne pollution and also cleaning our waterways, but I think there’s still complacency when it comes to understanding the heavy toll our oceans are taking from industrial and commercial activity. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to state that our vibrancy as a society rests in part on a healthy ocean.

Why did you choose to submit your film to the San Francisco International Ocean Film Festival?
The environmental issues this film raises. While the film highlights the stunning and mesmerizing world thousands of feet below the water’s surface, it seemed like a natural fit for screening at the San Francisco International Ocean Film Festival.

Is this your first time participating in an ocean-focused film festival?
No. In 2011 I produced a film about elephant seals that was selected for screening at the 2012 San Francisco International Ocean Film Festival. So 2012 marked the first time that I attended the festival as a filmmaker. In previous years, I have assisted my KQED colleagues with other films which were also selected for screening at the festival.

What was the most memorable moment in creating the film?
Jim BarryI’ll cheat and say that there were two very memorable moments for me during the production of this story. The first highlight took place at the MBARI, where in addition to filming an interview with a terrific marine biologist, Jim Barry, my crew and I also got to film close-up shots of a state-of-the art remotely operated vehicle (ROV). A few people from the engineering team were kind enough to turn on the ROV so that we could see its retractable arm move forward and pivot 360 degrees.

The second highlight came during our filming with Stephen Palumbi, the Director of Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Lab. I had arranged a scene where we had laid out a table of deep sea coral specimens, as Jim Barry described the diversity of the corals and their adaptations to deep sea life. The ability to see these specimens up close, some of which can live for hundreds of years, was priceless.

Exploring Corals of the Deep screens at 4:00 pm on Saturday, March 9, at the 2013 San Francisco International Ocean Film Festival.