Living the life aquatic

Island-born cinematographer's work has revolutionized how researchers study whales

It's a genuine whale of a tale - a "you had to be there" Maui moment.

Jason Sturgis was recalling the day a humpback whale greeted him with an unexpected gift - a lens.

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"These two curious animals - we call them 'friendlies' - came up to our boat," said the undersea cinematographer, recalling his experience shooting Humpbacks: Cracking the Code, a German documentary on humpback whale behaviour shown on National Geographic Channel International and Animal Planet.

"One rolled up underneath and did this thing called 'opening a window' where they take their pectoral fin and swipe it toward the surface of the water. It creates a 'lens' so instead of having a rippled surface, you have a clear one you can look up or down through. This one blew up a massive bubble ring with its blowhole and hit the surface, creating a huge lens."

It was as if the whale was offering Sturgis, 37, "a tool" and saying "come and take a look at us," he said.

"I remember thinking, 'I don't know who's studying who right now, but this is pretty cool.' "

Such experiences are all in a day's work for the Campbell River-born lensman and free diver who divides his time between Nevada, where his company Open Ocean Productions is headquartered, Maui, and Victoria, the home base he shares with wife and creative collaborator Stephanie Olsen. Olsen is a scientific consultant and mother of their 18-month-old daughter Olivia.

While the globetrotting filmmaker says fatherhood makes him want to spend more time at home, it hasn't dimmed his passion for undersea exploration and studying whale behaviour.

His high-definition imagery has revolutionized how researchers study whales, according to a New York Times article.

"Jason's images might well serve whale research in the manner that Carl Sagan's eloquence made physics and astronomy meaningful to a lay audience," the late Dan R.

Salden, founder of the nonprofit Hawaii Whale Research Foundation said.

As flattering as that is, Sturgis hastens to point out he's only part of a collective doing amazing work. He credits his mentor, legendary National Geographic photographer Flip Nicklin; his wife, whose oceanic passion inspired her graduate work on gray whales in Clayoquot Sound; and longtime friend, editor and effects whiz Russell Fisher.

His Nevada-based father, Bill Sturgis, an accomplished surfer, sailor and underwater cameraman who taught him to dive in Hawaii, ignited his passion for diving and underwater photography, he adds.

Growing up on the B.C. coast, the St. Michaels University School grad fell in love with the ocean. That, and his natural curiosity, inspired him to dive in hotspots including Indonesia, the Galapagos Islands, Cocos Island and Palmyra Atoll.

"It becomes second nature and it was a way to continue the lifestyle," Sturgis said, explaining his decision to study film at Santa Barbara's Brooks Institute after getting a degree in Industrial Organization Psychology at Pepperdine University.

"I kept seeing these wonderful National Geographic and BBC documentaries but I knew zero about cameras," he said.

It was there Sturgis met Nicklin, who invited him to join his team in Hawaii recording the behaviour of singing whales for the Whale Trust. His footage has also been featured in One Ocean, the CBC series on the state of the world's oceans; Discovery Canada's Blue Realm series; BBC's Nature's Most Amazing Events; Ocean View: Dan Rather Reports; a Today Show segment with Matt Lauer, Today Goes Wild; and River of Whales: The Secret Realm of Breathholders, his short documentary on the behaviour of breath-holding humpbacks.

Other projects include documenting a Nature Conservancy team doing an ecological marine census at Palmrya; and returning to Maui to shoot the Super Aviator submarine with Top Gear host Richard Hammond for a BBC special.

Using his camera as a tool to capture undersea wonders is especially timely with so much marine erosion, Sturgis says.

"Oceans are at the forefront now," the avid environmentalist notes. "So much is changing. It's depressing. No one's saying it's so much better now than 20 years ago for fish, coral and environmental conditions. A rush has to be made to document this stuff and get the word out and educate people."

He says marine degradation is most noticeable when he revisits places he has dived in the past - such as El Bajo, north of Mexico's La Paz, no longer teeming with hammerheads, mantas and other sea life.

"It's like silent death, and no one sees it," he says.

"It'd be like coming to Victoria someday and seeing the city empty."

Also sobering was research for his current passion project about "a very complex issue" - the water wars in California, where environmentalists are protesting proposals to more aggressively divert water from the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta, hub of California's water system, to southern cities and farmland.

It's all part of his profession's ups and downs, he says.

"When you get onto a project where you're sitting in a boat in Maui surrounded by whales and no one else in clear, 74-degree water, it can be pretty good," he admits, smiling.

"Yeah, it's a rough gig. I'm going for sympathy, but it's not working."

Sturgis recently returned from another month-long shoot off the coast of Panama with Texas State University professor Fritz Hanselmann in search of Capt. Henry Morgan's lost fleet, with a grant from the rum maker bearing his name. He also went along last year with a team of U.S. archeologists and unearthed a 17th-century shipwreck.

In addition to creativity and being a team player, an obligatory asset in his line of work is patience, he says.

"We spent two years making The Humpback Code," he recalled. "There were eight days that were really special, where you get something that will make the final cut. There's a lot of waiting. Not every day is a banner day."

To watch Sturgis's video showcasing the sights and sounds of Humpback Whales, click here. 

mreid@timescolonist.com

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