From LAX to Sawinggrai in 54 hours
Today was our first day in Raja Ampat. After 54 hours of intense travel we have finally arrived! Our journey took us from Los Angeles to Taipei (a 14-hour flight), then to Jakarta, where we mercifully caught up on sleep during a 12-hour layover, then on to the bustling coastal city of Sorong, gateway to the 1,500 islands that make up the Raja Ampat archipelago. After spending the night there—and enjoying a plate of the local rice and a dinner-serenade by karaoke—we were off at first light on a speedboat to the island of Mansuar. Our headquarters here will be the Raja Ampat Dive Lodge, a comfortable resort despite its isolation.
We will be in this area of Raja Ampat for the next two weeks, each day traveling by boat to nearby islands to capture the beauty of the surroundings. We’re also here to document the human stories of the islanders who are leading a conservation movement to protect their marine environment. I’m part of the topside unit, which includes my father, director Greg MacGillivray, my mother Barbara, who is our script consultant and still photographer, my brother and the film’s producer, Shaun, director of photography Brad Ohlund, producers Mark Krenzien and Neal Allen, and writer/editor Stephen Judson. We also have two underwater crews here in Raja Ampat led by Howard Hall and DJ Roller and an aerial team led by Spacecam operator Michael Kalem.
After settling in to the lodge, we travel to the island of Sawinggrai to scout locations for filming. Scouting is the critical first step of every documentary we make. Although we start off each film shoot with a “shooting script” and a target shot list, we don’t really know until we arrive in a location exactly what scenes we’ll film or how our story will unfold.
In Sawinggrai, we meet up with Jawi, a charismatic 12-year-old boy who is one of our characters in the film. He and his uncle, Menas, take us on a tour of the island so we can decide where best to stage our shots. Children follow us everywhere, and men and women smile as we walk through their village, taking copious amounts of pictures. The entire village is extremely friendly, and as we pass a group of school children walking home from school, each one greets us with a friendly “Selamat Siang” (good afternoon). I wonder what they think of this large herd of outsiders that has descended upon their village.
Everyone on our crew is trying to pick up a few words of Bahasa, the main dialect in Indonesia, in order to communicate with our island hosts. Brad remembers quite a bit of Bahasa from his time shooting some of our earlier films here in the 1980s and 90s, and he loves talking to the locals. Every day, he teaches us a new “word of the day.”
After leaving Sawinggrai, we visit a natural rock arch rising up out of the water. It is surrounded by overgrown, mushroom-shaped islands. This archway can only be entered at extreme low tide, as is evident by the saltwater dripping from the ceiling. The bats flying around inside the tunnel don’t ease our feeling of claustrophobia, which makes the whole experience somewhat disconcerting.
The day is capped off with a sighting of a green sea turtle swimming close to shore, and a whale, which surfaced just off the island, underscoring the incredible abundance of sealife here. Raja Ampat is considered the most bio-diverse marine ecosystem in the world, and it truly is a magical place. So even though it is 100 degrees Fahrenheit with almost 100% humidity, and my hair has frizzed and I’m already covered with mosquito bites, I can’t wait to see what tomorrow will bring.