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.

Fish communication

Fish Communication

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.

silver fish

school-silver-fish-evade-predators-footage-007763027_main_xl.mp4

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.

underwater fish
The stripes behind the eyes of this saddleback Toby reflect 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.

school of silver and red fish
The red phase can bleach out to a silver within seconds

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.

Bumphead Parrotfish spawning coloration
Bumphead Parrotfish spawning coloration

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….?

Bohar snapper spawning aggregation
Bohar snapper spawning aggregation

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.

Communication between species

It has been shown that fish communicate between species. In the case of the Grouper and Moray Eel, the Grouper will shake it’s head next to the Eel to signal an intention to start hunting. The strategy has been shown to be more successful at catching prey. 

fish communication
Grouper, Moray cooperative hunting. Palau
Underwater acoustics in fish

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.

For more info on filming underwater  and learning about your subjects this article may well be helpful.

Until next time, Cheers!

Richard

 

References

http://jeb.biologists.org/content/216/13/2515

The evolution and development of vertebrate lateral line electroreceptors

Clare V. H. BakerMelinda S. ModrellJ. Andrew Gillis

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

 

Palau Stock Footage and High Speed Internet!

Stock footage from Palau

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.

Palau Stock Footage subjects

Manta Rays

Manta Ray palau stock footage

 

 

 

Sharks

Shark palau stock footage

 

 

 

Turtles

turtle palau stock footage

 

 

 

Jellyfish Lake

jellyfish lake palau stock footage

 

 

 

Aerials of Palau

aerial palau stock footage

 

 

 

Spawning Aggregations

spawning aggregations palau stock footage

 

 

 

 

Check out these categories and others. With over 1000 clips now available at a variety of stock agencies you can be sure that you will find something to suit your needs.

Royalty Free or Rights Managed portfolios can be found here:

 

palau stock footage

 

 

 

palau stock footage

 

 

palau stock footage

 

 

palau stock footage

 

 

If you don’t see what you need give us a shout here and we can discuss options for acquiring footage for you.

Check back often as our portfolios will now be rapidly expanding. See here for our latest show reel.

We are filming on an almost daily basis so will always have new content coming. See the Stock footage page on our website here.

Cheers

 

Richard

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: