The odds of being asked to go on a filming expedition twice in six months are low. The odds of being asked to go to a location as isolated as Kanton Atoll in Kiribati must be even lower. But that is exactly what I was asked to do in November.
As filming projects go, this expedition was an extremely short notice affair. Less than a month from first client email to jumping on the plane. Thankfully it was only 5 months since my last filming expedition so everything went right back into the packing cases much as it had before. The big difference this time was that instead of sailing to our destination we were flying in a light aircraft and weight was a major issue.
The dilemma that existed was to be prepared for camera failures etc but still pack light enough. Underwater filming is extremely equipment intensive…..
Our flight to Kanton was to be in a Beachcraft King Air, Twin Engine. Much like the one we used here in Palau to spot illegal fishing vessels.
My client this time was Economist films. We had worked together previously on a project in Palau and so it was good to catch up with their Producer Samuel Hunt again. Samuel and I were joined by Freelancer Sam Farmar who bought with him buckets of experience in documentary filmmaking.
We were on our way out to document Dr Greg Stone as he continues to study the near pristine reefs of the Phoenix Islands. Greg has in the last couple of months predicted the likely occurrence of a new El Nino warming event. The Phoenix islands lie right in the path of it. It was a race against time to get there and install temperature measuring equipment.
Touchdown on Kanton
We landed and were greeted by the residents of Kanton, who I had only said goodbye to in June. It was great to see them again especially the surprise on their faces as they weren’t expecting me at all.
After our reunion we were shown to our accommodations, simple beach huts, and set about preparing for filming. It was then that we had our second, not particularly pleasant news delivered…
The first had been that almost half of our bags had not arrived in Christmas island from Honolulu via Air Fiji….thanks guys…We were down camera equipment, clothes…. all sorts of things.
The second bit of news was that the tank compressor that had been flown in from Tarawa only a few days previously would only pump our dive tanks to 50 bar….Hardly the best news for a dive expedition filming project.
Pump up the jam
The compressor started easily enough but the main belt started slipping as soon as any load was put on it. We set about trying to get the thing working. In the end taking a hacksaw to the chassis and pulling the small Honda engine away from the compressor to put some tension in the connecting belt.
We had to also fashion a snorkel out of pvc piping to get the intake away from the exhaust…..
Any certified diver will tell you, it’s normal for a full tank to be at 200 bar and that you should be exiting the water at 50 bar…Instead, we were STARTING our dive with 50 bar…. Still…50 bar is 50 bar…
Needless to say our plans to install temperature loggers at 100 feet were shelved. A shallower goal was more prudent. It wasn’t even as if we had a huge number of tanks all at 50 bar, we literally had 5 tanks between 3 of us and a compressor that took 45 minutes to do a pitiful job with one of them. wtf
Stiff Upper Lip and all that
So whilst it wasn’t quite going to plan, all was not lost. We still had some air, we still had some cameras. So we really had almost everything vital we needed to be able to pull this off, and we set about doing just that. We dived and filmed the placement of 11 temperature loggers both inside and outside the lagoon. Interviews were conducted with the Kanton residents. Aerial scenics were filmed by me with the drone (a nice new Mavic 2 Pro). Greg was able to deliver to camera his knowledge of why this expedition was so vital to help understand the impacts of warming events on coral reefs.
One very cool thing about chartering a plane is that we were able to extend our stay on Kanton by an extra day.
The reefs within the atoll and close to the entrance are predominantly made up of table coral forms. One of the benefits of having so little air was that I had to stay shallow, which of course ensured better colours in the footage.
The glass is half full right!
After 4 days filming on Kanton, we had to be heading back to Christmas island and the only flight out of there that week. It was a shame to be leaving. There is still so much to film around Kanton, we barely scratched the surface again.
I only hope that the same fate that took me there twice this year, will enable me to document the beauty of this incredible place in more depth another time.
Many thanks to Greg Stone, Sam Hunt, Sam Farmar, Christine Greene. Peter Rive, Val Serna, Pilots George and Dave and all the residents of Kanton that welcomed us so warmly.
The film from this expedition is due to be Premiered in March. Watch this space for details.
For more insights on working as an underwater cameraman see here.
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.
For a week we sailed along a 240 degree heading, crossing the equator. Sampling water from the Equatorial Under Current as we went.
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.
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….
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 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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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’d like to read more about what it takes to be an underwater cameraman this post might be of some interest.
If you like to contact me about any filming opportunities please find me at this address.
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. Read more on underwater filming here.
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.
Underwater photography is a common art form these days with cameras readily available for reasonable prices. A large proportion of divers now have housed cameras ranging from a cell phone to the latest flagship behemoth “HMS Arri”. Many also find enjoyment in attending an underwater photography workshop as part of their dive vacation.
Underwater photography is art with a physical challenge too. The best photographer on land could be terrible underwater if they’re not a competent diver.
Underwater photography should be fun
When everyone has a camera and is “happy” with what they’re doing it’s nice to be asked by someone to help them improve their shooting.
On this occasion my student wanted help across a range of subjects. Here’s a run down of things we covered:
….and camera basics
Many issues that lead to dissatisfaction in underwater photographers are down to the inherent intelligence of cameras. Especially with point and shoots and the more automatic varieties. What I mean is that cameras are often thinking too much and because they are mostly not designed with underwater photography in mind, they can make it more of a challenge to get the best shots out of them. Auto focus is a big one for this.
Dissecting what the camera is trying to do for you is the first step. Turning off “intelligent” facets of it’s character often requires reading the manual and a little experimentation. Get to know your camera.
Next comes the basic shutter speed/ aperture/ISO balancing knowledge that all photographers worth their salt should have a rudimentary understanding of. It’s not always available but being able to control them in the camera is so much more rewarding….. and challenging…. but that’s what I’m here for.
What will absolutely ruin a good underwater photography dive is when the housing doesn’t perform so I always advocate spending as much time as you can on preparation. All it takes is one o-ring or one connecting rod out of place and you have a camera that won’t work on the dive or worse is flooded. Be prepared.
After that we have the lighting and strobe positioning that is so important underwater. Correct or incorrect strobe use will make or break a shot, so developing the mindset of creating a studio and moving your lights within it and around your subject will reap great rewards.
Bespoke one on one workshops
Often the student photographer has a certain shot in mind or wants to improve on certain elements of underwater images in general. This time we were going for sun beams through the water as a background to our perfectly placed subject so we focused on that when possible.
Overall, it comes down to patience and practice, but with an hour of preparation and coaching before the dives we had the set up and basic operations down, after a few trial shots underwater on stationary objects we have a better feel for strobe power and ball park exposure settings. Then after that it’s about looking for subjects and having fun. A few over the shoulder views by me allows a real time feedback for the student and quick adjustments when necessary. Between dives a more in depth discussion as we review results.
Certainly a faster learning curve than the old slide film days………
Contact Lightning Strikes for availability of courses or workshops, individuals or groups are welcome.
Read this article on my perspective of being a professional underwater cameraman.
For more underwater media articles follow this link
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.
If you would like to read up on being an underwater camera operator check out this post.
Watch this space for updates as we return to document this impressive natural event.
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.
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.
If you would like to read more on what it takes to be an underwater camera operator see this post.
Richard Brooks- Underwater cameraman: “I get a lot of e-mails asking me how to become a professional underwater cameraman, or how to use a professional underwater camera or even how I’ve got to where I am with my underwater cameraman career. So I thought I’d put together a short blog to help all those aspiring shooters.”
Unfortunately there is no one course or definite route. The more successful underwater camera operators you meet the more varied the stories you’ll get. For the sake of this, here are some recurring similarities.
Most of it may seem like common sense but hopefully my contribution offers you some insight.
If any readers have ideas that they can offer, things that I haven’t encountered or mentioned it would be great to hear from you. Please leave a comment at the bottom to help every aspiring shooter out there.
I’ve been a Media Producer in various guises in Palau for 10 years now, initially as an underwater cameraman with a little bit of topside work thrown in, then diversifying into Time-lapse, run n’ gun, aerials (drone and aircraft), interviews etc.
Palau has changed a lot in those 10 years and this has made me change with it.
Here are 10 things (actually 11) I’ve learned about Media Production in that time:
So many cameras
Now more than ever people have cameras, as a dedicated cameraman I’m being squeezed by the ready availability of cameras. Everyone over the age of 5 seems to have one (gross over generalization, I know). So now more than ever I have to be inventive with my imaging, flexibility and the old cliche of thinking outside the box are more important than ever before. Don’t be afraid to try new techniques, think about a sequence or image you want to acquire, no matter how crazy or impossible it first appears to be, then work out how to do it. Dare to be different.