Giants of Big Sur: California Condor Stories

Go behind the scenes with Wilderness Documentarian Ross Thomas as he learns the amazing and inspiring stories of the critically endangered California condor. Ross meets the Ventana Wildlife Society experts who have been working with the local community to restore these majestic giants to the wild Big Sur coast since 1997.

Ross’s epic journey begins with a once in a lifetime visit with Senior Wildlife Biologist Joe Burnett to a wild condor’s nest deep in the Big Sur wilderness. Ross witnesses the intimate interaction between a condor parent and its new chick in the crown of a giant redwood tree. Ross then travels with Joe to see the Condor’s Big Sur sanctuary, which was destroyed by the Dolan Fire in 2020.

Joe shares rare archival footage of the 2008 Basin Complex fire that burned most of the Big Sur wilderness. We see Ventana Wildlife Society biologists climb a burned redwood tree to save baby condor, Phoenix. Later, we meet Iniko, who captured the world’s heart during the Dolan Fire. We learn the stories of the condors and their incredible resiliency in the face of huge adversity.

Through experiencing the work of Ventana Wildlife Society, Ross comes to understand the greatest threat to condors is not wildfire but rather, lead ammunition. Ross meets Mike Stake, Non-Lead Ammunition Program Manager, who takes him to meet with a rancher in a key condor area to better understand these complex issues. The film concludes with a call to action of how we can all help these magnificent giants.

  • Ross Thomas
    NBC's California Live
  • Ross Thomas
    NBC's California Live
  • Mike Buffo
    Bohemian Soul, War of the Limelight
  • Mike Buffo
    Director of Photography
    Bohemian Soul, War of the Limelight
  • Ross Thomas
    Key Cast
    Soul Surfer, Dance Flick, The Cutting Edge: Going for The Gold
  • Joe Burnett
    Key Cast
  • Mike Stake
    Key Cast
  • Kelly Sorenson
    Key Cast
  • Jules Hart
    Video Editor
  • Justin Zheng
    B Camera Operator
  • David Herring
    Sound Engineer
  • Blair Black / As It Is Films
    Logo Creation and Animation
  • DeWolfe Music Timothy Whitelaw & Erik Wollo
  • Tim Huntington
    Photo and Video Contributions
    Archived Video Stream
  • Kelly Sorenson
    Executive Producer
  • Project Type:
    Documentary, Short
  • Genres:
    Wildlife, Nature
  • Runtime:
    19 minutes 59 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    September 9, 2022
  • Production Budget:
    30,000 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United States
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
    Digital, 4K 24p
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
  • Best Shorts Competition

    Competition, no screening
    Award of Merit
Director Biography - Ross Thomas

Ross Thomas is an Emmy Award winning TV Host, Producer and Multimedia Journalist. He has worked with many of the top TV networks, brands and ad agencies both in front of and behind the camera. Ross is an avid outdoorsman and explorer with a deep love for adventure travel and wild, remote places. With a passion for wildlife conservation and the environment, Ross has worked with several non-profit organizations on projects dedicated to making a positive difference in the world. In addition to his work in the unscripted space, Ross has an impressive resume as a leading film actor, having starred in films such as “Soul Surfer”, “Dance Flick” and “The Cutting Edge: Going for The Gold”, just to name a few. On the small screen Ross could be seen on FOX’s “Gang Related”, “Lie To Me”, CBS’s “NCIS”, “CSI:”, “CSI:NY” and “Cold Case”. Ross can currently be seen daily on NBC’s hit morning lifestyle show, “California Live”, where he is both a Producer and On Air-Correspondent. Ross, his wife Jolene, sons Taj and Hawk and their Rhodesian Ridgeback, Sequoia, live on the edge of the Los Padres National Forest in Carmel Valley, California.

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Director Statement

For as long as I can remember, I have been captivated and inspired by the wilderness and the creatures that call it home. When immersed in nature, I see a symphony of perfection within the biodiversity of the landscape. Everything appears to be doing the exact job it was designed for. Yet, somehow the scale has been unfavorably tipped by our constant need to fulfill our own singular desires without consideration for the irreparable consequences on nature. This knowledge that my species has caused so much destruction on this planet has plagued me with guilt. However, rather than stand idle and dwell on this tragedy, I’ve made the conscious decision to be a part of the solution. To stand up for the voiceless creatures who live in the last truly wild places on earth. As a father, I have vowed to do my part, so my children and generations to come can witness the majesty of the great outdoors.

Living on the central coast of California has provided me the opportunity to be exposed to some truly magnificent wild places. One that has always stood out and been a deep part of my being is Big Sur. This spectacular, rugged coastline has an unparalleled allure that keeps me coming back. Rich with history and diversity of wildlife, this coastal, mountainous oasis is one of California’s great treasures. It’s here, where the California Condor, North America’s largest land bird, makes its home. A critical scavenger, the condor was once abundant on this coast; a bird considered sacred to the Esselen and Rumsen Ohlone tribes of the area.

After learning that the last wild California Condor was taken from the wild in 1987 for a captive breeding program, I wanted to know more. What happened to this once common species and who were the people fighting to bring them back from the brink of extinction?

My research led me to the Ventana Wildlife Society, a non-profit organization founded in 1977, committed to conserving native wildlife and their habitats. This team of wildlife biologists and experts were a vital part of re-introducing California Condors back into the wild on the Big Sur coast.

As a filmmaker, I felt this story needed to be told to educate, inspire and help spread awareness around this noble and critical cause. In collaboration with Mike Buffo of House of 8 Media, we set out to tell the stories of the Big Sur condors and the people tirelessly working to ensure their survival as a species. These stories have touched my heart and called me to action. I hope they do the same for you. Enjoy the film!