Spring 2008 Issue

Spring 2008 Issue

Into the Wild

How dive program alum Sean Hickey '94 gets Floridians to care about endangered wildlife in their own ‘backyard'

Into the Wild

Sean Hickey dug his knees into the ocean floor off the coast of the Bahamas. It was 1997, and he had just finished a shark dive with a group of tourists. All the divers had returned to the boat, but he stayed behind with his video recorder to capture more shots.

Hickey was working as a scuba instructor at the time on a tour boat based out of Florida. He got to dive twice a day in some of the world's most beautiful waters and never had to wear anything more than a bathing suit and a baseball hat to work. The only other responsibility he had was videotaping each underwater tour to sell to the customers.

Not bad for a 26-year-old, he thought as he sat at on the ocean floor, pointing his camera upwards as the dark silhouettes of dozens of hammerhead sharks streaked past.

"It was unreal," said Hickey, who graduated from Barry with a degree in Recreational Diving Management. "I was all by myself and the sharks are flying by and the sun is coming down through the water. I put my camera down and looked around and couldn't believe what I was doing. It was a pretty cool feeling for someone who grew up in New Hampshire."

But life on a boat couldn't last forever. Hickey's future wife, Debbie, encouraged him to pursue a career in editing film, and after a few "horrible" gigs shooting weddings and bar mitzvahs, he landed a job at WPBT-Channel 2, a Miami-based PBS affiliate. Hickey is now into his third season as editor of "Wild Florida," a half-hour series about Florida's unique and endangered wildlife.

In December, Hickey and fellow Barry University alumna Joyce Belloise' 93, producer of "Wild Florida," were awarded Emmy's for their work on the nature series. And just as Hickey couldn't believe his luck on that morning 10 years ago when he sat on the ocean floor surrounded by sharks, he looks at his life now with much the same wonder.

"I never thought I'd be sitting where I am now back when I was at Barry," he said. "It's funny the way things worked. But I love the outdoors and this show allows me to work with what I love."

Into the Wild
Sean Hickey dives off the coast of San Salvador. At the time the photo was taken in 1996, Hickey was working as a dive master and videographer on the liveaboard dive boat the Nekton Pilot.

As editor of "Wild Florida," Hickey is responsible for the visual and audio feel of each show. He is given tapes of footage shot in the field by the show's cameramen, a script, and is told to run with it. He pieces together the footage and adds music to best capture the feel of each subject, whether it's a bull shark, dolphin, alligator or manatee.

Alexa Elliott, one of the producer's of "Wild Florida," said Hickey's background as a diver is invaluable. "We did a recent episode on coral reefs and a lot of them look the same, so it's hard to tell the species apart," Elliott said. "But Sean knew exactly what he was looking at, so he knew how the episode should look."

Hickey said his involvement with video production happened by chance. One day during his stint as a dive instructor on the tour boat, a couple wanted a video of their tour, and Hickey, who had taken an underwater videography class at Barry, was the only member of the crew with any experience. "Right when I started shooting underwater I loved it," he said. "I enjoyed taking different shots of the guests, and every Friday I would put together a group video to sell onboard. I enjoyed the process of gathering the shots and editing them together with music."

Belloise, who graduated from Barry with a degree in Communication Arts, agreed that Hickey's extensive dive experience makes him a natural for the job. "Sometimes I have a vision of the way things should be and he'll have a totally different vision and it will work so much better than I ever thought it could," Belloise said. "He has a real talent to see things on a page and make them look great in video."

As a producer of the show, Belloise spends up to three weeks per episode out in the field filming with the scientists. The Miami native and self-described city girl said she never imagined spending hours mired in the muck of the Florida Everglades at dawn waiting for a flock of wading birds to appear. "We did a trip to the Dry Tortugas, which is all camping and primitive, and I wanted to know where my cappuccino maker was going to go," Belloise said. "But the experience has been amazing, and seeing everything firsthand has really brought the issues home to me. The big challenge is to get people to care about endangered animals, like the gopher tortoise, they don't know about or don't see in their backyard or in the ocean."

Looking through recent footage for an episode on coral reefs, Hickey said it reminded him that it's been years since his last dive. It also reminded him why it has been so long. "To be honest, a lot of the reefs are dying because of disease – whether it's algae or raw septic sewer pipes running straight into the ocean. I can see a big difference from when I first started diving here in 1990, and it's pretty sad."

Elliott said Hickey's emotional involvement in Florida's natural environment came through in the final version of the coral reef episode.

"There are two types of editors," she noted, "people who want to be told what to do, button-pushers, and people with a creative vision. Sean is definitely one of the creative ones."