Welcome to Behind the Scenes. This is Media Production Palau.
Here we have a collection of posts that look behind the cameras of Lightning Strike Productions.
At Lightning Strike we film underwater, in the air with drones and from aircraft. We film wildlife, interviews and Time-lapse sequences. We edit and produce educational films. In short we tackle everything media production related in Palau.
Most of our films and media are environment based and we take pride in all our media production projects. We are media production Palau.
As this blog grows we will be covering a range of subjects but they will mostly be grouped into the following subjects:
We are available for: Underwater filming, underwater photography, underwater camera rental. Aerial filming, drone pilot hire. Location scouting, fixer work. We can help organise permits, accommodation in Palau, dive boat charters, aircraft charters, stock footage or just advice on where to dive.
The latest media production in Palau and beyond
For a comprehensive run down of everything we got up to in 2017 check out this post. It highlights all the progress we’ve made as well as the major projects we have undertaking over the year. New camera and filming techniques with many examples of the films we shot for our clients, it also includes a show reel of our favorite footage from the year, so have a look!
In a world of action cameras and point and shoots capable of 4K and all the rest, why would you opt to use a cinema camera underwater?
Given that “cinema cameras” can cost upwards of $7500, why bother?
Attaining the very best cinematic footage of underwater subjects has kept me motivated for my entire underwater filming career. Camera choice is one of the hardest things especially when I am paying for it myself. It takes a very special combination of factors for me to take the plunge….
I have been using cinema cameras on and off for particular projects for many years. I have not owned one, that is until Canon announced the C200, and then my ears pricked up. Firstly the camera is capable of outputting 4K 12 bit Raw Lite footage, it has a great canon processor and that canon colour, auto focus is leagues ahead, great glass is already available…….. When Nauticam announced they would be making a housing for it, I decided right there and then that this would be my next camera.
All in, the complete system with camera, lenses, housing, monitor, monitor housing, batteries, media etc cost about $30K. So it had better work and what I mean by that is it had better blow my bloody socks off.
The 12 bit Raw lite codec produced internally by the C200 comes as a CLOG2 file that can be processed in many non linear editors as either a log 2 or log 3 and a variety of other flavours. But how well does it work in the underwater environment?
It was very much in at the deep end. I had a filming gig in Bermuda for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. This was going to be the C200’s 2nd dive… (I had initially tested it for trim and overall ergonomics in Palau before heading out to BMD). First dives were very encouraging. The size of the camera and therefore the housing required made the setup quite bulky. A large system possesses inherent inertia and therefore makes the camera quite stable. A big plus in comparison to a GoPro.
I was pleasantly surprised with the dynamic range available as well as the colours that could be recovered from the 12 bit LOG media. My main gripe was that the file sizes are huge and only the very fastest of computers will be able to handle the editing and colour correction process. But again color correction is quite possible as opposed to a lower bit rate point and shoot.
You can see that there is virtually no noise on the blacks and the rolloff in the whites and highlights is smooth.
Real world usage of an underwater cinema camera
Setting correct White Balance underwater is important. If it’s not done the image needs to be manipulated in post and too much of this can lead to visual artefacts and noise. Don’t start degrading the image straight away…get the right white balance in camera.
The camera allows you to monitor the waveform so that you can avoid crushing the blacks and clipping the highlights too much. This is hugely helpful in acquiring the right exposure. It also makes you think about the camera movement of the shot… If the shot will tilt up to the surface, will the highlights be getting clipped? How far can I tilt before that happens? Being able to see the waveform in the external monitor is huge..
One thing that is also hugely helpful is the internal ND filter system on the C200. If I am shooting into the sun for a silhouette shot I can quickly apply and ND+2 and avoid that clipping before I start rolling. This is something even more expensive cinema cameras like the RED do not have.
What other benefits does a cinema camera offer to an underwater cameraman?
Did I mention data rate? Yes the 12 bit Raw lite is a monster. It’s approximately 1 GB/second….If we switch to 60fps it drops to a 10 bit version but this is still huge.
Big data gives you more flexibility to adjust the image in post.
Another huge plus for cinema cameras is the output options via cabling. There are multiple bulkheads on the housing that can be plumbed with either SDI or HDMI cables. If need be these can be routed to a directors monitor so that they can give directions to the camera operator and talent via coms as they watch what the camera is filming live.
You can see in the above example, I have used a colour checker prior to starting shooting in a particular area. It allows me later in post to have an idea about white balance, exposure and my colour spectrum. There are plenty of videos on YouTube describing this process, check this one out for some good colour theory and instructions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJjY3Djj0Wg
This above example is not an ideal situation as the colour checker is only 10 cm in front of the camera and not the 3m away where the subject is, however it is a good start. Utilise your waveform guide to ensure you’re not clipping either the blacks or the whites.
So once you have your white balance and exposure/contrast in the right ball park you can start to refine your colour edit. Adding a LUT or using the HSL secondary colour corrector in Premiere Pro to fine tune the image to your liking or the Directors particular colour preferences .
The above example shows what can be accomplished. I’m no expert either but because I can adjust many aspects of the camera and I have a reference slate I can correct the footage so it really pops.
So why use a cinematic camera underwater?
A cinema camera underwater provides the perfect combination of quality and adjustability that I’m looking for. It’s extremely adaptable: I can change lenses and ports, I can output a signal to an external monitor for viewing by a 3rd party live. It shoots in a codec that allows a colourist to manipulate the image far further than if it was a simple low bit rate codec. It’s size and mass provide stability.
Overall it’s the best tool for the job, that’s the fundamental reason, the best tools that your budget can afford. Getting the best out of those tools though…..That’s up to you.
Given how much choice is available these key points will help you decide where to go and experience the best diving in the world.
The best diving in the World is a huge statement to make especially with so many great choices. But great diving needs to come hand in hand with great customer service and that is what sets one dive operation apart from the rest.
6 things to remember when searching for a dive vacation. What makes the best diving in the World?
For me, a good dive vacation is a blend of good diving and good customer service:
Great wildlife experiences
Comfortable and reliable boats.
Good lunches and snacks on the boat
Professional guides that bring out the best of the situation
The package and overall feel good experience.
Underwater wildlife is what most people scuba dive to see. There are a few that go for cave diving or wrecks but the vast majority go to see the colourful fish, corals, sharks and Manta Rays if we’re lucky. Some locations are specialised in particular animals like Malapascua in the Philippines, famous for it’s Thresher sharks or Guadalupe for it’s Great Whites. Maybe huge schools of fish are what you’re after…..
Other places are good specifically for Macro like Lembeh Strait. So it’s a personal choice and worth thinking about before you even start to think about what tour operators to go with….What would you like to see? The best diving in the world is not going to be the same for everyone. The best overall diving in the world with variety and quality of sites may be the compromise here.
Boat dive or no-boat dive?
Unless you’re a fan of the shore diving in Bonaire or the Cenote Dives in the Yucatan, most dive sites are a short or long boat ride away. This raises two questions: Do you get seasick? and… Is the boat comfortable and reliable? If the answer to #1 is yes, then maybe shore dives or Ginger supplements might be the thing for you. If the answer is no, then consider whether Liveaboards or daily tours are more your thing. Think about the comfort factor. Does it have dry areas? Is it a valet service where the staff will bring your tank to the dive step and help you gear up? The best diving in the world for you might be off the end of a jetty or might be a week of sailing away from civilisation…if you can stomach it.
How good is the food?
Diving for all its weightless relaxation still can generate a healthy appetite, so make sure that the operator provides reasonable lunches for you. Surface interval snacks and hot beverages are always welcome, even in the tropics and it’s the little touches like this that make a big difference when you’re out for the day. Also look for operations that think about the environment. Do they use single use plastics? Are they giving you reusable bottles for water or off the supermarket shelf single use bottles? Do the lunches come in reusable lunch boxes or is everything wrapped in plastic? What about trash, how is that dealt with? Does it end up here?
How good are the guides?
This ultimately goes together with point 5 but aside from safety the guides can make or break your dive vacation. They take responsibility for your experience. They look after you, anticipate your needs, suggest fixes to problems, show you the really cool stuff you’ve travelled so far to see, they engage with you during surface intervals, help with your gear (or don’t help if you don’t need it) they’re courteous, knowledgable but don’t brag. And lastly they deliver you back at the end of the day with a smile on your face. It’s a lot to ask or expect. (so don’t forget to tip ;-))
Safety is always on my mind when diving. It is after all an alien and unforgiving world, and even with training accidents can and do happen. Of course it is the tour operator who should be looking after your safety but assuming that will always be the case is a mistake. It’s still your responsibility to assess a situation and make a decision. If in doubt do a refresher course. No-one will scold you for it and the tour operator will welcome a responsible (if little rusty) customer any day over one that shuns feedback and thinks they know it all. Egos can kill.
Overall experience and feedback. Tell other people why it’s the best diving in the world.
Your overall feel good experience is of course extremely important. It’s why so many of us take vacations. We don’t take time out and spend so much money for a bad time do we? So how you feel as you board the plane back home is crucial. Any dive shop, resort owner worth their salt is concerned about this too or should be. This is where feedback is extremely important. Websites like trip advisor are where you as a consumer can help fellow travellers by writing reviews. It is also worth noting that businesses can vet and remove bad reviews if they don’t like them and of course create ghost accounts and rate themselves highly.
Recommendations for the best diving in the world
My experience from 23 years of diving has shown me that diving and vacations are a very personal experience, that a dive shop/ business needs to be safe and show that it’s safe without over mothering their guests. The facilities, the boats, hotel, live aboard, meals everything you experience above the water also needs to be as good as can be reasonably expected given the location and price. Lastly is that parting feeling you get at the end. Was it a good experience or did the owners just want your money and for you to leave as soon as possible?
They have always impressed me, from when I walk fin to when I walk out. Friendly, courteous, good diving, great meals, great service, great guides, great attention to detail. If you’re thinking about Palau as a destination, seriously consider them. Check out the short video at the top of the page or watch it here.
It’s hard to know what to include in a 3 1/2 minute representation of an entire years work of Media Production across the Pacific. The obvious answer is “the best bits” or make it longer than 3 1/2 minutes!. But it’s not that simple. Because without wishing to appear like a braggart, it has been a very busy 2018.
There has been 3 filming expeditions. One to the South West Islands of Palau and two to Kiribati. There has been projects on the Protected Areas Network of Palau and Dugong conservation. Various spawning aggregation documenting and VR 360 projects. Aerial Surveillance missions. National Geographic assignments, even Taro cultivation and responsible cat ownership…The list is certainly diverse!
Compared to last years show reel, we have expanded our range out across the Pacific. Filming in some extremely remote locations but also doing a lot of work still in Palau.
I haven’t been able to include a bit of everything into this years show reel but hope that what is included is representative and entertaining at the same time.
Over the year we have expanded our range for media production across the Pacific, providing underwater and drone filming services to clients including Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute of which you can read about here.
It’s who you know for media production in the Pacific region
At the same time we have increased our range of contacts across the Pacific region. We visited a variety of Environmental and Fisheries themed workshops thereby networking with a huge number of contacts. This networking is hugely valuable in future media production projects across the Pacific. From the Solomon Islands to Hawaii, Vanuatu to Pohnpei, Yap to Fiji. We can help put you in touch with media production professionals across the region. Contact us if you would like to know more.
If we can’t help you directly, we can certainly help you find someone that will. We look forward to hearing from you.
Drone filming is considered an art form in its own right. It is after all both the artistic discipline of media production and the ability to control an aircraft remotely and safely. This can be done by single or multiple operators.
Drones or more specifically quadcopters in 2019 can be operated with just hand gestures. However for the best results the aircraft is controlled via the traditional multiple channel radio transmitter.
This blog post though is not about the technological aspects of drone filming. The industry is evolving at such a pace, this blog post would be out of date before I’d finished writing it.
What I want to talk about is the aesthetics of good drone footage. What makes the difference between something that is run of the mill and something that is truly dynamic.
The beauty of drones after all is that we can put them and the cameras they carry in a space that would either be very expensive or impossible with traditional systems. I’ve talked about this before here and the big reasons I use them myself.
Are drones still a novelty?
Broadcasters and filmmakers have been incorporating drone shots into their productions for a number of years now. Gone are the days when all that was available was a fisheye GoPro image and people were amazed by that. Now we have at our disposal the best cameras that money can buy and behemoths of aerial platforms to carry them. The technology to accomplish this is likely to be cutting edge for many decades to come. But the footage coming from them will start to be more and more commonplace. The regular shots, the reverse, the ascending reveal, the orbit even. These are going to become so commonplace that they will stop being noticed as drone shots. Consumer drones available now for less than $800 will pull off an orbit shot with the press of a button….
What makes good drone footage?
As with any piece of footage, aesthetics are important. Composition needs to be there to attract the viewers eye and this is relatively straight forward in a static aerial shot. Moving the camera however starts the ball rolling on what becomes a much greater challenge.
Adaptive three dimensional composition
I just made that bit up. It kind of fits what I’m trying to explain. Moving the camera through 3 dimensional space and maintaining a well composed scene as the subject is itself moving. Sometimes predictably, often not. Aesthetics is an appreciation of beauty, and creating a beautiful shot of something simple is where this art form will flourish.
Dare to dream
“Spiral around a boat, as it itself meanders through a maze of coral heads in a shallow lagoon. Introduce the passengers on that boat.”
Imagine starting out high and wide. Then as you orbit, dramatically descend in a spiral down to 10-15m above the water. Now you are orbiting 20m from the boat as it meanders. Maintain composition depending on where you are in relation to the boat and it’s wake. The shot is smooth and flowing, the arc of the camera movement is continuous. There are no interruptions in the shot, no hard stops or movements that disrupt the evolving three dimensional parabolic arcs.
“Imagine you are a bird”
It is as if we are a bird wheeling around the boat in total control of ourselves moving with the utmost ease. The boat stabilises to a straight path accelerating. You flatten out your curve to track next to it. You accelerate past the boat, rotating as you do but closing in on the passengers until you are just ahead and at eye level. One seamless, smoothly flowing, beautifully composed 2 minute shot that would be impossible by any other method than cutting edge CGI. The shot then transitions seamlessly via the sun flashing off the water to a continuous shot within the boat with close ups of the passengers faces. Can it be done? I think it could.
The future is now in drone filming
Cinematic drone filming is not a one man job. There will be the pilot, the camera operator and the focus puller at least. You’ll then have various people looking over the shoulder of those people. They give them directions or just observe what is a well rehearsed manoeuvre. There are marks to be hit at different stages to tie up with the surrounding shots etc….
I don’t pretend to know everything but being able to orchestrate and pull off something like this is where drone filming will really shine. I think that it will continue to shine even as CGI gets ever the better.
But what is the Future of Drone Filming
The big question however is just how far 360 VR filming will take us away from traditional media production? Will we rely on VR “Overcapture editor” with its ability to point the camera in any direction after the fact? The answer might be: of course, but you still need to move that VR set up through that 3 axis reality. We shall see.
The future of drones no doubt lies in the future of 3 axis GPS positioning and the onboard Artificial Intelligence that will take over the piloting aspect and place the platform to within a few millimetres of a predetermined point or adapt in real time to proximity.
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.
Over the course of the last 10 years I have been uploading stock footage from Palau to one particular agency.
In the last week I hit a landmark number of files in my portfolio of 1000. Whilst this may not seem a lot compared to many other contributors it is significant for two reasons.
In the early years the very slow internet in Palau meant that progress of uploads was similarly slow. This made me particularly choosy when it came to which clips I would send to them as I obviously wanted the greatest chance of sales per clip. This produced a portfolio smaller than others but of a higher quality.
Huge variety of stock footage subjects
Palau has an enormous range of subjects to film so the diversity of the portfolio is similarly diverse.
Living in Palau also has given me the advantage in that access has been provided by Government departments to extremely inaccessible sites or rare/unique situations. This results in one-of-a-kind footage, unrepeatable and invaluable.
I have also not limited myself to just Palau. Filming trips to Yap, Philippines and Kiribati have also yielded incredible stock footage.
The Nature Footage agency provides a variety of licenses for all different types of media applications from small format internet to international Cinema releases. Rights managed or Royalty Free. This means that whatever your product, they can provide you with the right license for your release.
The internet in Palau is vastly better than it ever was (100kb/s upload…) but this has not changed my approach to quality. Only the very best clips are uploaded but instead of it taking 3 days, it now takes 12 hours. Whoop whoop right?
Stock footage for every application
If you are interested in subjects from Palau or the Pacific region but don’t find them in the Portfolio here,
please feel free to contact me here to discuss what may be available but not yet online or if there are specific needs for your project.
For further reading on what it has taken to get this many clips together over this many years read 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. The site 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.
A Marine Protected Area (MPA) is simply a protected marine environment. What does that actually mean and how do people interpret it?
The goal of an Marine Protected Area
The goal of a Marine Protected Area is to let the marine environment recover to a state unaffected by humans. It progresses from the affected stage to its natural stage. This state depends on where it is geographically and the natural equilibrium it would attain based on what surrounds it. In ecological terms it reaches it’s climax community.
An unpolluted Marine Protected Area will accumulate species that would naturally occur in that environment. Polar species for a polar environment, temperate for temperate etc. Those species would, when left alone, essentially fight it out amongst themselves. An ecosystem would develop that is the same as an environment where there are no humans.
The goal of a Marine Protected Area therefore is to allow that to happen. That is to leave it alone. This implies no harvesting and no external anthropogenic influences.
How to create a Marine Protected Area
Firstly MPAs require a local desire (usually national) to protect the area. Laws sometimes come into effect that impose an obligation to local populations to leave the area alone.
At times, military occupation of an island or archipelago ensures that. The environment is off limits as a result of the entire region being protected for strategic purposes. e.g. The Chagos islands.
In rare circumstances such as on Bikini atoll in the Marshall islands, nuclear weapon tests meant that the area was off limits for decades due to being toxic. The depopulated environment recovered despite the initial poisoning.
Once an MPA is announced, it requires people to be kept out of it. This can be achieved by laws alone. But because people break the law, policing of the area is often required. Severe deterrents to would-be poachers need to be publicized and enforced.
This previous post highlights the development of surveillance in Palau’s National Marine Sanctuary.
The degree of protection attained is governed by numerous factors. This influences the outcome and overall ecology of the area.
What happens if total protection isn’t attained?
Firstly, total protection is rarely attained. Nowhere on earth is completely free from human influence. Even the very deepest marine trenches are showing signs of human pollution.
What is Pristine?
If “Pristine” is completely untouched (0% human influence) a Marine Protected Area is trying to get as close to zero as possible.
If you remove one or a significant number of any species, it will have an effect on the entire ecosystem. The ecosystem shifts to compensate for the imbalance. Ecologists call this Trophic Cascade. Trophic levels are essentially what separate plant from herbivore, herbivore from predator.
By reducing the numbers of predators, the prey species populations will increase. (Less are being eaten). This will have an effect on what they in turn hunt or harvest. Once those species populations change, that will then change what they influence. Imagine a line of dominoes that spreads out into a web. One influences another which then influences more again. These changes in populations not only affect populations either side of them of them, but they can also affect the very chemistry of the environment. If there are more or less plants in a system, there would be more or less Oxygen or CO2 available.
Altering the physical chemistry of a system also causes ecological cascades. Increase or decrease in temperature is like changing it’s geographical location. Adding chemicals will also change ecosystems. Farmers increase productivity of their fields with fertilizers. Plant growth can increase if certain compounds of Nitrogen or Phosphorous are added. A process called Eutrophication. Too many plants and not enough herbivores to eat them means systems can be overrun by plant life. This leads to choking and shading what was there before.
Benefits of MPAs
The lack of human harvesting from an MPA means that fish numbers and overall biomass increases. (There are more living things). Eventually the biomass increases to the point where it spreads out into the surrounding waters. This overflow can then be harvested. Within the MPA the fish live longer, breed more often and attain greater sizes. This means their breeding potential is also greater. (Larger fish produce more eggs and milt and therefore more babies.)
Harvesting from MPAs
In some parts of the world, MPAs have been established but the local population still harvests from them. This is sometimes for indigenous cultural reasons. In some locations these cultural excuses are abused. The harvesting is too regular to be sustainable. A overexploitation situation occurs. Local groups harvest instead of allowing the MPA spillover to repopulate the regular fishing grounds.
In a report from Pew Charitable Trusts: By 2018, there are 15,600 Marine Protected Areas globally. 25 million square kilometers. This equates to only 7% of the planets oceans. The aim is by 2020 to have 10% of the oceans protected. It seems we are falling well short of this goal. What is worse is that of the 7%, less than half are actually no take zones. Many are still open to harvesting either by indigenous groups or by commercial operations. So it seems we still have a long way to go.
Humans build bigger and bigger fishing boats. The demand for seafood increases with the human population. The pressure on the worlds oceans increases.
It is vital to respect the natural capacity of the oceans. This capacity is not only of the economic kind. How many fish swim in it or how many we can catch. It is also how well it can recover. Recovery is fastest when the ocean is healthy. A healthy ocean has a greater ability to accept losses, its inhabitants but also losses to its own intrinsic health.
Humans are affecting the very chemistry of the worlds oceans.
Natural damaging cycles such as El Nino events are becoming more common. Natural environments before could recover from these warming periods because they were infrequent. Now these events are happening too regularly for the reefs to fully recover. Each time the damage occurs, the environment has only recovered 50% of it’s potential health. The one step forward two steps back scenario.
The healthiest reef or any environment is one that is in its natural state. This is why it’s so important for us to set aside as much of our Planet as possible. A Marine Protected Area needs to left alone. They should all be left alone and there should be more of them. It is these natural wild spaces that will be the saviours of us all.
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.
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. or further reading on filming with drones you can check out this article.
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.
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.
Aerial Surveillance over the Palau marine sanctuary was initially proposed in 2013. A series of tests were conducted with various technologies. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles were the first. The high initial cost ruled them out together with unfavorable vessel detection ability.
The Republic of Palau next tested the Sea Dragon system. A military grade combination of radar and gyro stabilized cameras. A twin engine Cessna variant is fitted with the surveillance equipment and used as a complete package with a pilot and trained observer.
During the initial trial, Sea Dragon scored a huge success by finding and documenting fishing vessels transshipping. This is illegal in Palau. It demonstrated the need to continue patrols far off-shore.
The system however had issues. It wasn’t a practical solution for long term surveillance despite it’s initial success. It has however found use in other parts of FSM.
A simple, cheap and reliable solution had to be found.
This is where Pacific Mission Aviation stepped into the ring. Part of their work is providing medevac solutions to the outer atolls of Yap and FSM. For this they need an aircraft with a greater range than a standard single engined Cessna. A twin engine Beechcraft modified Queen Air was chosen due to it’s reliability and long range of over 1000 Nautical miles.
The below film documents actual missions that took place during November of 2017.
In addition you can also check out an earlier behind the scenes post written during the development of this project .
Please check out the website for Pacific Mission Aviation here
The future of surveillance
The conclusion from all these tests is that simplicity is fundamental.
However, as we continuously approach our time horizon, developments occur. I’m talking about the recent U.S plan to install military radar stations in a variety of locations in Palau. One of these installations will be in the SW islands. They aim to give the U.S a better idea about military ship movements in the area. The US and Palau also propose to use this to locate and identify fishing vessels. With this level of tech in place it will probably become impossible to enter Palau’s EEZ undetected. We certainly have an interesting few years ahead of us.
Keep checking back as we continue to document the surveillance efforts over the National Marine Sanctuary.