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

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.

Film Palau 2018 Show Reel

Why Film Palau?

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.

Aerial filming in PalauFor 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.

Chasing corals. Filming Palau
Chasing corals movie poster

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.

Drone filming Palau
Kayangel Atoll Aerial Panorama
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.

Here’s to a productive and imaginative 2018!

For more information find us here

Thank you and Enjoy!

film palau underwater film palau aerial film palau nature film palau film palau

 

Filming in Palau. Professional Media Production, things you need to know.

Filming in Palau

Are you thinking of filming in Palau?  Are you looking for a reliable and professional media company to assist with your production?

Lightning Strike Productions has over 20 years filming experience. We have been filming in Palau for over 12 years. We can help you with all aspects of your production. Filming permits, accommodation, land transport. Underwater camera operator, boat hire, rental camera equipment. Interviews, drone pilots, on camera talent…..

Over the last 12 years we have filmed everywhere in Palau. From the far northern reefs of Velasco, to the far south and it’s remote islands of Helen,  Tobi and  Sonsorol.

Filming in Palau. Underwater wildlife of Palau
Underwater icons found on almost every dive in Palau
How Lightning Strike Productions can help you

Lightning Strike Productions has worked with numerous broadcast entities in Palau over the years. Clients include the BBC, CNN, Arte, Thalassa 3, ABC, Channel 9 Australia, Animal Planet, National Geographic 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 4K 16 bit quality.

aerial photography palau
Postcard perfect Palau

Because of our long experience filming in Palau we can help you organize filming permits, arrange transport, accommodation, rental equipment, interviews and talent.

Whilst things have improved, Palau is still remote and does not have a huge amount of media production resources. There are no dedicated camera stores and spare parts etc need to be ordered in from overseas, which can take at least a week at best.

It’s regional and national government structures can be tricky to negotiate for filming permits and site access. We can help you navigate and succeed in this local arena.

If you are considering filming in Palau it’s well worth contacting us to find the lay of the land and get a bespoke solution for success.

360 VR by Drone

Location Palau

The Republic of Palau has a huge variety of healthy and almost pristine ecosystems. Palau provides a huge wealth of opportunities for content. It is visually stunning with tropical islands, coral reefs, jungles and plentiful iconic species.

There are numerous conservation stories available.  Tuna Fisheries, Marine  enforcement,  mangrove protection, migratory shorebirds, climate change resilience.

We have WW2 wrecks, their de-mining and recovery of human remains. Extensive underwater caverns and of course the many marine lakes with their millions of Jellyfish.

filming in palau underwater filming
A huge range of underwater environments……

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.

filming in palau aerial filming
Drone filming services expand shot range with a reasonable budget
Palau Stock Footage library

If you need footage quickly or something specific but time consuming, there is always the option of stock footage. As a result of filming here for over 12 years we have a huge stock footage library available.

Almost all our work has something to do with the environment. It’s well worth seeing what we can offer in stock footage.

See our latest show reel here

Filming in Palau with Lightning Strike Productions

Lightning Strike Productions has the experience and the expertise to help you with any element of your filming in Palau. Feel free to contact us for more information.

 

Cheers

 

Richard