“Solving the Mystery of Dying Starfish” wins Emmy for Laura James
Talk to filmaker and underwater explorer Laura James for five minutes, and the name ‘Puget Sound‘ will be mentioned in the conversation somewhere. You soon learn this is no coincidence. Laura’s self imposed mission is to share the undersea world of this Washington State Sound in such a way that people discover what is going on beneath the waves, and learn to love and protect the Sound as much as she does.
It does help that this self-effacing West Seattle advocate is a respected, Emmy award winning, accomplished recreational, technical and rebreather diver with north of 5,000 dives underneath her belt. Using the power of film and journalism she highlights pollution problems and other environmental factors that impact on this inlet of the Pacific Ocean.
In 2013 Laura James collaboratived on a report ‘Sea Otters v. Climate Change’ and won an Emmy Award for her photography in June 2014. The report was honoured as best ‘health / science feature / segment’.
On 6th June 2015 Laura earned her second Emmy in the ‘Environmental Feature / Segment’ category for her story ‘Solving the Mystery of Dying Starfish‘.
“I had noticed on my dives in Puget Sound that the starfish were getting sick, deteriorating and subsequently dying quite rapidly. Other people had reported it, but nothing was happening about this mass mortality event, and I felt the ‘Star Fish Wasting Syndrome‘ needed highlighting.
Reports starting surfacing from Alaska to as far south as San Diego of tens of thousands of starfish dying. This raised the question of whether this starfish die-off was an indicator of a larger problem. At first it seemed only to affect one species known as the Sunflower Starfish (or Seastar). Then it hit another species, and another. In all about a dozen species of Seastars were dying along the Pacific westcoast.
I was fortunate that I had an amazing team of dive buddies behind me, helping make the video dives possible. I had pitched the story a number of times, but no one bit until I shot the first batch of footage and then it took off. I worked with husband and wife team, Michael Werner and Katie Campbell.
I knew that Katie would be perfect to produce this and do the story justice after working with her on ‘Drained: Urban Stormwater Pollution‘. (This video won the Society of Professional Journalists award for Best Online Video for the Western Washington Chapter and was nominated for two Emmys. And it was also featured in the Reel Water Film Festival and Sea Cinema Film Festival.) We make a great team – Katie and Michael filmed the topside footage – whilst Lamont Granquist and I shot the underwater stock.
It was important to me that we got citizen scientists involved with this project. The big problem we had with this epidemic is that there was no baseline. Quite simply the starfish got sick and we noticed this. We needed a way to show this in real time – how it was spreading – hence we built a website to track posts to media sites using #SickStarfish. We encouraged Pacific divers to take photos of starfish and and hash tag it ‘SickStarfish‘.
I must admit I am still pretty stunned to receive this award because we were up against a great story about wolves. This Emmy is very pretty special to me. The story we created felt like my baby, from pitching it, shooting compelling underwater footage and then watching it grow and reach a national audience.
I want to shoot stories that connect with non-divers, that bring them along, without spoon-feeding or dumbing down the content. Jacques Cousteau brought diving stories into our living room. He invited us to join him on a grand undersea adventure. I don’t have grand undersea adventures, I have environmental stories about Puget Sound that once heard, can help make a positive difference. Probably the most amazing part about ‘Solving the Mystery of Dying Starfish’ is that it inspired Congressman Danny Heck to write a Bill after he had seen the footage. For me that makes the process of ’tilting at windmills’ worth doing.”
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