Underwater Cameraman for Scientific Expedition to Phoenix Islands

Expedition Cameraman

First quarter 2018 and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute asked me to work as an Expedition Cameraman for their trip to the Phoenix Islands.

Fast forward  and we arrive on Christmas island and board the “Sea Dragon” a 72 ft sailing boat. That afternoon we set sail for our first destination; the Atoll of Kanton.

Aerial photo of sailing boat, Kiribati
The Sea Dragon at anchor near the main dock of Christmas Island, Kiribati

For a week we sailed along a 240 degree heading, crossing the equator. Sampling water from the Equatorial Under Current as we went.

Underwater cameraman expedition
Getting in the water when you are hundreds of miles from the nearest land…..
Kanton

The atoll of Kanton has 56 residents. They live a quiet peaceful life but long for visitors and welcomed us warmly. During WW2 it was very different. Kanton was a US and British air base with over 1200 servicemen present. The abandoned wreckage from that era still litters the atoll.

Aerial Photography, Kanton Atoll, Phoenix islands, Kiribati.
The Atoll of Kanton
To work

We went to work almost immediately in a baptism of fire. My first task as underwater cameraman on this expedition was documenting the deployment of scientific instruments in a tidal channel to the inner lagoon. Easier said than done when the current barely stops moving and can get as fast as 6 knots….

Marine Scientists deploying underwater instruments, underwater cameraman
The heavy instruments were deliberately placed in an area subject to the strongest current. Slack tide lasted 10 minutes.
Diving in a Pristine environment.

Working in strong currents is as any diver who has experienced it, a struggle. Filming stable footage is especially challenging, but after two dives we had achieved our goal. A large and heavy scientific package was positioned and activated, gathering important data on the tidal dynamics of this near pristine environment.

The SS President Taylor. Ship wreck. Phoenix islands, Kiribati, World war 2, underwater photographer,underwater cameraman,
The SS President Taylor looms large in shallow water. Kanton Island.

The next few days flew by as we dived on some of the most pristine reefs on the planet. The Phoenix Islands are in one of the largest marine protected areas of the world.  It’s obvious as soon as you slip beneath the waves. It’s likely that these reefs are only dived maybe once every two years by a handful of people. In that situation the local fish find divers very interesting. Within seconds the fish start arriving and continue to follow you, circling for the whole dive.

You can read more on Marine Protected Areas here

Expedition Kiribati Underwater cameraman
The reefs of Kanton are especially healthy and colourful
Expedition Cameraman

Being the underwater cameraman on this expedition meant I was charged with documenting everything the scientists did. This meant diving sometimes 9 times a day, retrieving scientific instruments, conducting scientific surveys, shooting everything in fact. The end products will be used to promote the work done by WHOI.

With there being so much diving, battery management and data wrangling was especially important and by the end of the trip I had over 3 GB of data which I had been backing up daily. On top of that I was also flying a drone and shooting anything happening on the boat too….Much of what I shot is still under wraps so what I have been able to release so far is a tiny fraction.

At this stage I should mention how good the crew were on Sea Dragon. Eric, Shanlee, Charles, Shannon and  Jess were there for us the entire time. They tended the boats, cooked, filled our tanks and remained positive throughout. It made our jobs that much easier and the experience onboard wholly enjoyable. I can’t thank you enough!

Onwards to new horizons

After 5 days in Kanton we set sail again, this time for Nikumororo.  Two more days pass.

This small atoll was where Amelia Earhart hopefully ended her round the world attempt in 1937. The romantic end to her valiant effort has yet to be verified and what we find is nothing short of miraculous.

Aerial photo Nikumororo Atoll Phoenix islands, Kiribati
Nikumororo Atoll. The lagoon is full of very hungry Black-tip reef sharks

 

We arrived to be greeted by Sperm Whales, and on almost every dive by Dolphins who immediately disappeared as soon as we hit the water…. We even were escorted by a Killer Whale at one stage….

Orca
The female was tail slapping to warn her calf to keep away. She was around 18 feet long and dwarfed the RIB. Pic by Mike Fox
Isolation

The reefs here are again incredible. The isolation palpable.

The fish take turns to swim around you and check you out. Even in environments devoid of corals and only covered with algae there are still thousands of herbivorous fish.

One morning we locate the one reasonable landing spot on the island and go ashore. Beforehand we have to have our clothes sprayed with heavy duty disinfectant to minimize the chance of taking any invasive species with us.

What strikes me is that there is no plastic on the beaches. Compared to somewhere like Palau where there is huge amounts on practically every coastline, here at last we are free from it.

The inner lagoon supports a huge number of Black-tip reef sharks. The scientists take water samples but it quickly becomes apparent that this is a dangerous activity. Numerous sharks come in very close to check them out. One scientist even gets a nip on his heel. The love bite opens up 3 surgical cuts on his heel. We decide that it’s not worth trying to retrieve a logger submerged in the middle of the lagoon….

One of the nicest aspects that highlighted our isolation was how tame the birds are. Boobies nest on the beach here and are completely unafraid of us.

expedition cameraman
The nesting Boobies were easily approachable.
Orona

We again departed before we had really scratched the surface and after another day of sailing we approached Orona. This atoll had a different feel to it. It had been inhabited up until only 15 or so years ago but the colonists disliked being there so much they left. When we made landfall, there were still buildings in good condition but the amount of trash and leftover rubbish from those inhabitants really bought home how isolated they were and yet how much of an impact humans have, even just 30 people….. The reefs too had seen better days and were still recovering from the most recent warm water event.

In preparation for this trip I had looked at maps of the proposed atolls and of them all, I wanted to fly the drone over Orona the most. It has what is called “Hoa and Motu”, Polynesian words for channels and small islands sometimes found on Pacific Atolls.

Drone photography
The Motu and Hoa of Orona Atoll, Kiribati
Rawaki

Our next island was Rawaki, about 1km square, treeless and covered in seabirds. We dived and cored here for two days before making our way back to Kanton.

Drone view of Rawaki, Phoenix islands, Kiribati
A drone’s eye view of Rawaki. It’s amazing it wasn’t attacked by the thousands of Frigate Birds that were also there…..
Homeward bound

After a couple more days we are back in Kanton to pick up the scientific instruments we had left there previously, it goes without a hitch but the feeling we are on our way home is both happy and sad. Sad to be leaving this incredible place that we have only just scratched the surface of, happy knowing that in about 10 days we will be home again with our families. And so we say goodbye to the our friends on Kanton and set sail for Christmas Island and our flights back to civilization.

That was the easy part

For the next 7 days we sailed into a steadily increasing wind. The sea state worsened, the progress slowed. The Sea Dragon, whilst having been designed to do just this sort of passage handled it all in the capable hands of the crew and Skipper it was still a struggle. The main sail developed a tear and had to be replaced with a storm sail, and for about 5 days we were tacking into 25+ knot winds meaning the whole boat was heeling over at an impressive angle. Squalls hit us and night watches were particularly hard especially for a Green horn with practically no sailing experience. Our spirits were challenged by our slow hard going but camaraderie prevailed.

Sailing the Pacific
With the storm sail up and squalls bearing down on us
It’s Christmas

And finally after a week of bad weather and hard sailing we finally arrive at Christmas Island. Almost as soon as we drop anchor we crack open a celebratory beer. Even now I’m laughing at that moment of relief. Damn that beer tasted good.

We had a couple more days of filming and diving and coring left as we were joined by the Laboratory head Dr Anne Cohen. So the very next day we were out again, rounding off the research and ensuring the money shots were in the bag. For all the basic amenities available on Christmas island the diving was still phenomenal and the Dolphin population huge.

Pacific Dolphins
Huge numbers of Dolphins rode the Sea Dragon’s bow at Christmas Island.
It looks idyllic…

Looks nice doesn’t it and postcards do, but what doesn’t come across is the heat, the flies, the heavy pack on your back, the blisters on your feet, did I mention the heat? Being an expedition cameraman is hard especially if you are a sole shooter. Even if you do have a team of sherpas to help carry your gear, you are still concerned about that gear. Is it packed properly? What if it gets dropped, will it survive that drop? Is that packing case properly waterproof? Insurance for your gear is of course something only a fool would avoid, but a busted camera in the middle of nowhere is still busted without a hope of being replaced for weeks. So, taking two of everything important is something you really need to consider doing. I had two drones, 4 cameras, extras of so many things just in case….

Expedition filming
Carry on. Filled with your most precious possessions (cameras and lenses)
Extra Luggage

It means you don’t travel light, it’s impossible. If you are aiming to get aerial, underwater and topside shots at a professional level and have backups in case of accidents or failures…that’s a lot of equipment.

On this trip I nearly lost a drone, and one of the Underwater camera sensors had an obvious dust speck that I couldn’t clean. As it was I had a backup for both. Things could have been worse but thankfully the gear was packed well and stowed well on board a boat that was heeling over by 30 degrees at times.

Making it home

I approached this project with extreme caution, I made sure (as much as possible) that my personal gear was safe, that I was safe, that I would be able to bring home the footage (and duplicates) and that my client would be happy with the results. It was not easy, but then the best things in life are never easy. But it is one of the best things I have ever done and something I would jump at again.

Expedition to Phoenix Islands Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Cameraman
The team from WHOI left to right: Pat Lohmann, Anne Cohen, Richard Brooks, Nathaniel Mollica, Mike Fox.

I wish I could show you more of what I did on this trip and one day I may be able to but for now it’s still in the process of being edited so patience is key.

If you’ve made it this far, I’m impressed, it’s a marathon post! I hope it’s given you some insight into both what we experienced and what it took for me to film this expedition in what was literally the middle of nowhere.

If you like to contact me about any filming opportunities please find me at this address.

Cheers

 

Richard

Palau diving with the best

Promoting the best

Over the last few months I’ve been diving with Dari Dive Palau. Together we are planning on showing all the cool fish, sharks and mantas at new locations they know. As well as showing the best in Palau diving, they asked me to put together a short film of the regular features such as the spawning dives, aggregations, Blue Corner, Blue Holes, German Channel etc to begin with, which you can see here:

I have found Dari Divers to be particularly good. Apart from offering Nitrox, great lunches and taking small groups to the best sites, I’m finding that they have a deep understanding of the timing of natural events. This rich knowledge enables them to put their divers in the water at exactly the right time on the right day to witness nature at it’s best.

See another film I produced on another trip with them here.

Palau diving with the best

After diving at a professional level for close to 20 years, in a wide variety of locations and shops around the world, I hope I can say that I have a reasonable amount of experience in the business of recreational diving. Many shops are very busy always running at 150% (great for business/bad for customer satisfaction). Some cut corners and the customers are left with substandard guides, poor rental equipment, boats that break down etc. It’s a fine blend of personal attention and the excitement of discovery and adventure that for me makes Dari Divers stand out for a great diving experience in Palau.

Palau Diving
Side-mount diving Palau

 

Making the film

All the underwater stuff is shot on the Canon 5D3 running Magic Lantern  capable of outputting 4K Raw footage. For more info on this set up see this post

Aerials were shot using the DJI Inspire 1, hand launched and caught from the bow of the boat during the surface intervals.

For the editing I looked at a different aspect ratio this time. 2.35:1 instead of the usual 16:9. This trial is to see how it holds up over time and initially I like the look. To me it makes the screen bigger even though it’s actually smaller…..go figure. It’s a trend that’s becoming more prevalent lately.

Let me know in the comments section below what you think to the film and whether or not the 2.35:1 ratio works for this sort of thing.

Watch out for new media coming from this new collaboration as well as views from new as yet undisclosed sites around Palau.

See Dari Dive website here

 

Cheers

Richard

 

Why you should dive Balicasag Island

Should you find yourself in the Bohol/Panglau region of the Philippines and you’re a diver, there is a place I can thoroughly recommend. Even if you’re not a diver, this place could possibly persuade you to be one.
Every dive shop in the area offers trips there, because it is so good, it’s unavoidable in fact I would say. As soon as the weather is good enough they said, “we’ll go”.
So, with a recommendation like that and a shop like Philippine Fun Divers providing me with good rental gear, a great boat taking me there and expert guides I couldn’t really refuse.
Good thing I didn’t, because even though the weather was still a bit….”marginal” the diving was anything but that.
Once the Banka boat had approached the low lying sand fringed island, myself and the 2 other divers got geared up, had a briefing from our DM Greg and we got in. Almost immediately I’m seeing stuff I’d not seen before or multitudes of critters I see rarely. One of my favorites is the little Tobies or Pufferfish.

The little Tobies and Pufferfish often have highly reflective markings that when hit by your lights really shine.

Continue reading “Why you should dive Balicasag Island”