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It’s getting hot in here! – 10th June 2009

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.

Doug Anderson and Bowhead Whale © Liz White

Doug Anderson and Bowhead Whale © Liz White

Bowhead-aches. – 7th July 2009

Doug Anderson at flow-edge © Liz White

Doug Anderson at flow-edge © Liz White

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.

Arctic Birthday – 2nd July 2009

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!

The boy with too many amulets – 2nd July 2009

Finns Polar Bear Amulet

Finn's Amulet© Doug Anderson

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.

Thin Ice – 30th June 2009

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.

There is a house there – 24th June 2009

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.

inukshuk © Liz White

inukshuk © Liz White

PLEASE PRESERVE THE END!

The Arri HSR2 Super 16 film cameras make a beautiful noise. They whirr like a really fast, super smooth, sowing machines. And actually they sort of are sowing machines. Film cameras have a little claws that pull down each frame of film and expose it (in the gate) before pulling down the next one. Normally this happens 25 times a second. If we are shooting high speed, for slow motion, the film cameras we commonly use can pull down and expose up to 150 little pictures a second. Once a roll of film is finished it is put in a lightproof can and sent to get developed – just like a roll of film out of a stills camera. Once its developed the last stage is to pass it through a machine called a Telecini. The Telecini turns the film into video that can be edited on a computer.

Everyone in TV has a big break story. This is mine.

I got a job as an assistant on the BBC’s wildlife landmark series “The Blue Planet”. I was mainly assisting open ocean specialist Rick Rosenthal. In November 1999 Rick, myself, cameraman David Reichert and producer Andy Byatt found ourselves working off the Pacific side of Mexico. After 4 years of filming it was the last trip of the series. Our main target was Striped Marlin feeding on bait balls. We did very well. We had a month and by the end of week three we had some beautiful material of the Marlin feeding aggressively on big bait balls. In the best traditions of these sorts of stories, it was the last days filming not only of the trip but of the entire Blue Planet series. For several days Rick had me using his film camera housing in the water whilst he covered topside action from the bow of the boat. I had already had some great experiences with the Marlin when David and I jumped on a small bait ball that was being decimated by 10-20ib Yellowfin tuna. We were working the scene pretty close together when suddenly the tuna left the bait ball and went down deep. I sensed David move fast behind me, spun round, and rolled the camera as a 45 foot, 15 ton Sei Whale passed within six feet of us. It had seen the bait ball and wanted in on the action. The next 15 minutes were the most intense of my life. The whale came into feed 8 times. She seemed to be trying for surface lunges mainly. Swimming shallow and fast at the bait-ball and, when she got close enough, engulfing as much of the bait ball as she could. I was pretty pumped up by the action. A couple of times I got perfectly underneath her and got really close.

After seven passes I looked at the film counter. It said I had ten feet left. The counters on the old Arri HSR2 cameras are pretty inacurate but I guessed I had about 15-20 seconds of film time left. I ducked dived down to about 20 feet below the bait ball and waited. Within 30 seconds I spoted the whale again. But this time it was different. She was deep, perhaps 150 feet below me, and swiming straight towards the surface. She was going so fast for a moment it looked like she was going to do a breach. I started rolling the camera – click whirrrrrrrrrr – I could hear the film running through. She kept coming straight up and fast, passing me about 12 feet away.

Then I heard it. Whirrrrrrrrrrclick,click,click,click. The sound of the end of the film coming off the core of the spool and loosly running throug the gate of the camera. At the last second the whale opened it’s mouth and engulfed what it could of the bait ball. It then fell away from me and with a single kick left frame. My lungs burned. I kicked to the surface to breath. I looked at the camera. It was out of film that was for sure. But when?

Back on board I told producer Andy I thought we had some petty nice stuff but was not sure about the last shot. To make it worse David had filmed me filming the last lunge by the whale. So everybody new it had happened. Question was did I record it on film. I put the exposed film in a can for procesing back in England. All over the can I wrote “PLEASE PRESERVE THE END”. When a roll is film is procesed and prepared for a telecini the lab technicians stick a plastic leader on the end of the exposed film. Usually the last foot or so of the film is lost with this process. By writing “preseve the end” on the film can I was asking then to stick the leader on as little of the exposed film as possible. I had a feeling every frame was going to count.

About 3 weeks after getting back from the trip the film was procesed and reafdy for the telecini. I was at home in Bristiol so I went through to see the material going through. My whale roll, because it was the last roll exposed on the trip, was the last to go though. The first 7 passing shots went though. I was really excited. Some of them were super close and really impressive. Then the last lunge came up. My heart was pounding. The whale came up throug frame, opened it’s pleats, engulfed the shoal, fell away from me, beat it’s tail, the tail left frame…..and then black. I was stunned for a moment and then went absolutely nuts. It was like scoring a goal in the FA cup final. I hugged the Telicini operator and then knocked over the mints as I lept onto the sofa screaming and punching the air. People from the sound room next door even came in to see if anything was wrong. Happy does not even begin to describe it. I wanted to see the end of the film. The telecine operator took the film of the machine and we had a look. From the frame the tail of the whale left frame to the end of the film there was 12 empty frames. 12 frames. About 3 inches of film. The lab technician had glued the leader onto the last few milimeters of the roll.