Filming the Palau Dugong. The rarest of the rare.

Filming Palau’s rarest wildlife

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.

Dugong Palau
A small group of Dugong rest in shallow water

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.

Dugong
The group of 15 included a Mother with a young calf, juveniles and a mature bull.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Palau Dugong
This adult bull Dugong can be identified from the white markings on his back
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.

Palau Pledge Location Scout

Location scouting for a new project: Over the first two weeks of June I was commissioned to find locations that fit in with a storyboard for a production due to be shot here for the Palau Visitors Authority.

One of the scenes required a locked split shot of corals and an island/beach mid-ground.

I can’t divulge many details about the plot line right now of course only to say that it will be a tourism educational film to be shown on flights into Palau.

Aerial footage over Rock Islands, click on photo for link.

Filming took 6 days with crews from the US and Australia including local entities with a team from Lightning Strike providing Aerial Drone, Underwater and Behind the Scenes filming services.

Location Scout Palau
Part of the remit was “Places children play” and this place was awesome!
Telling the story

Part of the storyboard has an Aerial pov, so I was happy to oblige with a few days of drone flying at some of the most photogenic sites in Palau.

Aerial Palau
Whilst up, many further options for exploration presented themselves
Aerial stock Footage
Beautiful scenery from the air, click on photo for footage link.
Underwater scene with fish
Due to the high production demands all filming was done in Raw including underwater and the Magic Lantern firmware delivered.

This major production is now in the editing stage with the release date to be confirmed. When it is released it is going to cause a real stir as it will be  the first of it’s kind.  Watch this space and be sure to check back to see it’s progress!

UPDATE!

Now that production is finished and the campaign has been rolled out, check this link to find out more about the Palau Pledge and see the finished film.

If you have a project in mind that needs locations in Palau check out these links.

Please feel free to contact us and we can discuss plans for pre-Production.

 

Cheers

 

Richard

 

Behind the scenes of Marine Sanctuary Enforcement in Palau

Palau Marine Sanctuary enforcement is not a simple task. The EEZ is over 600,000 km2, roughly the size of France. The effort to enforce Palau’s National Marine Sanctuary is stepping up a notch to meet this demand.

The worlds oceans are overfished to the point of species extinction and ecosystem collapse. It becomes increasingly important to prioritize sanctuaries and no take zones. But there are those that will fish illegally regardless of the laws in place. In response to this the Republic of Palau has continued to increase it’s capacity for Policing it’s National Marine Sanctuary.

My Role

In my capacity as a media producer I can help document this effort to raise awareness.

Now with the latest surveillance operation concluded I thought I would share some photos of the aerial component.

The Mission

We fly with Pacific Mission Aviation in a Beech Queen Air Excalibur. Daily sorties go out and conduct searches over vast tracts of ocean within Palau’s EEZ. The patrol boats are in the area but cannot cover such a huge area in the same time. Having a spotter plane greatly increases the effectiveness of the patrol boat.

The hatch in the tail of the aircraft allows an observer to take high resolution photos of suspected illegal fishing boats. The photos of suspected vessels can be used as evidence in court. Each flight lasts about 6-9 hours and does an expanding square pattern out from a central point determined by visibility and altitude. Alternatively a parallel search pattern is employed  along the edge of the EEZ.

All eyes are pealed as we search
Aerial observation from 2000ft

My job apart from being an observer is to provide documentary evidence of these missions. In an attempt to obtain compelling B-Roll  we employed GoPros attached to key parts of the aircraft.

See some examples of footage from that here

Part of this media production is for promotion. For one particular joint exercise the remit was to include the aircraft in a shot with 3 patrol boats in formation. It was proposed that we have a GoPro attached to the wing looking back at the aircraft. The plane would then fly just in front of the boats in formation.

We trialled it first with just the housings attached and found the mounts were not strong enough when the aircraft flew above 150Knots. The result…we lost both the housings. So we took to bolting the cameras directly to the aircraft. This time around they survived and did so with minimal vibration and rolling shutter issues. We are continuing to develop this system to improve imagery with every sortie.

The above video shows how precisely the pilot maneuvered the plane for the shot. Before take off we set up a WiFi link to an iPad inside the plane so the pilot could see in real time the view from the camera. At one point the plane was close to 70 ft above the water doing over 100mph banking at 45 degrees…..quite a rush.

After the promotional flight, the three ships made way to different parts of the EEZ. Two apprehended illegal fishing boats loaded with illegally caught fish found and boarded.

The operations continue into 2018 with further successes and apprehended illegal fishing boats.

Ocean Warriors awarded

Award winning

In October 2015 the Ocean Warriors film crew came to Palau. We filmed for close to 3 weeks including 10 days on board Palau’s Patrol boat searching for illegal fishing vessels. A year later and the finished series is aired on Animal Planet across the world.

We got some great news this morning, Ocean warriors has been given the Genesis award for Outstanding Television Series.

The series follows dedicated individuals and organizations that have made it their calling to stand up and do something in the global effort to protect the worlds oceans.

Ocean Warriors Palau team
The crew of the PSS Remeliik and film crew from Animal Planet Ocean Warriors series upon return from patrol. Palau, October 2015
Our role

For our part at Lightning Strike, we provided fixing services for the 3 man film crew here in Palau. Richard was also Drone Pilot, time-lapse photographer and underwater cameraman. Additionally he was filming on the patrol boat PSS Remeliik. We joined the crew as they chased down illegal fishing boats near the South West Islands close to the Indonesian border.

The experience was a real eye-opener to see how a small documentary film crew works on location. And the work being done to protect Palau’s EEZ from illegal fishing.

For another insight into the fight to stop illegal fishing check out this article on the aerial surveillance effort.

A big thanks to Pete Zucchini for the opportunity.

For more info on services provided by Lightning Strike Media please check our main website.

Cheers

Richard

Plastic Pollution in Pristine Palau

Reality Check

Even in Palau Plastic Pollution is becoming a serious problem. Whilst filming on location in one of Palau’s most beautiful locations of  Kayangel the other day it was horribly apparent what a enormous issue it is. I put together this short film on what we found there.

 

We are killing our environment

Human activities are impacting everywhere on the small fragile planet, from the deepest oceans to the upper atmosphere. By far the biggest cause is the sheer number of people. Population control must be tackled immediately if we are to have any hope of bringing other environmental problems to acceptable or sustainable levels.

plastic pollution

Our species consumes so many natural resources and creates so much pollution, it is literally killing it’s own environment. Just like anything that lives beyond it’s environments ability to support it, we will die off as the environment we need to survive fails.

Our oceans are filling with plastic. So many millions of single use bottles. How many can you see in the above image alone?

Watch the film above and listen to the admittedly windy dialog, but the message here is that we should be aiming to cut down on those single use plastic containers. Bottled water or drinks are one of the biggest contributors. Please think about purchasing reusable bottles and taking them with you. If you think that the above photo is just a couple of square meters of one beach the unbelievable scale of this problem might begin to dawn on you. Please make the effort to cut down on your plastic use. This issue is not going away.

A friend of mine recently wrote a blog post on her efforts to cut down on plastic usage, read it here.

Check out this link for positive thinking companies in Indo who specialize on lowering their impact on the World.

For more information about filming in Palau on location scouting visit our web page or contact us here

Cheers

Spawning aggregation dives in Palau

As natural events go, very little compares to fish spawning aggregations and it’s the time of year again to be diving Peleliu. Both the Sailfin Snapper (Symphorichthys spilurus) and Red Snapper (Lutjanus bohar) are starting to aggregate along the east reefs of Yellow Wall and Peleliu Express to the corner.

For those intrepid divers, early morning dives just before the full moon will find them spawning in their thousands. Also making an appearance are the predators such as Bull Sharks and Oceanic Black Tips.

How to find the aggregations

I joined Dari Divers for this trip as they know exactly where and when to jump in, even once on the reef they can interpret the fishes behavior and know how to approach them. Check out the edited short film from this year:

 

Check out last years showreel with footage from the Red Snapper spawning dives here.

Watch this space for updates as we return to document this impressive natural event.

 

Cheers

 

Richard

 

Winged Ambassadors of Palau

Protecting Migratory Shorebirds in Palau

Many thousands of migratory shorebirds stop-over in Palau to rest and feed, one of them is the Whimbrel. In Palau it is called the Okak. The Okak has a larger much rarer cousin, the Far Eastern Curlew, so rare only around 5 birds get spotted here each year. This is the largest species of Curlew and is also know in Palauan tradition as the money bird. The story goes that it visits these shores and leaves gifts behind. It swallowed traditional money and flew to parts of Palau, where if it was left to settle and not disturbed it would eventually defecate out the money and the residents would become rich.

You can find the symbols all over traditional meeting housings and Government buildings.

The Delerok or Far Eastern Curlew or Money Bird in Palau
The money bird as depicted on the Capital Building, Melekeok.
Camera gear for filming birds

Today I utilized my new canon 70-300 lens coupled to a 2x teleconverter and managed to get some nice stable footage of this Whimbrel even at full zoom. The Image stabilization of the canon lens is amazing!

migratory shorebirds palau
The Whimbrel also known as the Okak
Wildlife conservation in Palau

The NGO spearheading this initiative to raise awareness about the plight of these birds is the Palau Conservation Society but this is far from the only work they do. See their website for more information and how to help them achieve their goals.

Palau Conservation Society commissioned me to make a film highlighting the status of Palau’s migratory shorebirds and for about 9 months we collaborated with local bird and conservation experts to create this film which is being shown across Palau:

Palau’s Extreme Reefs

Expedition Palau

Palau’s northernmost island Ngurangel and it’s southernmost Helen Reef are separated by little over 400 miles of island peppered ocean but are remarkably similar. Both are low lying sandy features surrounded by huge atoll reefs which makes them a haven for both marine and bird life. Their isolation is what makes them so special.

Helen Reef

Helen reef  is a long thin spit of land, sparsely vegetated. It has a resident population of 4 rangers, 3 dogs and about 5000 sea birds.  The rangers have their own accommodations and  keep an eye out for illegal fishing activities. It lies closer to Indonesia than it does Palau’s capital Koror.

Continue reading “Palau’s Extreme Reefs”