A SEATTLE FISH SCIENTIST by the name of Brian Footen arrives at Shilshole Bay on a drab but dry May morning wearing blue cargo shorts, mud-stained hiking boots and a fossil gray Patagonia jacket with a salmon etched onto the right sleeve. A break in the wet spring weather is affording him a chance to share his quixotic expedition of paddling 1,200 miles in a kayak to digitally map Puget Sound’s nearshore, where the sea meets the land.
Before casting off in water as smooth as polished beryl, Footen attaches a GoPro MAX camera onto an industrial tripod in his Seastream Angler kayak. He fiddles with dials and devices as a group of tribal members ferries crates of geoducks from a boat.
Footen, 56, syncs the 360-degree camera with a multiparameter that measures units of water quality — the gadgets go off simultaneously every 10 seconds. His data collection includes geolocating the route and listing habitat sightings and shoreline conditions to paint a comprehensive picture of a complex ecosystem under duress.
He also checks the lighting and camera angle. “I try to remind myself, not only is this scientific exploration, but it also is art,” Footen says of the photos and videos curated for his website at EarthViews.
Since 2014, Footen has created immersive digital maps that document the impacts of climate change as “once-in-a-century” weather events become more pervasive. The idea is to build a dynamic Google Street View-like map of hallowed grounds that helps connect people to waterways to promote policy changes for restoration and conservation.
In one of the first projects, Footen mapped the Elwha River 48 hours after the Elwha Dam was demolished to create a baseline of habitat conditions. He also surveyed the Quillayute River basin for salmon restoration to help the Quileute people secure a $5 million grant to address the issues of their waterway. King County officials used the service to understand geomorphological — that is, the physical, chemical or biological — processes in the Snoqualmie River floodplain. In Denver, the system was used to catalog stormwater and drainage infrastructure to make recommendations for future improvements.
“All these rivers around the country are sources of humanity,” Footen says. “Puget Sound is the reason we are here.”
A GREAT BLUE HERON stands sentry on the breakwater as we shove off in sturdy single-person kayaks. Sea lions splash near the shore, following us over kelp beds and eelgrass parallel to the beach at Golden Gardens Park. Footen paddles effortlessly for more than 90 minutes, saying, “When I’m not on the water, I’m in the gym working out.”
The physicality of collecting data becomes evident when a strong south wind slaps our faces as we turn the boats toward the launch against an army of wavelets. Thankfully, we do not have far to travel, as my biceps have started a rebellion.
Footen, who usually wears a full drysuit when mapping for a day, has to go slowly to keep tabs on me. The father of three avoids paddling in the open sea and dons a life vest that flips him over if he falls in.
“On the water by myself, every step is determined,” he says.
FOOTEN’S JOURNEY HAS BEEN as circuitous as the shoreline from the south end of Whidbey Island to Shelton that he hopes to finish mapping sometime in autumn.
It began eight and a half years ago, when Footen launched a whitewater raft in King County to embark on another routine day of counting salmon as a fish biologist for the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe. At the time, he had been monitoring “reds,” as Footen calls the silvery scaled fish, for decades. The scientist yearned for something new.
As Footen entered the Green River from Flaming Geyser State Park near Black Diamond, he heard the high-pitched whine of radio-controlled airplanes buzzing overhead. The analytical mind of a scientist started spinning: Could a camera attached to a toy plane or a drone take better aerial photos of fisheries than the gas-guzzling helicopters Washington state officials used to count salmon?
Footen called a close friend to see what he thought of photographing fisheries with a drone. Scott Gallagher, a Navy fighter pilot for two decades, liked the idea enough to buy a $400 Parrot drone to test Footen’s idea. The images showed promise, but the drone had a short battery life and was prone to hitting trees along the riverbank.
The moment that changed everything occurred when Footen explored the Cedar River with the new drone. He describes getting sucked into Google Street View while looking at a section of the river that had a road nearby. Then it hit him: Why not take panoramic photos from a boat to get a more granular perspective?
WITHIN MONTHS, FOOTEN and Gallagher founded a web-based mapping startup focused on waterways. The men bootstrapped the enterprise they now call EarthViews by raising $40,000 from a “friends and family” funding round to pay for equipment and travel.
The focus quickly shifted from identifying fisheries to aiding scientists in pinpointing trends of ecological degradation.
Footen recruited a couple of science and tech friends to help him build an integrated system from scratch. It took them almost two years to incorporate data points that contextualize a high-definition panoramic image so it can explain what is happening on a particular stretch of river or shorefront.
Seattle scientist Rob Crampton solved an early issue when taking six GoPro cameras and calculating the exact overlap needed to stitch together a seamless 360-degree picture. He bolted the cameras to a plexiglass plate for the first test on the Chicago River, where Footen had spent his formative years. The plate fell into the murky water just before they took off in a sailboat. Footen figured, “Oh, well,” but Crampton stripped to his underwear, jumped into the notoriously polluted river and retrieved the device.
He and Footen got enough footage to process some images. Footen had taught himself how to write code, but it took too long to input the footage onto a website for commercial use.
He sought help from software company Esri to learn how to merge location data and images to maps with GIS, or geographic information systems. The entrepreneurs spent three years working with Esri to perfect the procedure and create a platform.
A technological breakthrough came in 2017, when GoPro introduced its first 360-degree camera. Around the same time, a group of Texans invested $120,000 in EarthViews, and Gallagher’s family later added an additional $100,000.
The man who once dreamed of being a marine biologist had found his life’s work. The startup has surveyed 6,000 miles of waterways so far, including almost 30 locations across the United States and the Okavango Delta in southern Africa, where EarthViews teamed with a National Geographic project to create maps from researchers’ footage.
“The boy who was so aggressive about being in the water, being around animals, being in the forest, is still there,” says Footen’s mother, Marion Hogan of Tacoma. “He’s just added technology and direction to a quality that I’ve always known in him.”
HOGAN AND THEN-HUSBAND Joe Footen encouraged their son to embrace nature after leaving suburban Baltimore in the early 1970s in a converted bread truck. They settled into an old farmhouse on 100 acres of hills and hollers in southwestern West Virginia when Brian was 5. The parents did not own a television; they let their son roam the countryside with his dog and pony.
The couple divorced when Brian was 8 and his brother Paul was 2. Brian and his mom relocated to Chicago for better academic opportunities.
At age 12, Footen decided to become a marine biologist after watching a woman in scuba gear feed fish at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. He graduated third in his class at a parochial high school and got accepted to the esteemed Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Instead, Footen chose the University of Washington’s School of Oceanography because he loved the Pacific Northwest after spending a summer visiting an aunt here.
The budding scientist attended Tacoma Community College in the mid-1980s to establish his residency. It was there Footen met Gallagher in a French class, when his now-friend bumped into his desk and spilled coffee on his lap.
FOOTEN AND GALLAGHER transferred to the University of Washington together and roomed in a loft without heat. Footen struggled with school while also working at Ray’s Boathouse on Shilshole Bay. He began doubting whether he would ever become a marine biologist. A friend at the restaurant suggested Footen go fishing in Alaska to save money for school.
At a bar one night, the co-worker introduced him to the owner of the Glacier Fish Company. Erik Breivik took one look at the young waiter dressed in penny loafers and a pink shirt and laughed, Footen recalls.
But the men struck a deal: If Footen and Gallagher could offload 50-pound boxes of frozen cod for three days, Breivik would consider hiring them on his crew.
Gallagher made it to lunch before quitting, he says. Footen persisted and spent four years fishing on the Bering Sea and Kenai Peninsula.
“I learned how to do all the deck work by being sworn at in Norwegian,” says Footen, who celebrated his 21st birthday on the trawler. “This is the ‘Deadliest Catch’ with 30 tons of cod on the deck instead of a crab pot. You don’t mess around.”
JUST AS FOOTEN considered making fishing a career, he got a letter from his aunt in Tacoma encouraging him to attend The Evergreen State College. Footen loved the Olympia campus when he toured it and decided to return to school — with $50,000 in the bank.
Footen bought a vintage 32-foot Shane wooden cabin cruiser and lived at a marina in Olympia. He eventually anchored off his friends’ A-frame closer to campus. One night on the boat, he awoke during a bad storm. His battery was dead, the boat adrift. Footen eventually made it to safety.
Soon he ditched the vessel to live in a geodesic dome along Totten Inlet with a then-partner. The couple’s daughter, Tara, was born in the dome in the early 1990s.
The new father worked as an intern for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the time. Then the Point No Point Treaty Council hired him as a tribal fish biologist in Port Townsend.
Footen’s passage took an improbable detour on the peninsula when he started the garage band Sasquatch with his brother, Paul. The group joined the Seattle grunge scene in 1994, playing the same clubs as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.
Sasquatch did not enjoy commercial success, so Footen returned to fisheries research in 1996 with the Muckleshoots. Five years later, he earned a dual master’s degree in fisheries science from Evergreen and the University of Washington. By 2003, he and his then-wife started a family; their kids are now 18 and 14.
Footen’s brother also became a scientist, but he chose land over water. Paul Footen, 49, is the Snoqualmie forest manager for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, a soil scientist at Green River Community College and part of DNR’s summer wildfire crew.
“It’s all interconnected,” Paul Footen says of what he and his brother do. “I’m protecting water quality and streams and wildlife habitats just as much by managing the forest as he is by managing the streams.”
FOOTEN CANNOT single-handedly afford to survey every waterway. The mapmaker does not have the time or the means. But anyone can help him with EarthViews collection kits that let people gather data for the platform.
“We’re going to keep enabling others to capture their searching and exploring and give it a place to live in the digital environment,” says Gallagher, the co-founder, who now is an executive at a Texas firm that trains fighter pilots.
Fostering a collaborative environment with citizen scientists might be EarthViews’ most noble attribute.
“Peer-review publication alone doesn’t affect conservation change,” says Joe Gaydos, science director of the SeaDoc Society, a group that conducts and sponsors scientific research in the inland waters of the Salish Sea. “Getting citizens involved in the process is really important. And maybe more so than the technology.”
But EarthViews, the consulting company run out of Footen’s home in the Greenwood neighborhood, has not found contract work in 18 months. Jason Griffith, environmental manager of the Stillaguamish Tribe in Arlington, cannot understand why the service he has used since 2017 has yet to make it.
“I didn’t know exactly why we needed it, but I knew we needed it,” he says of the technology that has been used for grant applications, getting watershed projects approved by tribal leaders and identifying hydraulic code violations from neighboring land owners. “I thought we were going to be the first, and it was going to blow up. But it hasn’t turned out that way.”
EarthViews seeks contract work from government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and private entities. Securing the contracts can be a minefield. To wit: When it appeared Washington lawmakers would require on-the-water surveying of Puget Sound every two years, a legislative bill stalled in the House last winter.
“The difference between selling pizza and what we’re doing is, there is a market for pizza,” Footen says.
With droughts, wildland fires and rising sea levels signaling catastrophic change heading our way, Footen is not waiting for funds to magically appear.
Although he has about 700 miles of Puget Sound still to map, Footen has started surveying the Great Salt Lake, Lake Tahoe, Lake Mead, Lake Powell and the Rio Grande to catalog the effects of the historic megadrought gripping the American West.
He doesn’t know what else to do but take the kayak and GoPro camera to as many waterways as humanly possible to continue telling the story of decay.
Gallagher believes that little can change Footen’s course. He says his friend thinks, “If not me, who? If not now, when?”
Footen answers those internal reflections one stroke at a time as the kayak skims across the water, documenting the natural precincts he cares so deeply about.