Out of the blue
THE SHOOT: Oceanic Whitetips and pilot whales
LOCATION: Kona, Hawaii
CREW: 1 x director, 1 x cameraman, 5 x divemasters/ freedivers
SETUP: Dayboat, scuba, breath-hold
Rising steeply from the seabed 4000m below, and thousands of miles from continental land, the Hawaiian Islands attract a lot of megafauna.
Being true oceanic water, the vis is normally excellent, and here in Kona we are on the leeward side of Big Islands impressive volcano, which means that flat-calm seas are common and rain is diminished - perfect for filming.
You will note that Hawaii is in the North Pacific, but we are including it in the South Pacific series because its under similar influences to the other islands, and is also part of the overall colonisation story - and the story of people voyaging across the Pacific.
Were here for the oceanic whitetip sharks that patrol the deep offshore waters, and the pilot whales they mysteriously shadow.
There are three main challenges to this shoot: finding our subjects, getting close enough to film them (without disturbing them), and doing it all safely. As most divers know, finding pretty much anything in the near-infinity of the big blue open ocean can be pretty hard.
To increase our success rate, our captain has put the word out that were looking for the whales, and we will keep the radio open for any sightings. With 15 or so local boats helping out, we have a hugely increased chance of success!
Our aim is to be able to get close to get the shots, but no shot is worth risking an injury. Safety is a serious issue on this shoot. Most sharks dont take much interest in divers, but oceanic whitetips are known to be fearless and aggressive.
In the Pacific, they have the dubious reputation of being the main culprits in attacks on the countless sailors and airmen who found themselves adrift following the epic sea battles of World War Two.
Before the shoot, I chatted with veteran shark-diving photographer and Kona local, Doug Perrine. Ah, well, the thing with the oceanic whitetips is that where theres one, there might be several - its not the shark in front of me that worries me, its the one sneaking up behind me thats the problem, he says.
If theres anything worse than one persistent aggressive shark, several persistent and aggressive sharks might be it. Naturally, I ask about precautions. Youll be fine, theres really nothing to worry about - just keep an eye out... and take something to push them away with, says Doug.
Weve had this kind of conversation before. Dougs shark billy is nothing more than a half-metre length of 2.5cm-diameter pvc pipe, with a wrist lanyard at one end. What am I going to do with that - wedge its jaws open I counter, but
I know that Dougs not kidding.
The sharks are a serious issue, but they are not the only consideration in figuring out our dive plans - there are also the pilot whales.
Being marine mammals, they are rightly protected by various laws, and unlike the sharks they arent aggressive by nature, and will probably be cautious and tend to avoid us.
As with any wildlife filming, our aim is to capture their natural, undisturbed behaviour - so we have to be cautious and ensure that they are either unaware or unconcerned by our presence.
Luckily, the whales spend most of their time in the top 20m or so of water, so that takes the pressure off a bit in terms of air consumption and blood nitrogen. However, both the sharks and whales are very mobile, so we need to be able to move reasonably fast in the water. Add in that the whales may be concerned by the noise of our bubbles, and we have much to consider.
We can stay shallow, so I settle on a plan of either doing the shoot on breath-hold, so that we can be unencumbered and silent, or if necessary we use 5-litre ponies as our air supply, coupled with small sports-harnesses with no buoyancy (reducing the drag immeasurably compared to a traditional rig).
In terms of shark precautions, the main thing is to protect cameraman Richard, so that he can get on with the filming (with his eye to the viewfinder, his restricted world-view makes him vulnerable).
With the likelihood of multiple sharks around, I settle on a plan to have three shark-billy-equipped safety divers (including me) in the water at any given time. I also bring along a Shark Shield - a device that is strapped to the ankle and is supposed to deter sharks over a radius of about 2.5m.
It emits an electric field that is uncomfortable to sharks electro-receptors (the ampullae of Lorenzini).
So, back in Hawaii...
Were phenomenally lucky, and get to see our first whales on day 1. The sharks prove a little harder to track down, and for once the Kona visibility lets us down - just seeing the whales is a promising start, but its really not the spectacle that were looking for.
We spend the days combing the area, and we do see some action, but its not until five days into the shoot that our luck really improves.
Its a sparkling blue day. Weve been out on the water for several hours when finally another boat radios in with a GPS reference. After about 15 minutes steaming we catch sight of the whales, edge closer, and stop a respectful distance away.
DAN, ONE OF THE SAFETY DIVERS, jumps up on the cabin roof to get a better view and spot for sharks. Oceanic whitetip! comes the shout from above. Theres a small pause, then an excited exclamation: TWO oceanic whitetips!, followed by THREE... FOUR... FIVE oceanic whitetips!
We clamber up to survey the scene. Its time to get in the water, but first I check that everyones still okay with the plan, given the number of sharks. Were kitted up ready, so we all enter in quick succession and head out from the boat.
The idea is to stay close to Richard, while still giving him a clear shot. We set out with one
diver on each side to fend off lateral approaches, and one behind to cover everyones back - approaches from above or below will be a collective responsibility.
We want the sharks to come close, so we will keep the Shark Shield turned off unless things turn really hairy, then we will all bunch in together, turn the thing on, and make our way towards the boat, shark-billies in-hand.
Were only about 15m from the boat when I spot the first shark, the three white dots of its fintips being the first thing visible in the blue.
I alert the others. As it swims steadily towards us there are more shouts, and suddenly there are four sharks around. Three bear in on us at once, and its a high-energy moment as we each face off our own sharks.
The formation works well, and any worries I had about the divers attention lapsing are gone as everyone bunches together, hyper-alert. As top predators, these sharks exude a quiet and absolute self-assurance. In the open ocean environment, pretty much anything can be food, and their opportunistic nature demands that they investigate us as an option.
They are beautiful animals, with an imposing presence and rather cat-like eyes, but fortunately these individuals are more curious than serious about biting us - at least, for now. Our main impression is that its not a matter of if they will attack, but when.
Given enough time, Im pretty sure theyd work up to it - but so long as we are watching them and responding to their approaches, were pretty safe.
Most of the oceanic attacks on people have been on ship or plane-wreck victims, who would have been floating at the surface and unable to see the sharks coming, or to respond to them.
Hanging passively in the water, they would have been susceptible targets, and a rather different prospect to us.
THE SHARKS STICK AROUND for quite a while, often swimming off beyond the edge of visibility, only to reappear again from another angle. They do come in fairly close but theres no bumping, and were able to get the shots we need.
Theres a lovely moment when the whole pod of whales comes by, and we get the shot of these being trailed by a single shark, which obligingly passes by, about a foot from the camera.
With this final pass, suddenly both sharks and whales are gone, and were alone, floating in the void. Light rays shine down from the surface and dance in the blue depths. The scene is entrancing. In every direction there is just empty blue water, and not a speck of life to be seen.
The ocean is a transient provider, and there is no hint of the scene that just passed. Its been a phenomenal day, and everyone is pretty elated as we clamber back onto the boat.
I grab the hand-rail, and the Shark Shield, unused, shocks me with a residual electrical impulse. I swear loudly and we all laugh, but I reflect that Im happy not to have needed to switch it on.