October 5, 2011

One of the images that launched this film and that stays with me is this: I was in the Marin Headlands, standing on a cliff in thick fog, listening to waves crashing below, feeling the wind. I couldn’t see a thing. Out of the whiteness soared a pelican, who flew past me silently, large and ancient, then disappeared back into the fog. The whole encounter lasted only a few seconds, yet I felt I’d had a glimpse of something mysterious and ultimately ungraspable, like life. Since then I have wanted to film that vision, because it also defines wildness for me. I’ve tried at that exact location with no luck; have tried at the Pt Bonita Lighthouse with no luck; have tried at the San Mateo coast with some luck, and will keep trying. You’ll see whether I’ve succeeded or not in the final film.

Pelicans in the fog

Besides fog, this past summer has been all about fishing. I knew that getting tangled up in fishing line with fish hooks stuck in your pouch is one of the most common pelican injuries seen by wildlife rehabilitators; but how to be there when it happens? I was location scouting at the fishing pier at Fort Baker, where I’d planned to film another pelican release, when a young bird who’d been floating dangerously close to a man’s fishing line suddenly lunged at it as he reeled it up, grabbing three hooks with three small silver fish. All of a sudden, that pelican was hooked and the fisherman didn’t know what to do. (Often they cut the line, and the bird is left in the water all entangled, to die.) I asked him to slowly pull the bird along the pier to shore, like a dog on a leash, and ran to get rescuers from WildCare.

“B-52,” named for her band, was a very lucky bird: She was immediately rescued; experts snipped off fishing line and extracted hooks from her beak and pouch, and after rehabilitation she was released at Tomales Bay. I got all of her story on film except the initial moments. Often in documentary situations you get pulled in, becoming more than just a bystander. You happen to be there, you’re needed, and you do it. “B-52” was the first pelican I helped save.

Pelican tangled up in fishing line

Other fishing-related sequences shot in July, August, and September include: pelicans being fed by Wacky Jacky’s crew and by charter fishermen at a fillet table, Monte Merrick rescuing a fish-oiled pelican from a north coast harbor island, and my own private release of a pelican I call “no name, no band” back to the wild at Shelter Cove. (Since no one else had time, and since I was driving that way, I volunteered. It’s fun to drive with a pelican in your car.) The bird, obviously, had no name and no Federal band. And that felt good: Back to the wild! Back to mystery.

Judy releases a pelican

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