Sweetlips and Tungsten Lights

There is a lot of water moving fast over the reef, so the skiff drops us off well up-stream from the rest of the underwater IMAX camera crew already in place 65 feet below the surface. The current will pull us straight to them if we judge everything right. If not, who knows where we’ll end up.

I dive in the water and follow the light cables down toward Howard Hall, the world’s best underwater cinematographer. He has logged almost a full year of work underwater on rebreathers – specialized closed-circuit dive systems that enable much longer stays underwater.  Months ago, back home in California, Howard saw a photo of a giant rock somewhere here on Otdima Reef in the Dampier Strait.  If he could find it, he knew it would be home to thousands of fish—and could yield some of the best footage for the IMAX film we are making about the reefs of the South Pacific.

On the surface, two 15-foot inflatable skiffs hold the support gear needed to capture IMAX footage at 65 feet deep—a 100-pound generator for powering the underwater lights and 400 feet of buoyed light cable.  The crew is using a tungsten 3-light system, which produces more light than any other system, including LED.  When filmed underwater in natural light, a coral reef’s colors often look dull and too blue.  Adding powerful lighting is like turning on the Christmas tree lights: reds, yellows, greens, and magentas pop all around.

As I get closer, I can see Howard and his assistant Peter Kragh, a world-class underwater cinematographer in his own right, holding the giant IMAX camera perfectly still with three lights positioned around it.  Wrangling a 300-pound camera in strong current, on a reef about three football fields in the length, they had landed on the exact rock from the photo, first try. It is surreal to see his team’s well-orchestrated operation, like a ballet with heavy machinery on another planet. The light cable stretches out behind him, handled by two dive masters, also perfectly still. I film the scene with my Canon Mark III.

These reefs are what give Raja Ampat the most marine biodiversity of anywhere in the world. They are the foundation for the entire ecosystem and provide a symbiotic habitat for the algae and plankton that support small fish, crustaceans, bigger fish, and marine mammals. Some of the sea life found here is thought to exist nowhere else on earth. The reefs are what make it all possible.

As Peter trains the lights on the rock, a school of foot-long, electric-yellow sweetlips swims right in front of Howard’s camera, hovering in a formation the size of a refrigerator.  This is their home reef.  A group of small cleaner wrasse move in to pick off the bigger fishes’ parasites as thousands of glassy sweeper fish join the scene. As the current moves, each fish rocks in unison, swaying back and forth rhythmically with the swell, moving as one body.  It’s awesome, even spiritual.  I can imagine the shot filling the giant IMAX screen, with music timed to their undulations.  The scene is so mesmerizing we end up shooting three rolls of 15/70 film—about nine minutes and $4,500 worth.  As we scramble back onto the skiffs, Howard looks at me and says “I guarantee at least one of these shots will make it into the film.”  It might also prove to be one of the best shots of the entire trip.



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