Three Waters

Behind the scenes of a film celebrating the Salish Sea

By Jim Sutherland

Filmmaker Mike McKinlay (pictured above) and naturalist Rob Butler (top left) are documenting the unique culture, delicate environment and intriguing wildlife of the region spanning Nanaimo south to the San Juan Islands. Photos: George Faulkner

Filmmaker Mike McKinlay (pictured above) and naturalist Rob Butler (top left) are documenting the unique culture, delicate environment and intriguing wildlife of the region spanning Nanaimo south to the San Juan Islands.
Photos: George Faulkner

In reality, people don’t actually glow, but Mike McKinlay comes close, very, very close. The filmmaker just returned to Vancouver from a trip with creative partner Rob Butler to Vancouver Island, where they were filming scenes for the documentary Three Waters. Their primary purpose in Deep Bay, midway between Parksville and Comox, was to shoot a locavore dinner. Everything on the menu was made with locally grown or scavenged ingredients: wild mushrooms, winter kale chips, farm meats and cheeses, Deep Bay shellfish and – because it was still early March and it’s nice to have something green on the plate – a surprisingly delicious garnish of Grand Fir tips.

As has been the case since the pair began filming Three Waters, one experience led to another, with this extraordinary region’s heritage, culture and wildlife revealing themselves in captivating, often unexpected sequences. The more they witnessed, the more McKinlay and Butler became committed to raising awareness about a body of land and water familiar to so many, but which few truly understand.

In Deep Bay, the filmmakers wrangled a boat jaunt out into the strait, where the herring roe fishery happened to be in the midst of one of its ultra-brief openings – a frenzy that in most recent years has run to mere hours. During those furious few minutes, the boats pulled in tens of thousands of tonnes of fish, all the while surrounded by a near-biblical plague of seagulls. The sights and sounds were impressive, but what truly amazed McKinlay were the California sea lions that flopped into the nets, inhaled their fill of wriggling fish, then wallumped right out again.

While McKinlay describes the scene, the ever-amiable Butler smiles. As a recently retired 27-year veteran of the Canadian Wildlife Service, a Ph.D. biologist and the president of the Pacific Wildlife Foundation, he has seen this sort of thing many times. He explains that Pacific herring are a keystone species and, as they go, most everything else in the Salish Sea will follow. And in fact, beginning some time in April, the herring will go. Beckoned by blooms of the plankton that form a big part of their diet, most will depart for the west coast of Vancouver Island, depleting the island’s east coast of many of its marine animals, which trail right after their dinner.

Of course, this spring, as in many others, there was controversy around the herring roe fishery, short as it is. Some worry that stocks of the fish – crucial, after all, to the entire marine ecosystem – are too low, and the fishery should be suspended completely.
Butler shares the worries about the ocean’s health, that’s practically his job. But the worries won’t show up in the film that he and McKinlay are making, at least not explicitly. Instead, Three Waters was envisioned as being celebratory rather than cautionary, transformative rather than reproving.

Butler explains, “By adopting nature into our culture, we establish a need to sustain it. For example, when a regional food becomes part of a culture, then the livelihoods and the land that provide it will be sustained.” So yes, there may be concerns about herring or about water quality and ocean acidification that impact shellfish growers in Deep Bay. But if the film can help people feel a stronger connection to the natural environment, then there is a better chance that the environment will be cherished and protected. “It doesn’t hurt at all that our area is just plain beautiful,” says Butler. “That’s something that a lot of the early explorers commented on. It’s a big part of the film.”

This is not the first collaboration between Butler and McKinlay, a filmmaker who brings a different look and feel to nature films, maybe because he is equally at home shooting commercials for skateboard companies. Other short films have focused on specific birds or marine life, though. None have been of this scope.

Butler describes some of the scenes that have gone into making what they expect to be an hour-long documentary appearing on television networks in Canada and the U.S. beginning in 2015. “In the Fraser River near Chilliwack, there’s a marsh that almost no one else has been into,” he says. Beyond the astonishing bird life in that marsh, and the Fraser’s status as one of the world’s great rivers, Butler says no film could ignore the role the river plays in creating the rich agricultural land that feeds its human inhabitants. Equally, there’s the river’s adeptness at feeding and stirring the seawater it flows into. So while the pair will almost surely be back on the river this summer to capture footage of what could be an historic sockeye run topping 70 million fish, they have also been out into Juan de Fuca Strait, which is dozens of kilometres southwest of the Fraser delta but almost an extension of the river, says Butler.

In areas like Deep Bay, there isn’t a lot going on in the water during the summer (blame those departed herring), but in the waters south of Victoria, the waters are teeming. This is the only Canadian habitat of the oddball Heermann’s gull, which flies all the way from Mexico, where the birds have attracted attention as tool users that use bait to catch fish. Meanwhile, black-footed albatrosses fly in from Hawaii, joined as commuters from the Aloha islands by humpback whales.

Humans too are a big part of any environment, and the one we’re in has hosted our species for about 12,000 years. While it’s true that the last couple hundred of those have seen some pretty dramatic transformations, Three Waters accepts us as simple fact. That said, the filmmakers did focus on certain types of behaviour, which is how they ended up at Port Townsend’s wooden boat festival. There they found dozens of boats made not just of wood but of local wood, an example of being at one with the environment that aptly fits the film’s theme, as does boating in general. “Kayaks, canoes, boats of all kinds – getting out onto the water is part of who we are,” says Butler.

Port Townsend isn’t in B.C., but in Washington State, which illustrates another important aspect of the film. Ecological regions and systems don’t conform to political boundaries, and there was always something a little awkward and artificial about the seemingly hard borders between water bodies like B.C.’s Georgia Strait, Washington’s Puget Sound and the shared Juan de Fuca Strait. That’s why, in 1986, a marine biologist named Bert Webber, living in Bellingham, Washington, combined the three into a new term, the Salish Sea. Honouring the Coast Salish Nation, who spread over much of the region centuries before European arrival, the name treats the vast and intricate waterway as a single entity, a sea.    

Over the past few years, the coinage has been gaining momentum, complementing the older terms rather than replacing them, as Webber hoped it would. Butler and McKinlay have their own hope, not unrelated: that a film about that sea will help people recognize its importance, not just as a spot on the globe, but on a personal level. 

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