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BIG squid, sperm whales, white sharks & cold water


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#1 CamDiver

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Posted 24 August 2005 - 07:06 PM

Hi guys,
Just thought I'd report on my last three months of adventures in Mexico and S. Africa. I work from Palau freelance and every now and again a juicy commission pops up which allows me to break away for a short while from the video services to tourist divers here in the Rock Islands.

So there I was sat in my office, editing another DVD on the G5 when an email popped into my in box. It was a call from an exec producer at National Geographic's remote imaging (Crittercam) office with whom I'd done some previous work here in Palau with. The question was basically if I would be interested in going on a three month filming trip, topside and underwater, with their unit firstly for 2 months in Baja for Sperm Whales followed by a month in South Africa for White Sharks. "Hmmmm let me think about that one and I'll get back to you"!! Yeah right. Of course I jumped at the chance, plus it was a paying gig and would allow me to put that on my resume. Although NG is not what it used to be for many reasons, the main one being the fracturing of mainstream TV into Cable and other mediums, but at least it's name alone carries a lot of weight in any way, shape or form.

Packing, took about 10 seconds!!! I had to think about warm clothes for the souther hemisphere but living on Palau there is no great need for fleece jackets and the like so I'd buy that when I got to The Cape of Good Hope for the shark project.

My initial impressions of Baja, my first trip to the place, was "Damn it's hot" and it was. We had clear skies for the duration and balmy weather. I was based from a small town called Santa Roslaia which for sperm whales is a good choice. I've seen and read the write up about the Humbolt Squid on the forums and now from first hand experience I can tell you all, these animals are ferocious!!!! Canibals to the extreme and BIG with attitude. The local fishermen go out in local fishing boats called Pangas and fish from about sunset for around 4 hours or so. That may not seem a long time but in that timespan, using just handlines, they land about a tonne of the monsters. It's not just a few boats going out. From the village some 300 boats go out every night for 10 months of the year and they all bring in around a tonne of squid. The sheer bio mass is just astonishing. So how to film these little buggers?

The likes of Bob Cranston who has the auspicious record of clocking up the most numbers of dive hours with Humbolt Squid in the world can tell you. These are mean, 6 ft long aggressive animals. Howard Hall also filmed from Santa Rosalia for their Humbolt footage. I on the other hand wasn't getting paid enough to jump in with them, and nor did I have the protective body armour rigs that some people would, wisely, use when filming these animals. So we stuck to Pole Caming the squid. We would go out with the fishermen, who thought we were nuts, to film alongside them and get the images we required. If anyone out there wants to see just how aggressive they can be I suggest you shop around for a Geographic special entitled Red Devils which was filmed by Bob cranston in collaboration with a squid researcher the name of whom escapes me. I can tell you though that being inches away from these creatures as they are landed is impressive. I was hanging off the front of an 18ft zodiac with my face inches from the surface, Polecam in hand, filming the last 2 feet of their ascents to the boat. Most of them would also bear the scars being attacked and munched on by their old friends, no love lost between Humbolts.

Anyway, back to the project. We were looking for sperm whales and seeing as this area was so rich in squid we based from the village and went out daily looking for them. The area having suffered at the hands of the asian fishing fleets for a few years, now thankfully banned from the area, is actually coming back to life. I thought we would be floating around on an empty Ocean looking for blows in the distance. We actuall found a lot more than we hoped for with regards to marine life other than the whales. Some days were as calm as a mirror which made filming the likes of Marlin, HUGE schools of Mobula Rays (in their hundreds at a time in mating aggregations) Pilot Whales, Common and bottlenosed dolphin, sea lions and a few hammerheads. All in all quite alive.

We eventually got into the whales and after the first encounter when a young hooligan in the pod decided to play ping pong with the zodiac things started to progress from there. They are incredibly shy creatures by nature so getting within 8 feet of them, the length of the pole we used with camera set on the end, was excrutiatingly difficult. We tried all manner of tactics and found the best one was to dangle a camera with a dome port over the side!!! The reason being that their sonar would bounce off of the glass and send back some kind of echo to them. Being also very inquisitive we thought this would drag them in, and it worked some of the time. We had to idle up to within the vicinity of the pod and and just hope they were calm enough, we had our outboard turned off, to come check us out. Trying to motor close to them just saw them disappear after a vine display of their tail flukes indicating a deep dive. Diving to over 1 mile in depth and for up to an hour at a time meant we had to just hope the cameras would be OK.

An amazing engineer at the unit had designed and pressure tested the cameras to withstand the enormous pressure prevalent at these massive depths. They worked OK and were deemed suitable for the job. We never experienced any floods of the cameras and recieved in return some nice images from the deep as the cameras also had image intensifiers on them. However the main sequence we were after was the successful predation by the whales on the squid. We never got that. That sequence is right up there alongside the Whaleshark birth and the White Shark mating, almost impossible. I said almost........ These projects go on year after year to get this kind of stuff and before I had been involved with the work of these people the Bubble netting of mackerel by Humpback whales in Chatham Straights in Alaska had taken 6 years to put together, for a sequence of 1 minute!!! Just keep batting away at it all.

All in all Mexico was a good experience. We didn't get exactly what we were after but then not everyone does at the first attempt. Away from the whales the diving there is actually not bad. We dived to get different aspects of the areas underwater world and the diving with the sea lion colonies at Los Islotes was just so much fun. Mind you we were there at the birthing time of the season so there was not so much frenetic activity from the younger sea lions. The big males were stamping dominance all over the colonies so even the youngsters were distracted by them.

Leaving Mexico with tons of equipment on my lonesome and having to navigate the security measures thru LAX and london was a pain in the butt. I had all the carnet paperwork with me but it was still a long and drawn out process. The main problem being that Mexico is not a carnet country so although all of the equipment arrived there there was no paperwork to suggest it had been previously purchased in the US and was only in Mexico for the shoot. At least no paperwork that the very inquisitive customs officers wanted to see. I understand that they do their job but hey c'mon you can see I'm sweating with 400lbs of gear that needs to get to Africa. Such is life.

I guess most of you have seen the documentary "Air Jaws", you know the one where the white sharks breach as they hunt the Cape Fur Seals? That takes place in a place close to the Cape of Good Hope called Fish Hoek (pronounced HOOK). I was met in a very rainy, cold and misserable Capetown by our researcher Alison Koch and transported to the small town which was to serve as our base for the month. Bad weather and a case of Bronchitis for Alison delayed our first forays to into the bay for the first ten days and I was gagging to get out there. That time was spent getting gear ready, doing gear checks and filming fill in stuff and cutaways for the planned production.

Finally we were ready to go. This was my first trip to South Africa and was also the first time I would get to see Mr. Big of the shark world. I wasn't disappointed.

Seal Island is a small outcrop of land just 6km from the shore line of the bay. On a regular day it can be seen from the shores. The island is home to around 60,000 Cape Fur Seals and it provides a steady food source for a short period of the year for the sharks. And they feed in the most spectacular way. Not long after the first day on the Ocean did I have to wait for the first shark to arrive. We were chumming to attract the shark and on the call of "Shark" I turned around along the port side of the seemingly shrinking boat to come face to face, finally, with a 14ft animal. Calm and collected the shark came and checked on the bait line and just swam the length of the boat. The line uttered by Roy Schneider in Jaws immediately sprang to mind "We're gonna need a bigger boat"!! But this however seemed to be the standard average size of the animals in the area. So we got to work.

A genius young engineer Mike Shepard from the remote imaging unti had joined me on this project. He had devised an amazing deployment pole that would allow me to reach over the side of the boat once the shark was interested enough in the bait to track it as it was pulled alongside. The whole camera was basically attached to a reinforced plastic bracket that could fit over the dorsal fin. When a trigger was activated it closed a zip tie that had been threaded through one end of the clamp and a looped around a magnesium washer. Everything sat in place once deployed and eventually came free as the magnesium washer dissintergrated over a period of about 4 hours. We would then track the camera which had an on board VHF beacon trhat would initiate a transmission once it had floated back to the surface.

Seeing as the main predations take place early in the morning we would aim to try and get the cameras on as early as possible. This meant getting up at 5.30am most days to get the boat, equipment and chum ready by 7am and our arrival at the island. The early mornings paid off. Having been allocated a month to get this job done and having lost 10 days at the beginning due to weather and sickness we got the deployments down to pat and managed at the end of the day to get 17 cameras deployed on white sharks. Shark interaction with other sharks, one cage diver and seal lions was just what the doctor ordered. Whislt we didn't get the successful; predation of a shark on a sea lion we did get some amazing chase scenes from the sharks perspective as it was hunting. Did the Crittercams impede the sharks? The researcher doesn't seem to think so. Although they are apex predators the sharks don't get lucky ever time. The hit / miss ration on sea lions is about a 40% success rate!! I guess we just deployed on one of those 60 having a bad day.

The cage diving took place in Gansbaai, about a two hour drive north along the coastline from Capetown. Coming face to face with the sheer majestic beauty of white sharks is an amzing experience and one I would jump at repeating. However the seas can get very rough there and even for a salty old sea dog like me being in a cage in massive chop and swell is not for the weak of stomach, even I had to look at the horizon a while. Although I'm proud to say the fish didn't get a free meal from me that day, close but not quite.

So that was pretty much how I spent the last 3 months. The footage from the shark project will, I'm sure, be used in a future special on the sharks of the area. Whether we go back again next year remaiuns to be seen but the shot of a shark successfully capturing and devouring a sea lion in front of the viewers eyes, from the sharks perspective, would be an amazing thing to see. Fingers crossed.

For those of you looking for squid to film I suggest getting down to Santa Roslaia in Baja between May and March each year. We saw larger ones around the end of June, up to 6ft +. Take Polecams, strong suits and plenty of underwear!!!

Hope you enjoyed the read.

regards,
Mark.

The Sharks of the Forgotten Islands

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#2 MikeVeitch

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Posted 24 August 2005 - 08:18 PM

Cheers Mark

Great read and a great adventure to be sure...

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#3 Drew

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Posted 25 August 2005 - 12:32 AM

What do you mean? Pat didn't want to hook a humbolt for a crittercam?
The "town" near FishHoek is Simonstown? If so the area is called Falsebay. They had a harder time trying to put one on a bronzewhaler for baitballs last year. Afterall, catching it, bringing it on the boat for 5 minutes and releasing it, they expect the shark to go right back to eating? LOL

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#4 CamDiver

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Posted 25 August 2005 - 01:12 AM

Hi guys,
Thanks Mike, and to clarify for others:

Did I mentioned anyone by the name of Pat in my posting or are you reffering to the squid researcher?? Putting a CC on a Humbolt, Hmmmm nice thought but not our objective. We wanted the Sperm Whales POV.

Secondly, we were based in Fish Hoek (two words), False Bay, our boat was moored in the marina at the Naval base in Simonstown so we commuted the 5 miles each morning.

The White Sharks once "Cammed" did just that, went back to eating, or at least attempting to. We never needed to get them stationary. The cameras were put on as the shark passed our position. Not an easy feat if they were in an uncooperative mood.

Hope this clarifies things.
Mark.

The Sharks of the Forgotten Islands

- A Natural History Documentary -


#5 Kelpfish

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Posted 25 August 2005 - 06:16 AM

You going to post any of your footage? :)

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#6 ChrisJ

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Posted 25 August 2005 - 08:14 AM

damn great read! I will surely look out for the NG Special red devils dvd.
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#7 NWDiver

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Posted 25 August 2005 - 09:22 AM

Great report, always interesting to learn what happens behind the scene. Looking forward to any images. Any advice for shooting GWs from a cage? We have 3wks until we go to Guadalupe! I am shooting a D100/Aquatica housing and have S&S 350 & 90DX strobes.

#8 Drew

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Posted 25 August 2005 - 11:08 AM

Did I mentioned anyone by the name of Pat in my posting or are you reffering to the squid researcher?? Putting a CC on a Humbolt, Hmmmm nice thought but not our objective. We wanted the Sperm Whales POV.
I was referring to Patrick Greene from the remote imaging unit. Obviously he wasn't in this production. Opps

Secondly, we were based in Fish Hoek (two words), False Bay, our boat was moored in the marina at the Naval base in Simonstown so we commuted the 5 miles each morning.

The White Sharks once "Cammed" did just that, went back to eating, or at least attempting to. We never needed to get them stationary. The cameras were put on as the shark passed our position. Not an easy feat if they were in an uncooperative mood.
That's great. Unfortunately for Pat and gang, their target, the bronze whaler (Carcharbinus obscurus or Brachyurus), were smaller and weren't as controllable as a gw.

Hope this clarifies things.
Mark.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


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#9 CamDiver

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Posted 28 August 2005 - 11:07 PM

Hi ScubaDru,
OK I can see where things are getting confused. Pat Greene was working on Bronze Whalers with a guy called either Gary or Mark Addison. Mr. Addison is, or has, developed a dive closer to the Durban area for people wanting to get up close and personal with Tiger sharks. In fact he has deployed Crittercam, a remote imaging animal borne camera, on Tigers whilst breathold diving. He was in fact a member of the SA freediving team.

The Remote Imaging dept at NG is actually run by the inventor of the system, a Mr. Greg Marshall, my boss when I go in the field for this type of work for this department. Pat and Mr. Addison were in fact given crittercam units to deploy on the Bronze Whalers but the remote imaging staff were there behind the scenes for filming and making sure the cameras were working OK.

As for the other input regarding the posting of footage etc. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, except NGTV&Film I guess, the footage is their copyright. I was, and remain, contractually bound to a certain level of integrity where footage is concerned. Thats the nature of the beast with these kind of shoots. You get what you know is a blinding piece of footage but at the end of the day it's not yours to share. It belongs to the powers that be, those who put food on your plate. Besides, thats what I am paid for. The film when ready, including some incredible underwater pursuits of Cape Fur Seals, will be aired when deemed fit. But this I can tell you. The breaches everyone saw in the documentary "Air Jaws" are just a small part, a fraction, of what actually goes on before the sharks make their predatory lunges.

As for Cage diving. Make sure you get a calm day!!! Even for those whith a cast iron stomach and who don't suffer from motion sickness, its a whole other ball game with a boat pitching and rolling and you being banged around inside a small cage. I can'toffer opinions on Guadalupe as I don't know how they do the observing there. Whether or not they use SCUBA for example. If its breath holding, much better, then just brace yourself in the cage and go for it. Sometimes the ports for the camera to protrude from are constrictive and are not very condusive to following the action but it all again depends on the setup of the operation. Good luck with your shots there.

Regards,
Mark. :)

The Sharks of the Forgotten Islands

- A Natural History Documentary -


#10 Drew

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Posted 29 August 2005 - 11:19 AM

It's Mark Addison... and he's one crazy guy. I could tell you stories about him. But his whole family are spearo champs so freediving is very natural for them. His "tiger" show is known to bring in a great white too, like what happened a few times this year. It's pretty controversial since Aliwal is very close to the beaches of Durban and a popular diving area too.
The team were trying for the bronzewhalers down in Wavecrest... we had a good laugh at their expense.

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#11 ce4jesus

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Posted 25 November 2005 - 12:31 PM

Sounds awesome...an amateur like me can only dream of that kind of action. I've seen the Red Devil's program on NGC and seen them up close in Mexico. While in Cabo on a fishing expedition our guide ran into a group of Humbolts on the surface feeding on crabs. I guess just as amazing as finding these creatures this close to the surface was finding small crabs floating on the surface in deeper water. I was amazed to find that the Humbolts would attack even a bare hook cast in their direction. On a fishing pole the landing rate was about 3 out of 5. I suspect a lot of those "scars" you witnessed were not acts of cannibalism but may have been attributed to close encounters with rigs like this. The captain seemed a bit confused and irritated when we asked him to head out to deeper water for Tuna and Marlin. He seemed content to stop there about 4 miles from shore and catch squid all day. I'm sure the Humbolts make for a fine dinner but our group was in the mood for something which made your biceps cramp. Anyway, I'm a NGC groupie and look forward to Air Jaws II
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