Welcome to Behind the Scenes. Here we have a collection of posts that look behind the cameras of Lightning Strike Productions. We film underwater, in the air with drones and from aircraft, we edit and produce educational films. We tackle everything media production related in Palau. Most of our films and media are environment based and we take pride in all our media production projects. We are media production Palau.
As this blog grows we will be covering a range of subjects but they will mostly be grouped into the following subjects:
We are available for Underwater filming, underwater photography, underwater camera rental, aerial filming, drone pilot hire, location scouting, fixer work, Film production in Palau, permits, accommodation in Palau, dive boat charters, aircraft charters, stock footage or just advice on where to dive.
The latest media production in Palau and beyond
For a comprehensive run down of everything we got up to in 2017 check out this post. It highlights all the progress we’ve made as well as the major projects we have undertaking over the year. New camera and filming techniques with many examples of the films we shot for our clients, it also includes a show reel of our favorite footage from the year, so have a look!
A Marine Protected Area (MPA) is simply a protected marine environment. What does that actually mean and how do people interpret it?
The goal of an Marine Protected Area
The goal of a Marine Protected Area is to let the marine environment recover to a state essentially unaffected by humans. It progresses from the affected stage to the unaffected stage, it’s natural stage. This state depends on where it is geographically and the natural equilibrium it would attain based on what surrounds it. In ecological terms it reaches it’s climax community.
An unpolluted Marine Protected Area will accumulate species that would naturally occur in that environment. Polar species for a polar environment, temperate for temperate etc. Those species would, when left alone, essentially fight it out amongst themselves. An ecosystem would develop that is the same as an environment where there are no humans.
The goal of a Marine Protected Area therefore is to allow that to happen. That is to leave it alone. To leave it alone implies no harvesting and no external anthropogenic influences.
How to create a Marine Protected Area
Firstly MPAs require a local desire (usually national) to protect the area. Laws sometimes come into effect that impose an obligation to local populations to leave the area alone.
At times, military occupation of an island or archipelago ensures that. The environment is off limits as a result of the entire region being protected for strategic purposes. e.g. The Chagos islands.
In rare circumstances such as on Bikini atoll in the Marshall islands, nuclear weapon tests meant that the area was off limits for decades due to being toxic. The depopulated environment recovered despite the initial poisoning.
Once an MPA is announced, it requires people to be kept out of it. This can be achieved by laws alone. But because people break the law, policing of the area is often required. Severe deterrents to would-be poachers need to be publicized and enforced.
This previous post highlights the development of surveillance in Palau’s National Marine Sanctuary.
The degree of protection attained is governed by numerous factors and that influences the outcome and overall ecology of the area.
What happens if total protection isn’t attained?
Firstly, total protection is rarely attained. Nowhere on earth is completely free from human influence. Even the very deepest marine trenches are showing signs of human pollution.
What is Pristine?
If “Pristine” is completely untouched (0% human influence) a Marine Protected Area is trying to get as close to zero as possible.
So basically, if you remove one or a significant portion or number of any species, it will have an effect on the entire ecosystem. The ecosystem shifts to compensate for the imbalance. Ecologists call this Trophic Cascade. Trophic levels are essentially what separate plant from herbivore, herbivore from predator.
So by reducing the numbers of predators, the prey species numbers will increase. This will have an effect on what they in turn hunt or harvest. Once those species populations change that will then change what they influence. Imagine a line of dominoes that spreads out into a web. One influences another which then influences more again. These changes in populations not only affect populations either side of them of them but they can also affect the very chemistry of the environment. If there are more of less plants in a system, there would be more or less Oxygen or CO2 available.
Altering the physical chemistry of a system also causes ecological cascades. Increase or decrease in temperature is like changing it’s geographical location. Adding chemicals will also change ecosystems. Farmers increase productivity of their fields with fertilizers and similarly, plant growth can increase if certain compounds of Nitrogen or Phosphorous are added. A process called Eutrophication. Too many plants and not enough herbivores to eat them means systems can be overrun by plant life, choking and shading what was there before.
Benefits of MPAs
The lack of human harvesting from an MPA means that fish numbers and overall biomass increases. (There are more living things). Eventually the biomass increases to the point where it spreads out into the surrounding waters. This overflow can then be harvested. Within the MPA the fish live longer, breed more often and attain greater sizes which means their breeding potential is also greater. (Larger fish produce more eggs and milt and therefore more babies.)
Harvesting from MPAs
In some parts of the world, MPAs have been established but the local population still harvests from them. This is sometimes for indigenous cultural reasons, however in some locations these cultural excuses are abused and the harvesting is too regular to be sustainable. A overexploitation situation occurs. Local groups citing cultural exception harvest instead of allowing the MPA spillover to repopulate the regular fishing grounds.
In a report from Pew Charitable Trusts: By 2018, there are 15,600 Marine Protected Areas globally, some 25 million square kilometers. This equates to only 7% of the planets oceans. The aim is by 2020 to have 10% of the oceans protected but it seems we are falling well short of this goal. What is worse is that of that 7%, less than half are actually no take zones. Many are still open to harvesting either by indigenous groups or by commercial operations. So it seems we still have a long way to go.
Humans build bigger and bigger fishing boats. The demand for seafood increases with the human population. The pressure on the worlds oceans increases.
It is vital to respect the natural capacity of the oceans. This capacity is not only of the economic kind. How many fish swim in it or how many we can catch etc, but also how well it can recover. Recovery is fastest when the ocean is healthy. A healthy ocean has a greater ability to accept losses, not only amongst it’s inhabitants populations but also losses to it’s own intrinsic health.
Humans are affecting the very chemistry of the worlds oceans.
Natural damaging cycles such as El Nino events are becoming more common. Whilst natural environments before could recover from these warming periods because there was a long time between them. Now these events are happening too regularly for the reefs to fully recover. Each time the damage occurs, the environment has only recovered 50% of it’s potential health. The one step forward two steps back scenario.
The healthiest reef or any environment for that matter is one that is in it’s natural state. This is why it’s so important for us to set aside as much of our Planet as possible. A Marine Protected Area or any conservation area needs to left alone. They should all be left alone and there should be more of them. It is these natural wild spaces that will be the saviors of us all as we strip everything else bare.
When it comes to filming wildlife in Palau there has been one species that has been on my bucket list for many years. Estimates suggest that there are only about 200 animals left in the population and they are spread over a huge range. It is large but extremely enigmatic. It has been hunted close to extinction and is now extremely wary of anyone approaching. I am of course referring to the Palau Dugong.
Palau Dugong natural history
The Dugong is one of only two extant vegetarian marine mammals. The other is the Manatee. The Palau Dugong’s ancestors most likely made the journey across the Philippine Sea from South east Asia possibly tens of thousands of years ago. They found Palau’s sheltered lagoons and huge seagrass beds perfect for living. However once humans settled in Palau their peaceful existence came under threat.
Due to Palau’s large distance from other populations of Dugong the Palauan population is extremely isolated. This is bad for a number of reasons. Firstly it is extremely unlikely that Dugongs from other Asian or Australasian populations will make the similar crossing to add to the Palau population. This means that the population will not increase due to migration from outside. It is isolated.
It is quite likely that Palau’s population could be descended from a single pregnant female that somehow made the crossing.
Love thy neighbor
Secondly the genetic bottlenecking that results from a population growing from a very limited number of individuals can result in a distinct lack of genetic diversity. This can cause such things as birth defects, low birth rate, higher infant mortality as well as raised incidence of sterility.
So given all those factors, it’s a wonder that there are any Dugongs in Palau at all. The chances of making it this far are stacked against them, yet they have survived. Dugong were traditionally hunted in Palau but the meat was reserved for only the highest chiefs. Due to declining numbers they have been given protected status and taking of Dugong is now illegal.
So you can see now why being able to film this extremely rare geographically isolated enigmatic creature is a real draw.
Filming the Palau Dugong
I have long been planning on using Drone technology to accomplish something like this. I wrote about using the technology here, but due to the rarity and highly protected status of Palau’s Dugong it was very hard to locate them. That is until a local NGO contacted me about a population in the north of Palau. I leapt at the opportunity of course and we headed out to the area and set about searching.
Dugong have very good hearing and the sound of a boat engine or even the slapping of kayak paddles will have them heading in the opposite direction.
Using drones for conservation filmmaking
By keeping a large distance between what we suspected was an animal and the boat and flying the gap between, we managed to position the drone over a herd of 15. This sort of number in one area at one time is almost unheard of in contemporary Palau. It gave us valuable insight into a possible local population size and age make-up. The use of a light, reasonably quiet drone allows us to observe these animals relatively closely without disturbing them. This is extremely important in the study of animal behavior. Any disturbance can change the animal’s natural behavior. The gyro stabilized High Resolution cameras available now are perfect for recording footage or taking photos at distances well over 1km from the pilot.
Geographic distribution and behavior
It became apparent that the areas we were sighting them in were predominantly sea grass beds. These areas are only however submerged in less than 1.5 meters of water at high tide. The Dugongs could only access this important feeding area during high tide. As the tide turned and started to recede the Dugong began to swim for deeper water.
It was possible to fly the drone at a low altitude without apparently disturbing the animals. Skin markings and scarring could be seen and enabled individuals to be identified on subsequent surveys. Mothers with their babies, boystrous juveniles and large Bulls could all be seen.
And then they vanished.
Day after day we went out and found no sign. Aerial surveys found other animals like Turtles, mating Stingrays, even the extremely rare Ornate Eagleray, but no Dugong…..
Where had they gone?
Dugong are still being hunted in Palau
A week or so later we hear reports that one has been killed. Parts of it’s body had been hung up far to the south for people to see. It was like a huge macabre shout of “laws don’t apply to us!”
We don’t know where this animal came from. There are other populations that frequent other areas of Palau. Koror and Malakal harbor having one of the highest densities.
It was still a huge blow.
This act however doesn’t go unnoticed. Those responsible are known to the community and like previous occasions of poaching, the culprits will eventually be found out, prosecuted and publicly shamed.
This could have been something beautiful, something so rare it almost defies odds by even existing. It has been killed before it had a chance. Greed and distrust are perpetuated by a few selfish individuals of our species for the sake of a tradition that can no longer be justified. Dugongs are a valuable tourism commodity in other parts of the world. If only those selfish individuals in Palau could realize that.
Further threats to Dugong in Palau
In addition the sea grass feeding area frequented by this population has been proposed as a site for sand dredging. This critical habitat for a huge number of species was actually going to be destroyed so that sand could be acquired to build the airport expansion in Palau. The Environmental Quality Protection Board (EQPB) assessed the site and according to the boat driver on the day they saw 7 Dugong. This is where we came in to document these animals and raise awareness to the potential habitat destruction.
Destruction of habitat used by protected species is prohibited by law in Palau. We await to see what will happen and hope that public conscience is greater than a few individuals greed.
This species hang on to existence. It would be a ecological disaster to loose such an iconic species in Palau and a terrible waste of beautiful animals.
For further information on previous work done to protect the Palau Dugong see here.
For a really good report on the Dugong status in Palau see here.
Aerial Surveillance over the Palau marine sanctuary was initially proposed in 2013. A series of tests were conducted with various technologies. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles were the first. The high initial cost ruled them out together with unfavorable vessel detection ability.
The Republic of Palau next tested the Sea Dragon system. A military grade combination of radar and gyro stabilized cameras. A twin engine Cessna variant is fitted with the surveillance equipment and used as a complete package with a pilot and trained observer.
During the initial trial, Sea Dragon scored a huge success by finding and documenting fishing vessels transshipping. This is illegal in Palau. It demonstrated the need to continue patrols far off-shore.
The system however had issues. It wasn’t a practical solution for long term surveillance despite it’s initial success. It has however found use in other parts of FSM.
A simple, cheap and reliable solution had to be found.
This is where Pacific Mission Aviation stepped into the ring. Part of their work is providing medevac solutions to the outer atolls of Yap and FSM. For this they need an aircraft with a greater range than a standard single engined Cessna. A twin engine Beechcraft modified Queen Air was chosen due to it’s reliability and long range of over 1000 Nautical miles.
The below film documents actual missions that took place during November of 2017.
In addition you can also check out an earlier behind the scenes post written during the development of this project .
Please check out the website for Pacific Mission Aviation here
The future of surveillance
The conclusion from all these tests is that simplicity is fundamental.
However, as we continuously approach our time horizon, developments occur. I’m talking about the recent U.S plan to install military radar stations in a variety of locations in Palau. One of these installations will be in the SW islands. They aim to give the U.S a better idea about military ship movements in the area. The US and Palau also propose to use this to locate and identify fishing vessels. With this level of tech in place it will probably become impossible to enter Palau’s EEZ undetected. We certainly have an interesting few years ahead of us.
Keep checking back as we continue to document the surveillance efforts over the National Marine Sanctuary.
Fish aren’t traditionally perceived as having personalities, but they’re anything but the dumb automatons that our ancestors would have us believe.
Underwater organisms don’t have the facial musculature that we as primates have evolved. Quite simply they haven’t needed it, therefore they haven’t acquired it through natural selection. However they have been evolving and surviving on this planet for over 500 million years.
And they do communicate to each other.
How do fish sense each other?
In a Darwinian world where survival is paramount, the lateral line has become their first defense and sensory organ. This first level of communicating allows the individual to feel what’s around it. The layer of sensory cells that run along the flanks of most fish, detect the pressure changes in the surrounding environment. This system has evolved to the point where fish react with an almost simultaneous motion to an external stimulus.
How do fish school in such dense numbers without colliding?
Fish have a sensory barrier around them, a kind of bubble that they can perceive. This bubble is squashed as objects or animals move around the individuals perception. They can sense their immediate surroundings in this fashion.
Some fish such as the freshwater knife-fish even generate electric fields. These fields are influenced by their surroundings, especially other animals, and the knife-fish react to that reflection of their own electric field and use it to locate prey.
Sharks have an extremely sensitive network of electroreceptors that can detect the smallest electric fields from other animals.
Vision is also important in the depths of the ocean especially in the upper Euphotic zone (where photosynthesis can occur). Most of the longer, lower energy wavelengths are lost quickly, absorbed by the water column. Red light disappears first, then orange, then yellow… leaving only blue as you descend to the furthest depths of the Photic zone (The depth that light can penetrate through water).
How do fish display their intentions?
Contrast over actual color makes a big difference at depth and aquatic animals can use that to their advantage to display their intentions. Humbolt squid for example can change their entire body from red to white and back like you can flick a light switch. They do this at depths far beyond red light can be seen (200m-700m) so appear in this twilight world as if they are going from black to white like individual morse code signals. What they are saying to each other is beyond our understanding.
Closer to the surface we have fish species that utilize many more frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum including the ultraviolet wavelengths.
On a more day to day scenario, most SCUBA Divers and snorkelers who pay attention will have noticed that some species of reef fish can have drastically different colourations. Take the Big eye crescent tail as an example.
When it’s calm an individual will be a deep red, when stressed it can bleach to a silver. Similarly when fish such as the Big-nose Unicornfish visit cleaning stations they can display complex patterning only for it to fade to black once the fish swims away.
When fish think about sex
During spawning aggregations many fish species undergo drastic color changes that signal their readiness to participate. The bumphead parrotfish are pretty obvious during their aggregation as their heads bleach white from the usual green.
In the Caribbean, Nassau groupers migrate in groups to their annual spawning grounds and are often led by an individual who sports a drastically different body patterning. Once at the spawning site they all adopt an even more extreme color change. For further reading see this article.
Bohar Snappers have a variety of different colorations during their spawning aggregations, sometimes two small white spots appear on their dorsal area, others adopt a bleached blue hue rather than their usual russet red. Others adopt a mixture of the two with a red belly, a white stripe down their flanks and a bluish dorsal area. As I pour over the many spawning rushes I’ve filmed of this species I cannot see any distinguishable pattern in whether a female adopts a certain body color prior to her egg releasing rush. A pattern may emerge after further observations though.
See this clip of a small group interacting in preparation for spawning. The female with the broken dorsal fin is being nudged by a number of males. Maybe this nudging is meant to initiate her egg releasing rush. Maybe it’s the males trying to ascertain if she is ready or not….?
For a really in depth look at this behavior and other similar color changes seen during spawning, Tony Wu has written an excellent series of articles that are well worth a read.
Additional articles and films of Palau’s spawning aggregations can be found here.
Underwater acoustics is not just the tool of marine mammals, many fish are also extremely vocal. Have you ever swum over a reef and heard all the clicking noises? This is a medley of fish and crustaceans each with their own message. Usually the message is “this is my territory, keep out”. Sound is an extremely useful form of communication in the aquatic environment as sound travels much further than light. A fish can remain hidden whilst letting an intruder know that it’s encroaching. Groupers often growl or rumble from within their hiding place. The behavior across a multitude of species was documented here and demonstrates the rich complexity in coral reefs.
Can we talk to fish?
So in conclusion, whilst fish and other aquatic organisms like cephalopods might not be able to convey their intentions through facial cues like we can, they are extremely in tune with and aware of their environment. They are able to send messages that even other species can understand. The fact that we might not be able to understand them is perhaps our failure rather than theirs.
Have you had any interesting interactions with aquatic wildlife? I’ve not begun to get started with the marine mammals here, whole different kettle…..so there’s still a load more to talk about. Feel free to leave a comment in the section below. Do you know the difference between a head nod and a shake in Moray Eels, can you predict when a Stingray is about to lift up and depart from it’s resting place? So many more topics and examples for the future.
Are you a production company looking to film Palau? The Republic of Palau continues to provide great opportunities for Underwater and Aerial Media Production.
As an introduction to the many opportunities available for filming in Palau, I would like to take this opportunity to show you what Lightning Strike Productions has been doing over the course of the last year.
Lastly our show reel will share some of the highlights and our hopes for the future.
New media techniques and projects in Palau
Over the last 12 months we have continued to diversify our filming techniques.
Aerial filming in Palau
Aerial filming with Drones and Aircraft mounted action cams have provided great footage for our clients.
For this particular project we used a host of external and internally mounted action cams. Each aimed to catch the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Surveillance plane as it hunted for illegal fishing in Palau’s EEZ.
Underwater Time-lapse for Cinematic Documentary
Exciting 6K B-roll from Time-lapse techniques have also added to production value of a number of projects over the years.
Of particular note is the underwater time-lapse work we shot for the Netflix original documentary Chasing Corals. This involved returning to the same locations 6 times over the course of a few months. Each time positioning the camera with the aid of multiple references in exactly the same place as before.
360 VR filming in Palau
We have embraced 360 VR and continue to develop this new and exciting form of media. Mosaic panoramas provide a new and artistic form in addition to producing very high resolution images for printing. The beginning of the year saw us filming for a VR project here in Palau which ran in conjunction with a second project by the Economist magazine.
Underwater filming in Palau
Underwater filming in Palau is still incredible. New behaviors and environments were documented in greater detail this past year. Spawning aggregations of species previously undocumented in Palau as well as insights into the migrations of Manta Rays and Shark species were gained.
Our underwater cameras can output 4K Raw footage. This means we get the very best colors possible through post production techniques using the Adobe Creative Cloud suite of programs.
Wildlife and conservation in Palau
Wildlife and conservation topics are still very close to our hearts. A large project on migratory shorebirds was completed in the Autumn. This milestone project commissioned by Palau Conservation Society raised local awareness for the need to protect certain coastal environments in Palau. It appears to have reached it’s desired audience and the proposed developments have thankfully been halted.
Plastic Pollution has become an incredibly damaging aspect of our world in this century. This film was our first venture into raising awareness of this issue. Plastic use continues to be one of the biggest problems facing us today and into the future. We take every opportunity to reduce our usage and impact in this regard.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for your continued support into 2018 as we venture to new horizons. We have 2 filming expeditions planned. One to the remote South West Islands of Palau, and one with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. This second trip takes us to the even more remote Phoenix Islands of Kiribati.
Together we can make Lightning Strike Productions grow further. We aim to provide more innovative and educational media for Palau, Micronesia and the world.
Stock Footage is often vital for a production to stay within budget and after 10 years of diving and filming in Palau we have accumulated a huge library of HD and UHD stock footage for just that purpose.
Previously in Palau, uploading at 3kb/s was about all we could hope for on a wobbly internet and this made sending any large files almost impossible. Palau now enjoys high speed internet from an undersea fibre optic cable and with this we have been uploading stock footage to our agents with unprecedented speed.
Are you thinking of filming on location in Palau? Are you looking for a reliable and professional camera operator somewhere like Palau?
Lightning Strike Productions has over 20 years filming experience and we have been filming in Palau for over 10. In this time we have filmed everywhere, from the far northern reefs to the far south and it’s remote islands.
Palau has a huge variety of healthy and almost pristine ecosystems and as a result Palau provides a huge wealth of opportunities for stories. It’s visually stunning with tropical islands, coral reefs and plentiful iconic species.
There are numerous conservation stories available. Tuna Fisheries, Marine Sanctuary enforcement, Mangrove protection, near shore fishing migratory shorebirds, all important.
We have WW2 wrecks and their de-mining and recovery of remains. Extensive underwater caverns and of course the many marine lakes with their millions of Jellyfish.
Additionally the other side of the coin is also available. Stories on illegal fishing and the black market trade in protected species. The need to balance tourism and development with conservation. Tuna economics, Climate Change, Ocean acidification, renewable energy, coral bleaching….
There are stories waiting to be told and new technologies waiting to tell them with and since we are based in Palau we can start production quickly.
Lightning Strike Productions has also worked with numerous broadcast entities in Palau over the years. Clients include the BBC, CNN, Arte, Thalassa 3, ABC, Channel 9 Australia, Animal Planet and Discovery Channel. It’s also a regular contributor to online news media through it’s stringer services.
Our cameras, both underwater and drone mounted output Raw footage ensuring the very highest in 16 bit quality.
In addition, starting this year at Lightning Strike we are starting to do all of this with 360 VR .
For a run down of subjects and readily available portfolios and galleries please see here.
Palau Stock Footage library
As a result of filming here for over 10 years we have a huge stock footage library available. When we catalog media for reference here at Lightning Strikes, it’s often with keywords like: Environment, Sanctuary, UNESCO.
Almost all our work has something to do with the environment. Illegal fishing, underwater, coral reefs, sharks, Manta Rays, tourism, coral bleaching, global warming, tuna…..
In conclusion Lightning Strike Productions has the experience and the expertise to film any subject in Palau.
If there is any subject you can’t find or you would like to talk to us about licensing options or something specific please contact us.
Filming the Unique fish spawning aggregations in Palau is a challenge.
Who to dive with?
In March 2017 I accompanied the very experienced Dari Divers on a filming dive down to Peleliu to document the spawning aggregation of Sailfin Snapper. The schools at this time of year number in the tens of thousands. We did three dives and were able to witness some incredible numbers of fish. When you get the timing right expect to see lots of sharks and one of the most incredible natural displays in the animal kingdom.
During the day the huge school hangs out in a secluded part of the reef. This is about 1km away from the corner where they spawn. During the night before spawning they swim there and wait until dawn. At the turn of the tide and on an unseen signal, they commence their extraordinary spawning ritual.
The list is long and being added to all the time as new discoveries are being made, Check out Dari Divers and book your trip with them to ensure you get a front row seat to some of the most incredible and unique diving in the World.
Please check it out and see for yourselves. It lists hundreds of photographers from around the world and is a great resource for finding talented media producers in a huge variety of locations
Photography services for Palau and Micronesia
Please contact us for more information regarding our photographic services. We shoot everything from underwater wildlife to weddings, Aerials to Antennas, Wide to Macro, slow motion to time-lapse, RED to GoPro, 600mm lens to Virtual Reality…..