Sam’s Tonga Journal, Part 2

Finally arrived in Tonga!

Part 1      Part 3


Howard Hall free diving to get the shot in Tonga.

After two days of travel, Rob and I met up with Brad at the airport and we were driven straight to the dock to load the gear. They were driving on the other side of the road. I’ve been to England before, but I couldn’t get over it. Maybe it was the small island feel of the location that made it stand out. Cameraman Jack Tankard was there waiting at the dock, and we got straight to work loading the Princess Royal, the boat we would live on for the next month.


The Princess Royal is an 80-foot, three level powerboat. It has a main deck with a “dining room,” “living area,” and the helm. The top deck is a big covered patio with a second helm. The lower level has the engine room and living quarters for eight. She has a big diesel engine with two motors and a generator for electricity.

The Princess Royal. © Michele Hall.

The plan was to make the 24-hour crossing to Vava’u at 6 the next morning, so we had to get all the gear on board before the sun went down. It takes a while to figure out where everything is going to go, and physically, loading 95 cases of camera equipment is pretty tiresome. Luckily we had a lot of help from some of the local crew at Nuku’alofa. They grow them big and strong here and they are always ready to help, which is appreciated when you are loading three tons of gear. Seti and Joe, the engineer and the deckhand, both stand over 6 feet, and at well over 230 lbs, they put some power behind the effort. We were told that the seas were going to be rough, so we strapped down everything on the top deck and organized the gear on the bottom deck to minimize any cases falling.


After loading, we ate some dinner at Jack and Brad’s accomodations, The Emerald Hotel, just down the street from the dock. We passed the Chinese Consulate on the way and coincidentally, the restaurant in the hotel was Chinese. I wasn’t feeling too well so I had some soup while the others chowed down.


The next morning, we got underway right after Loti our cook, and captain Joe’s wife, served us a delicious breakfast. About 15 minutes outside the harbor, we plunged into the rough seas we had anticipated; that’s when I realized I should have taken the Dramamine. It was pretty rough. We were in 6-12 foot seas on a boat doing about six knots max; it felt like we were a cork just bouncing up and down in the Pacific Ocean. Cases and furniture were sliding everywhere and the entire galley basically fell out of the cupboards.


We anticipated being able to do some topside shooting if we saw any whales or at least getting some prep done for the cameras, but that was out of the question. Anytime we tried to do something, we would get sick from looking down too long. The nausea got to me while trying to gel some ND filters on a lens. Shooting would have been really unstable, and the weather was not clear enough to get anything great regardless. 


The only way to overcome the seasickness was to lie down and close my eyes; standing outside and looking at the horizon did nothing for me. After about 8 hours, it finally calmed down to three to six foot seas, and we could sit upright and walk around without getting nauseous. We cleaned up the galley and Seti cooked dinner because Loti was too sick. But as soon as we put our forks down, it got rough again. We all went back down to sleep as best we could. I was in and out of consciousness throughout the rest of the trip, finally waking up because the seas went dead calm. We finally arrived to Vava’u. We survived!


We pulled into the wharf outside the hotel where the rest of the film crew is staying at 7 am on Sunday, a very holy day in Tonga. Religious tradition designates it as a day to be in church or with family; it is frowned upon to work, so  out of respect for their culture, we uncharacteristically did the bare minimum prep work on the boat. The wharf is at the bottom of a 100-step staircase to the hotel storage room for our gear. It was kind of nice not having to carry all the gear up that climb; it could wait until the next day.


One necessary task was resealing the port for the IMAX underwater housing. The pressure during flight popped the silicone seal, and it takes at least 24 hours for the silicone to re-seal before it can be used.


At the end of the day, we had dinner at a local restaurant just down the street, open on Sunday with a set menu of Chinese food for the visiting tourists. It was a wide-open building with wood overhangs on a patio and an open kitchen. The food was delicious; an appetizer of corn soup, an entree of crispy honey chicken and pork lo mein, and desert was a half banana and some coconut jelly.


On Monday, Rob and I stayed back at the boat prepping gear for the rest of the shoot, while Howard Hall, one of the most prolific underwater cameramen in the world, and Peter Kragh, also a world-renowned underwater cameraman, went out to film humpbacks with two RED Epic camera systems, while Howard’s wife Michele shot behind the scenes photos. Brad and Jack, and the production team, Mark Krenzien and Neal Allen went around town to scout some locations and figure out what kind of rigging and grip would be needed to finish the dry land shot list when Greg comes into town.

Howard Hall, left, and Peter Kragh testing the IMAX camera. © Michele Hall.


It was a lot of work to get all the cases up to the storage facility, and prep cameras, and it never seems there is enough time to do it all. Rob and I got a lot of the equipment that would be used for the land based shooting moved, and Rob loaded some IMAX magazines, while I set up the RED backup system for underwater shooting the next day. Every night, after Howard and Peter, and Brad finish shooting on the Epics, I have to back up all the cards to three separate drives. This is a lot of work after a long day helping with the shoot.


At the end of the day, the whale watching boat that we were going to be on for the next five days, the Dream Catcher, came by our dock so that we could test our launch and recovery method for the IMAX camera. The housing and camera fully loaded weigh over 300 pounds, so it is a challenge to figure out how we are going to do so on each boat. Dream Catcher’s captain, Alastair, a New Zealander, asked me if I was of Tongan or of Pacific Islander descent, which I took as a complement. Sam in Tongan is Samu, and the locals and even the film crew have started calling me that.


The next day on the Dream Catcher was quite a good day. Our captain was Ali was dark skinned with a closely shaved head, not as big as the other Tongans, but definitely strong, and knows the waters and whales well. Musu, our guide, is a little thinner than Ali, with long hair and a little ponytail mullet. He is an excellent freediver and his experience shows.

Ali, Captain of the Dream Catcher, left, and Musu, whale guide and free diver, at work.

We had mostly sunny skies with a few showers; the seas were not too rough and launching and recovering the IMAX camera, though very taxing was getting smoother. Rob and I were getting better as the day went on, though our muscles were feeling a little worse. We launched and recovered it eight times.

Rob Walker, left, and Sam recovering the IMAX camera.

When we first got out there, the guides start looking out for whale spouts while listening to the radio for information about whales from other boats. The whale watching companies are friendly with each other and share information via radio all day. First we came up to a “singer” whale that was being watched by another boat that radioed Ali. Singers are males who position themselves head down and “sing,” projecting their song for miles; Howard got a couple shots of him before he swam away.


To launching the camera, and camera operators, Ali would take the boat to the area where we last saw the whale and Musu spot the whale. Then Ali would position the boat close by, and Howard, Peter and Michele would get in position to shoot while Rob and I launched the camera to film the whale. We repeated this procedure throughout the day.


Luckily, We also ended up hanging out with another mother and calf, launching the IMAX camera a few times, and because Howard is so experienced, he got some excellent shots.


Overall the trip has been amazing; I have taken my first multi-day boat trip across rough seas and survived, ate some great food, met some really nice Tongans, seen some incredible whales up close, and most importantly I’m learning a lot about being on location with the best camera team in the business. I still have to pinch myself sometimes to see if I'm dreaming when I think about the people I am working with and the knowledge and experience they have in their field. We will be on the Dream Catcher with Ali and Musu for the next few days. I can’t wait to see more whales.

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