Large, in charge: "Elephant Seals" at the SF Ocean Film Festival

Hear me roar! A male elephant seal in "Into the Deep With Elephant Seals."
Photo by Amy Miller/QUEST

Featuring an incredible variety of fascinating films about the ocean and its importance in nature, along with the role it plays in our society, the ninth San Francisco Ocean Film Festival (running now through Sun/11) showcases programs ranging from documentaries on marine life and environmental science to surfing videos and parables about pollution.

One of the highlights of this year’s festival is the short film Into The Deep With Elephant Seals (screening Sat/10), which offers a unique look at how marine biologists are using new technology to study the elephant seal population at Año Nuevo, just down the coast from San Francisco. Filmmaker Sheraz Sadiq, who produced the film for KQED as part of the station’s excellent QUEST series, says that he and his colleagues had wanted to do a story on elephant seals for some time, but had waited for the right mix of criteria to be met before setting out to do so.

“We wanted to take a different approach, we wanted to highlight the use of technology and the brilliant researchers who are pioneering the use of this technology to understand more information about elephant seals — where they go, what they eat, how long they dive,” he explains.

The captivating short introduces the work of UCSC Professor Dan Costa and his team of students, who are placing — and then retrieving — new satellite tags on a series of elephant seals to gather a variety of data about the animals. Once the story idea was approved, Sadiq and his team had to consider a number of logistical factors and faced a variety of challenges in order to get the project made.

“The timing was very tricky because the elephant seals at Año Nuevo breed from December to March, and getting the necessary permits, the necessary permissions, and working out all those details, along with trying to coordinate our production process with the research team was a bit of a challenge,” says Sadiq.

Even once all the needed arrangements had been made, the film crew faced yet another obstacle — they were going to attempt to film the retrieval of a satellite tag from a specific female subject, who could be at any part of the rookery that day, and not necessarily be in a spot easily accessible by the team. Luckily, the elephant seal was found in a reasonable area, and the day’s work was completed, but not without a close encounter that made an indelible mark in Sadiq’s mind.

“We were just a few yards from a couple of massive, slumbering male elephant seals, then without warning, one of them decided to challenge the other, and reared his massive head and let out this large bellow, and we literally froze in our tracks. It looked as though one was going to charge the other, and if you’ve ever seen a male elephant seal fight, it is a sight to behold, it’s these massive blubbery giants just going at each other. The park ranger very calmly told us to just step back, which is what we did, and fortunately the threat dissipated. That’s definitely a production moment I’ll never forget — and one that I don’t want to relive.”

The film presents a wealth of information and knowledge about elephant seals in a remarkably short amount of time, telling the sad story of how the animals — which can weigh up to 4,500 pounds — were nearly hunted to extinction for their oil-rich blubber in the 1800s, and were reduced to a colony of about only 30 individuals along the coast of Mexico before being protected and making an incredible comeback in the intervening years, reaching a population today estimated to be 170,000.

It also clearly maps out what scientists are learning today from their tagging research, including how far the pinnipeds travel out into the Pacific Ocean during their yearly migrations.

Sadiq attributes part of the film’s success to Costa. “He was terrific," he says. "I could tell within five minutes of interviewing him that the interview was going to be sterling, he is so comfortable in front of the camera, and that is awesome. When you’re a producer, and you have to talk with incredibly smart researchers, there are some times unfortunately when they’re absolutely amazing, impeccable researchers, but they are just at that rarified academic point of view that it is kind of hard for them to come down and make their research accessible to a lay person. But Dan didn’t have that problem at all. He was extremely comfortable talking to a non-scientist like me about his research, the significance of the research, and why the elephant seals are such fascinating, charismatic animals, and why he had been studying them for 30-plus years.”

When Into The Deep With Elephant Seals screens during the 10 a.m. program Sat/10, Sadiq will be in attendance, and hopes that both the audience at the festival and future viewers take away a few key things from the film. “I really hope that viewers, especially young people, will get inspired by the work of Dan Costa," he says. "I hope they see this and learn a little bit more about the scientific process and these amazing tools — it’s fascinating and a great joy to see the scientists and the passion that they bring to bear on their research. Plus, I hope they take a keen understanding of elephant seals and their comeback from the brink of extinction — this is a great conservation story.”

San Francisco Ocean Film Festival

Through Sun/11, $5-$12

Bay Theater

Aquarium of the Bay, Pier 39, SF