Very Proud to have had a small hand doing some underwater stuff in these beautiful films by cameraman/producer John Aitchison and series producer Nigel Pope for BBC Scotland. Good times in the old country in the summer of 2011.
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Well it’s been amazing! A few weeks ago I was in LA for testing and so had the great honour of attending the Emmys with Loads of the Frozen Team. Richard, Mike and I picked up the Emmy on behalf of the camera team for Programme 1 “To the Ends of the Earth”. Then yesterday my wife Rosie and I attended the Wildscreen wildlife film-making awards in Bristol. We got the Cinematography award for Programme 5 “Winter”. It was so great being there with the Mark Smith, John Aitchison and particularly Hugh Miller – my partner in crime down below the Antarctic Sea Ice. This one really is special – a proper pat on the back from our own industry in front of our own industry.
John Aitchison and I picking up the BAFTA for factual cinematography for Frozen Planet “To the Ends of the Earth”. A brilliant night in London with the Team. You can watch the video at http://bcove.me/0o1zbxwj
On youtube over 5 million hits in 5 days for Hugh Miller and my Brinicle sequence from Mcmurdo for Frozen Planet Programme 5! People are digging the “icy finger of death”!
Finally Frozen Planet started its UK transmission last night. I spent the night with the team watching it live in Bristol. Just a great experience being with so many of the people involved. And great to see so many of the other cameramen there. Huge thanks to Vanessa and Alastair for putting on a really good party.
And here is the Killer wave washing on the Antarctic Penninsula that me and Doug Allan Shot in 2009. I’m guessing this is not international sorry.
Sorry I doubt this is open to view internationally.
Left to right – Hugh Miller, Liz White, Doug Anderson, Natalia Chervyakova and.
A couple of photos of us at work by the formidably talented Natalia Chervyakova – also our dive leader out here in the White Sea. Things are going OK here. It is a beautiful site but very much a shallow sea covered in Ice. The water is green (which can be lovely) and the animals are familiar. It kind off looks like scotland under-ice I guess. But the ice is beautiful and in places, where the brown tannin rich freshwater runs of the forest, the light effects under the Ice are spectacular.
Last trip for “Frozen Planet”. Were heading north to the White sea. Where is the “White Sea”? Take your finger on the map and point to the top of Sweden, then go right little past Finland and then into Russia. Thats it. Were going to be diving under the ice right against the coast there. So one last time of packing and prepping. Got a great little team for this one. Liz white from production and Hugh Miller on camera assist. Should be a giggle.
This morning at breakfast the talk was, for once, not about Killer whales. Rather, it was about who had remembered (or not) to send messages, flowers, chocolates…. to their partners back home. But by 7:30am we had whales. They were Type A’s – the big black and white whale killers. There were about 20 together in a tight social group, shallow breathing in the flat calm golden morning water. They were super aware of our boat. Tom and I got a few shots and then we backed the boat right off and waited.
They stayed tight and social untill about 11am. Then they turned north and sped up. At about midday they fanned out over what looked like about 5 miles and continued north. Something was afoot. Everything felt right but no one on board the Fleece breathed a word of how right it felt. It’s pretty easy to jinx these situations with too much chat I have found. At about 1.30 Bob shouted up a big splash about 2 miles to the west. I got my binoculars on it. It was a Minke whale porpoising with Killers in hot pursuit and, thank the sweet lord, they were coming straight for us. Dion took the helm and with a huge cloud of blue smoke opened up the throttle on the Golden Fleece’s diesels and turned to intercept. The pursuit was much faster than I imagined, a sustained 9-10 knots. The Minke was fully porpoising – throwing it’s 10 metre, 5 ton body mostly out the water just like a dolphin. Only the female Killers could keep up, the males and Juveniles lagged way behind. The females flanked the Minke keeping close to it’s head. On board everything was running well. Tom and I were well coordinated by producer Liz. Dion’s skill at the helm kept us close but not too close. John and Bob the scientists worked furiously covering the event in stills. Everyone was ready for the kill. Honestly, I expected it to last twenty minutes tops. The Killer whales chased that Minke whale for two and a half hours. They ran it down over 25 miles. In the end they tore a massive section of blubber off it’s back just below the dorsal fin. The Minke whale slowed which allowed the big male Killer whales to catch up . Once they were there they killed it. I think they were ramming blows underwater. The Minke Whale shuddered a couple of times. And then a male came along side, put it’s chin on the top of the Minke’s head, pushed it underwater and drowned it. I usually have no trouble staying dispassionate and disconnected at these events. I see my job as the recorder. I didn’t feel that today. In the moments after death, as I watched the Storm Petrols pick tiny droplets fat from the surface of the water, I felt the loss of the life of the Minke whale in my heart with an ache of true sadness.
I love this picture! It’s taken by John Durban one of the biologists we worked with. John spends most of his time taking pictures of dorsal fins that he then uses to identify individual whales. Dorsal fins are great because you always see them when the whales rises to breath and most importantly, they are all different. Usually the dorsal and a bit of the back is all you see of the Killer whales from the surface. However, whenever whales are moving fast, especially in rough water, there is a chance you might see a bit more of the head. Whenever John sees this happen he shouts “Chin” – referring to the fact the killer whale is showing a bit of the lower jaw. This is a classic bit of “Chin”!!
Bob Pitman and John Durban. Armed but mostly harmless. Our NOAA scientists take there positions once more for another season with Antarctic Killers Whales. We worked with these guys last year on the Killer whale wave-washing sequence for Frozen Planet. It is truly a pleasure to be in the field with them again.
So we sail on the beautiful “Golden Fleece” once more from the Falkland Islands to the cold south. A very similar crew to last years killer whale killing season save the substitution of cameraman Tom Fitz for Doug Allan and Producer Liz White for Kathryn Jeffs. We are going for Killer whales again but not the pack-Ice Type B’s of last year. Type B’s? I should explain. There are 4 “Types” of Killer whales in the Antarctic. They are called Type A,B,C and D. Each Type looks quite different to the next and they all seem to live in very different ways. A’s look like your classic black and white Killer whale. We find them mainly offshore (away from land and ice) and they seem to kill baleen whales – probably mostly antarctic Minke whales. Type B’s are what we filmed last year. They are brown and white with a big eyepatch and are heavily associated with the pack-ice. They seem to kill mainly seals (sometimes by wave-washing). Type C’s are small fish eating Killer whales only found in the Ross-sea. Type D’s are rarely seen. They live well offshore and have a tiny eyepatch (it’s almost gone). On this trip we are looking for mainly A’s and B’s. But we don’t need anymore wave washing behaviour. Last year we found hundreds (about 350) type B killer whales, and a few type A’s, miles north of the pack ice in the straits around the islands near the top of the Antarctic peninsula. They must be feeding on something. We suspect they are using the straits to pick off Minke whales and possibly elephant seals as they migrate south. The straits act like a kind of funnel for animals as they travel south. I’m not sure if it happens here but certainly in other parts of the world Killer whales use straits and passages as ambush points. So we have a plan. Stay north and see what they are all killing. If they kill, film it and hope it makes a piece of television. So simple, should be easy …….right?
Today we visited the base hut of Captain Scott of the Antarctic. It’s not far from where we’ve been diving at Cape Evans. One of the girls from Carey came out with us and brought the key. We drove the Piston-bully there between dives. It was a beautiful, quiet, touching experience I think for all of us. Everything is perfect and untouched. The stores are still on the shelves. The sheets are on the beds. The papers lay on desks as if just put down. Everything is one hundred years old. And all of it is as Scott would have seen it before leaving for the pole. He died, exhausted in a tent not 60 miles from here. I felt sad to think he never had the peaceful feeling of relief coming home to this place.
Lots of this job I do requires trust. Trusting the skills of the people I work with to keep me safe. And they must trust me too. Today was all about trust. Today we went diving in a Helicopter. There were four of us – me, Hugh my assistant, Steve a diver from the base and Kathryn our producer. We packed the Bell 212 early and flew 105 miles to Granite harbour. Once we got there we had three minutes to fly around and find a crack or a hole to dive through – the helicopter just didn’t have the fuel for more time. We touched down and the crew dumped us and the gear on the ice. The helicopter took off and left us. We found a seal hole just big enough to get through with the filming equipment. My assistant Hugh and I got our gear on and dived in. We spend over 3 hours in the water. Nine hours after it had dropped us off the helicopter came back. We packed our gear and flew back to Macmurdo. Days like today don’t happen without everyone involved having the absolute highest skill-sets. But thats not enough. There was no way to make today risk free. No amount of paper work could make it totally safe. We had to trust each other. We did and together pulled off the single most exhilarating days diving of my life.
Tonight Hugh Miller is the happiest little cameraman in Antarctica. Hugh has been moonlighting – if such a thing is possible in 24 hour daylight. By day he has been doing the underwater lighting for me and by night he has been finishing the build on his latest underwater time-lapse rig. Simply, it’s a couple of digital cameras, in underwater housings, that take pictures every few seconds – when you play back the pictures the whole scene is sped up hundreds of times. He finished it 3 days ago and today he captured in time-lapse a “Brinicle” growing.
6 weeks ago I’d never heard of a Brinicle either. So here is the science bit. They look like giant underwater icicles and hang from underneath the sea-ice. They can be as big as a foot wide and 30 feet long. They grow because when the sea-ice gets cold and freezes a very salty brine is also formed which does not freeze – don’t ask why, I did and regretted it. The Brine is heavier than sea water so starts to flow down through the pores and cracks in the sea-ice. In places it flows out so thick you can see it like a sort of underwater haze. Because the Brine is colder than the water it starts to freeze it. When conditions are right this freezing starts forming a tube. The Brine flows through the centre of the tube and freezes water as it flows out the end. And that is how a brinicle forms.
There are lots of little ones growing all over the place, and a few big dead ones, but we didn’t find a large one in the process of growing until a week ago. It was 8 feet long with brine pouring out of it. Hugh and I filmed it with my camera and then came back to the hut to warm up. We went back in about 2 hours later. It had grown by 2 foot, hit the seabed and then formed a river of ice about a foot wide running 25feet down the slope. It was carnage. Urchins and starfish had been frozen into the ice river. Some were still alive but most had already snuffed it. It was amazing and we got good coverage. That evening we dared to talk of another that we could cover with the Time-lapse gear – not yet, at that time, completely built yet.
This morning, in almost exactly the same spot, we found another. It was the first time that Hugh’s time-lapse rig had ever been in sea water. The Brinicle we found was about 3 feet from the seabed and flowing really well. Hugh and I swam the cameras and lights across. Hugh pressed go. We came back 3 hours later. It had done the same as the first – hit the sea bed and made an Ice river down the slope. Hugh reset the cameras and pressed go again. We went in late and dragged the cameras out. Hugh has just rendered the image sequence into short films. They are rough but the results are amazing. It looks like a witches spell. A dangerous finger of growing ice extends down and captures the poor little urchins and starfish in an icy web. Some make it away just in time but most are frozen in. It is one of the wildest weirdest things I have ever seen in wildlife. This is going to be a sweeeeeet little sequence!
Well here it is! It’s not pretty but it’s home.
I’m 4 weeks in to this 10 week trip and right now my life revolves around diving down through a 3 foot wide hole in the 8 foot thick sea-ice to inhabit a super cold, super clear underwater playground for as long as my body can take it. The water in Macmurdo sound is the coldest and clearest surface water on the planet. 500 foot visibility and -1.86 degrees Celsius. It is so cold ice forms on the seabed between a depth of 30 feet and the surface. This “Anchor” ice coats the seabed like a carpet. Everything looks like it’s from the abyss and most of the species here are.
When Antarctica got cold all the coastal marine animals died out and creatures from the deep ocean colonised the shallow water. Huge Sponges tattoo the slopes, some of the biggest may be over a thousand years old. Massive Spider crabs and other weird creatures pick their way across the seabed. Urchins and beautiful Red star fish live out their lives in slow motion. The alien sound of Weddel seals add a soundtrack to everything I see. I feel like a child in this landscape. Every moment underwater here is new, ephemeral and profoundly beautiful in a way I did not think possible on this planet.
The blows of the whales are everywhere now. In front of us in the open water and behind in holes and leads in the solid sea-ice. The ice is breaking up and where we are standing it gets more rotten, it seems, every hour. The advancement of summer is relentless. These whales will be through and gone soon.
OK Bowheads are hard to film. We are struggling to get close to them. They seem to sense our presence on the flow edge and dive underneath my vain attempts to snorkel into their paths. The only proper interaction we have had so far was a big girl that didn’t sense the canoe we were in till the last minute – when she realised how close she was she had a good shot at turning over our boat before diving away. But is that surprising? Not really. These whales are old. Some are perhaps 200 years old. Born before even the first white man had even made it to this part of the Canadian Arctic. And they have been hunted by the Inuit their whole lives. From the flow edge and from boats they have been harpooned, shot at and generally harassed by man year after year. The only difference is now we are trying to shoot them with film rather than steel. I feel tired but the tundra is warming and there is hope in our small band.
It was my birthday yesterday and there was cake and music. I am sad not to be at home – but I am with good people. Simon even cracked out a few tunes. Quite a talent that boy!
Today Louise – our cook – told me a story. It was about a boy that lived in Igoolik long ago. He was about 3 years old when his father died out on the sea-ice. His mother became very protective of him and started making amulets (little good luck figurines often carved out of walrus tooth and worn on a string round the neck). Each day she put a new one on him when he went out to play. Soon he was covered in so many amulets he could hardly walk. He became known as the boy with too many amulets. In the evening our guide Simon gave me an amulet for my boy Finn who is also 3. It’s a polar bear head carved out of a walrus tooth. Louise says now Finn can be the boy with just the right amount of amulets.
The flow edge is really thin now. Each day our landscape changes as huge lumps of sea-ice break out and float east. The Bowheads are now acting as true Ice whales. They search the rotting flow edge looking for cracks and pockets that allow them to get further west to the feeding grounds. They use their massive heads to bash through the thin ice to make breathing holes.
I’ve seen whales breathing blows miles to the west in what looks like solid ice. We are slowly getting the shots we need for the sequence. So far we have just one underwater shot which is worth keeping- but I am hopeful for more because, if we are careful, they come so close on the flow edge they cover us with snot when they breath.
Just hit Igoolik (means “there is a house there” in inuktitut because of all the old sod houses out on the point). It’s a really nice little town (about 1500 people) on an island at the bottom of the Fury and Hecla strait. We are here for the straight really because thats where we will find the Bowhead Whales we want to film. The straight is filled with sea-ice just now and the whales can’t get through to their summer feeding grounds – so they gather waiting for the ice to break out. Hopefully it will be a good time to film them. It feels good to be back in the Arctic. I’m here with the unflappable Liz White. She’s off dealing with the Elders, Hunters and Trappers Association and all the other logistics. I’m left to tinker with the gear and go for little walks through town. There is an anticipation of Summer. The tarps are being pulled off boats and old outboard motors being fixed. Open water is only a few weeks away. Then they will be off to hunt seals and walrus. I try not to think about the killing part too much but the excitement in town is palpable.
A big thanks to Barry and Alex on the “Hogsnapper” for a sweeeeeeeet trip. Special thanks to Barry for getting my producer back to the hotel on the last night’s festivities in Scarborough – It would have taken at bit of explaining at the BBC if we lost him completely. The fishermen delivered us a classic little sequence. The Flying fish went off. We were mainly filming spawning. The fish spawn sticky eggs onto anything floating – usually floating bits of palm frond. One night the boys put us in such a good spot we had to move. There were so many fish they started spawning on the rudder and propeller of the boat. They stuck on a 400 pound egg mass in just 20 minutes. Had we not moved they would have sunk us! Ended up getting some some lovely flying at 1000 frames a second (slowed down 40x). Such a beautiful way to finish the filming of the “Life” series. It’s been quite an adventure – 15 trips over 2 years. Now a bit of time R&R then full tilt on the next series “Frozen Planet”. It’s gonna get a bit chilly.