August 2015 Sea Hero: Laura James

Scuba Diving Magazine's August Sea Hero Laura James

John Keatley

LAURA JAMES

Occupation Explorer and videographer

Diving Since 1990: Now a technical mixed-gas-diving instructor and certified rebreather instructor

Director Tox-ick.org, which focuses on seven simple solutions to reduce polluted runoff

This two-time Emmy-winning filmmaker has devoted her life to the health of her beloved Puget Sound, and to teaching others to cherish our most precious resource: water.

You have been involved in a LOT of projects involving Puget Sound and the health of the overall marine environment — which has been the most meaningful to you?

That is a really hard question to answer. I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of so many projects. The most meaningful to me personally has been the discarded battery removal, where we removed over 1,200 pounds of discarded marine batteries from the most popular dive site in Seattle. It was something I’d turned a blind eye to just like everyone else for so long; I’d basically taken those batteries being there for granted. When I go out to that site for a dive now it fills my heart with joy to no longer see dead batteries laying about, and know that WE DID IT! What meant the most to me was how the community came together. We were joined by divers from British Columbia and Oregon who journey hundreds of miles to help out. A friend who owns a recycling facility gave us double the going rate on lead so we could afford more lift bags, and dive shops filled our tanks for the dives. It really was the work of a village. Seeing the sense of accomplishment on people’s faces and how engaged the whole community got with the removal gave me hope for the future of our oceans.

Topping it off was getting nominated for and then winning the 2012 Cox Conserves Heroes Award. It wasn’t a slam-dunk because the battery removal was up against some other amazing conservation projects. I think we only won by 40-something votes. This was quite special because it meant that the general public was able to connect with a project that went on beneath the surface of Puget Sound, something they couldn’t see personally unless they became a diver. The $10,000 prize was donated to Sustainable West Seattle where it helped support a grassroots Stormwater Education program (www.tox-ick.org) that teaches the general public simple ways that we can all help stop the flow of polluted runoff into Puget Sound.

The citizen-science work with Sea Star wasting syndrome was also exceptionally rewarding. My dive buddy helped build a website so that the general public (beach walkers and divers) could be a part of documenting the spread of the wasting disease by utilizing social media via a hashtag on an Instagram photo (#sickstarfish), and in doing so contribute to the work that scientists were doing. Watching reports come in on the real time map www.sickstarfish.com from numerous people and in some cases ahead of the researchers was exhilarating. It was proof of the potential power in crowdsourcing for science when it comes to both fast and slow response: Fast-response science because we were able to mobilize a large number of eyes to watch the beach for immediate changes in sea star population, and slow-response science because many of those same citizen scientists have continued to report and we are seeing how the population (hopefully) rebounds over time.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your advocacy for marine health?

The biggest challenge we all face in the realm of marine advocacy is learning how to reach the “non-choir” and make the problem real to them. It is so easy to speak to a bunch of people at an outreach event who are nodding in agreement — it affirms your belief and gives you a proverbial pat on the back. I think it is more important when looking at threats such as polluted storm-water runoff to build a connection with a broader audience. One way to do that is to actually stop talking for moment and listen to the people who disagree or are on the fence, and enter a dialogue that allows both parties to find some middle ground, and in doing so allow the overarching health of Puget Sound to trump politics.

The challenge is also finding a way past the compassion fatigue, which is generated by ongoing bad news about the environment. With the www.tox-ick.org program we focus on seven simple solutions to reduce the flow of polluted runoff (storm water) into Puget Sound. These simple daily actions are ways that each and every one of us can help make a difference. The non-profits, government agencies and municipalities are working hard on problems such as storm-water runoff and shoreline armoring, but they need our help. The solution to the threats facing our oceans begins in our hearts, in our homes, in our own backyard.

What’s been your most satisfying moment?

It was an incredibly satisfying moment hearing that Congressman Denny Heck saw our story on Sea Star Wasting Syndrome and it inspired him to craft a bill, the Marine Disease Emergency Act. The proposed legislation would establish a framework for declaring and responding to a marine disease emergency, and to provide the science community with the resources to proactively protect marine ecosystems from being irreparably damaged by cascading epidemics. The idea that footage that I shot might be instrumental in such a legislative process is incredibly rewarding.

Beyond that, I think its kind of a tie between watching our Sea Star Wasting Disease story reach No. 6 on the PBS news hour Youtube page of most watched videos (ahead of Kate and Williams wedding!) and winning regional Emmy Awards for both “Solving the mystery of dying starfish” and “Sea Otters v. Climate Change.”

They are both stories about marine ecology, the food web and climate change. Making the decision to leap from a stable, secure career in the hospital and become a filmmaker with an underwater focus was a tough choice and I’ve made some sacrifices. I did not go to film or journalism school, and got my start shooting underwater — not just any underwater but in our cold, dark green emerald sea. I sometimes find myself worrying if I’m good enough to tell the stories that need telling, and if people really want to hear about the underwater environment (and not just about pretty fish and coral reefs).

Winning these awards makes me feel like the time is now, that the general public is ready for real stories about our underwater world.

I’ve been very lucky to connect with an amazing husband/wife team of environmental photo-journalist/producers (Katie Campbell and Michael Werner), along with several other brilliant filmmakers who have helped mentor me along the way, so a quick shout out, because without them none of this would have been possible.

Tell us a little bit about what you are working on now?

BtLG Project: “Know What’s Below”

With the help of volunteers both divers and non-divers we are building a multimedia website to help kids of all ages connect with the underwater world. The primary vehicle of this education will be a library of 100+ narrated one-minute videos featuring the amazing marine life that calls Puget Sound home, and the diverse marine habitats that lead to such bountiful life. As we continue to develop the site, we hope to include videos that discuss the issues faced by our local waters in “real English,” which parents and educators can use to share and communicate, and offer simple solutions that everyone can do in their everyday life to help save our Ocean Planet. It is my dream to be able to offer live dives via the Internet to enhance the material already available on the site. It is a slow process, all the equipment needed to make that happen (underwater communication systems, etc.) cost money and the videos take time and resources to produce. www.btlgproject.com

OpenROV Builds and OpenExplorer micro-expeditions with local after-school programs: Thanks to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and OpenROV (www.openrov.com) I’ve been able to build small ROV’s (Underwater Robots) with students. We will be using the robots to explore local underwater habitats, follow the students curiosity and hopefully make a connection for kids who had previously given minimal though to exploring a career in the filed of marine science.

How can divers and Scuba Diving’s readers help further your work?

One of the most important things that divers can do is help encourage non-divers to take an interest in what lies beneath the surface. Be an ambassador for the underwater world. You can do this by taking photos or videos and sharing them with anyone and everyone, or sharing the videos and photos shot by your friends. Photography and video equipment has come so far in recent years, it is much easier to show and share what you love about diving, and one of the reasons people get into diving is because someone they know is an enthusiastic diver.

Get involved in local underwater and beach clean-up efforts. Divers — both scuba and breath hold — are the last stand against underwater marine debris. Make a pledge to pick up two pieces of trash or marine debris on every dive. Help encourage others to get involved!

Get involved in your local issues. Never ever take water for granted. Please feel free to contact me if you want to be a part of any of the projects described here, or would like help setting something up in your area. Reach out to your local advocacy groups and elected officials. Don’t just sit by and wonder, ask questions, ask tough questions, ask what you can do.

The most powerful agent for change is an activated, involved public, so… get involved!

What’s next for you?

The next environmental story I’m working on is about underwater marine debris, the stuff that sinks. People are aware of the plastic gyres floating around the oceans, and microplastics that are being consumed by marine life. Those are both very important issues, but are being well documented and covered. I would like to shed some light on the massive problem surrounding the heavy marine debris, the stuff that doesn’t wash up on a beach, the trash that vanishes, out of sight out of mind. As a scuba diver who has visited sites around the world, I can confidently say that I have see human made items at every dive site I’ve visited in over 5,000 dives. There is no place underwater that I have visited that remains untouched. I realize prevention is a huge part of what will prevent the problem from getting any larger, but that prevention will only come with awareness. The general public needs to be aware of the fact that directly off shore from their favorite swimming beach, if there is a storm water outfall, then there is very likely a giant underwater garbage patch growing. That garbage patch is full of anything that doesn’t float, cigarette butts, heavy plastics, cans and bottles, toys, Christmas ornaments, I can actually tell what season it is or if a house is being built or remodeled by the contents of the storm drain debris trail.

I would like to see the narrated video series from www.btlgproject.com made into a web series where we bring the viewer with us on weekly adventures, complete with guest scientists historical narratives and local explorers who can help build a broader understanding of our undersea world and the people and creatures who make their lives in and on it.

In collaboration with the Environmental Science Center in Burien, I hope to help build an early outreach marine awareness program for young children. Based on Tidepools for Tots and inspired by the Best Starts for Kids initiative in King County in which emerging neuroscience shows that the first five years of a child’s life are particularly critical for brain development. It would then hold true that if we want to inspire the ocean stewards of the future, we need to start young.

We are also in the beginning stages of a campaign to make the site Seacrest Park, Cove 2, the most popular dive site in Seattle (where we removed the discarded batteries), into a Marine Reserve and divers park.

What would you do with the $5,000 Oris award if selected for Sea Hero of the Year?

I would use the funds to help continue to build our outreach and curriculum extension program. We are in need of a communications system so that we can share the underwater world in real time with viewers. We already have a video system capable of streaming video to the surface, but the next step is full-face masks and underwater comms so that we could have two-way communications, therefore creating a more immersive experience for the viewer.

Is there anything we did not ask that you would like readers to know about? Tell us what’s important to you!

People protect what they love, but they must know it to love it. I remind myself of this when the weather is cold and the visibility is low. All the creatures, great and small are worth filming and sharing, and that next bit of video I shoot may make the difference for one elected official, or inspire one little kid.

**Each Sea Hero receives an Oris Aquis Date watch valued at $1,595. At the end of the year, a panel of judges selects a Sea Hero of the Year, who receives a $5,000 cash award from Oris to further his or her work. Go to scubadiving.com/seaheroes to nominate a Sea Hero today.

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