Raja Ampat Expedition Shaun Meghan

Howard Hall in West Papua

Howard Hall is a world-class underwater cinematographer who has worked on numerous MacGillivray Freeman productions including the Oscar®-nominated films “The Living Sea” and “Dolphins.” In 1976, he captured some of the first known underwater images of a gray whale, which were featured in National Geographic. His first film, “Seasons in the Sea,” won Best Film at the 1990 Wildscreen and Jackson Hole Film Festivals. Since then he has gone on to shoot a multitude of marine wildlife all over the world.

The Adventure of Getting There

The MacGillivray Freeman production team is now gathering here in Sorong, Indonesia in preparation for nearly 8 weeks of IMAX® filmmaking.  We’re making a film about the reefs of the South Pacific, which are some of the most pristine in the world. 

We have weeks of adventure ahead of us.  In fact, a sense of adventure has already been manifest for many of us who flew into Jakarta day before yesterday.  I could see that Jakarta was flooded as our jet aircraft approached for landing. Hundreds of homes and businesses could be seen isolated within many square miles of muddy water.  The catastrophe was all over CNN news.  And it was still raining.

Our landing was uneventful, but the rain picked up late that night as we checked in for the 1am flight to Sorong, Raja Ampat.  By the time we got to the gate for boarding, the rain was coming down in full tropical deluge.  Wind was driving sheets of water horizontally, and explosive lightning was accompanied by crashing thunder creating a blinding cacophony that was almost constant.  No one wanted to climb aboard an airplane in these conditions.  Fortunately, those intimidated by nature’s fury included the pilots. No one complained about the flight delay.  Eventually, the dark clouds passed and we finally boarded the plane in light rain for an uneventful flight to Sorong.

Today we sorted out all the gear as truck-loads of freight came in from the airport.  Nearly 5 tons of production equipment filled the small warehouse where we temporarily stored hundreds of shipping crates and boxes.  Producers Mark Krenzien and Neal Allen have done an amazing job organizing the logistics for this massive undertaking.  And despite formidable challenges everything seems to be coming together.

Underwater cameraman Peter Kragh and I moved our personal dive gear and the IMAX Mark II camera equipment down to the M/V Pindito this afternoon.  All our stuff is now on board and tomorrow we will prep for shooting.  On Monday, Peter, Michele Hall, Sam Abeger and I will initiate diving operations from Pindito while director Greg MacGillivray and the topside production team begins shooting above water stories around the Raja Ampat Dive Lodge.  DJ Roller and his crew will be diving nearby from a second boat.  The adventure is about to move underwater and I can’t wait to begin diving.

Dampier Strait, 9am

Our first day of actual underwater operations got off to a slow start.  We had planned to dive Otdima Reef to film a spectacular school of lined sweetlips that hover against a large rock while cleaner wrasses move between their open mouths cleaning parasites.  This school was there last year when Michele and I scouted Raja Ampat and it was here yesterday.  It has been here for years.  Strange how some animals will often call a place home and gather predictably in one place as opposed to any other. 

Unfortunately, we could not remove the 85 filter from the 30mm lens.  Shooting the school with lights and the filter in place would have yielded yellow tinted images.  I suspected the lens had some corrosion and was frozen in place.  We decided to change plans and go to film manta rays at the Manta Sandy cleaning station where using the stuck filter was appropriate.  As we passed the village where Greg MacGillivray and the topside crew were working, we discussed the problem with assistant cameraman Rob Walker by radio.  He came out to our boat with a spare lens.  More importantly, he came out with better knowledge of the lens and almost immediately had the filter out of the offending 30mm.  We all felt a bit foolish.

So the plan changed again.  With the filter out, we headed back to Otdima Reef to film the sweetlips school.  This dive went very well and we ended by shooting three rolls of these spectacular fish.  It is hard to image this scene not making it into the film.

Luck at Manta Sandy

For the last three days we have been diving two manta ray sites in the Dampier Strait.  One site is called Manta Sandy and the other is Manta Ridge.  Both are cleaning stations for manta rays where reef fish predictably clean parasites from mantas that hover over specific places on the reef.  But in order to hold still, the mantas like to have a relatively strong current.  This lets them move slowly while staying right over the cleaning station.  It also means doing camerawork with a large IMAX® camera system is difficult.
During most of the dives we have made so far, either the current was too strong to maneuver, or the manta rays didn’t come, or the sun was absent due to a rainstorm, or visibility was bad, or something.  But yesterday it all came together for us.  In the morning, the sun came out and the water seemed to clear up at the same time.  I had half a roll of film in the camera when a manta flew into the cleaning station and hovered beautifully in front of the camera as green cleaner wrasses swam into and around the manta’s mouth picking off parasites.  It was wonderful.  Of course, a half roll of film is only 90 seconds for the IMAX camera, but I hope it is enough.  Fortunately, our good luck was not used up for the day. 

© 2013 IMAX Corporation and MacGillivray Freeman Films. Photographer: Michele Hall

In the late afternoon we headed out to Manta Sandy to look for turtles.  We had dived there several times and visibility was poor and the mantas were staying away.  It is a good site for hawksbill turtles, though, so we thought to look for them and try Manta Ridge again in the morning to finish up our manta sequence.
As we dropped down into Manta Sandy, we saw three mantas in the cleaning station.  The animals allowed us to approach within touching distance and so hawksbill turtles were quickly forgotten.  We shot two entire rolls on the mantas as they gracefully glided over the coral and dozens of wrasse and butterflyfish left the reef and swam up to the rays.  It was magical.  Even with our super-wide IMAX camera lens, the mantas often came too close. 

© 2013 IMAX Corporation and MacGillivray Freeman Films. Photographer: Michele Hall

Each time I am presented with an opportunity like this, I begin thinking of all the ways I might have screwed up.  I kept checking and re-checking my camera settings and everything looked perfect.  But it will be many months before I sit in a screening room with Greg and Shaun MacGillivray and know for sure.  Until then I will keep my fingers crossed.

© 2013 IMAX Corporation and MacGillivray Freeman Films
IMAX® is a registered trademark of IMAX Corporation

Deep in the Mangroves

Pindito is now in Sorong where we will re-provision the boat, drop off exposed IMAX® film, and pick up the additional unexposed film we left in storage here ten days ago.   Hopefully, the 22 rolls of 70mm film we have shot so far (about one hour of total running time) will be shipped back to Los Angeles for processing during the next few days.  It would be great to get a report on the technical quality of the film, but that probably won’t happen before we finish shooting in two weeks time. 
The crew aboard our live-aboard dive boat, Pindito, is only one of four MacGillivray Freeman film units working here in Raja Ampat.  We left Greg MacGillivray and the topside team at the Raja Ampat Dive Lodge last night, where they are filming the coral reef conservation efforts of villagers.  DJ Roller and his underwater team left for Misool several days ago and reports good conditions there. Michael Kalem and the aerial unit have already been here and gone. We will head for Misool tonight, and I am looking forward to clear water and the beautiful dive sites Michele and I scouted last year.
Our filming in the Dampier Strait is now done.  I was extremely happy with the manta ray footage we captured.  We should have wonderful images of mantas being cleaned and several excellent shots of manta rays feeding on plankton.  The cleaning behavior was the best I have ever seen.  It should provide some truly exceptional IMAX moments for the film.

© 2013 IMAX Corporation and MacGillivray Freeman Films. Photographer: MC

We also captured some sweeping underwater reef-scapes featuring more species of coral than I could count.  Sometimes the swarms of reef fish over the coral were so dense I had trouble actually seeing the coral itself.
We also captured underwater images deep in the local mangroves.  The water was surprisingly clear and the mangrove roots were festooned in soft corals and sponges.  Just outside the mangroves, a coral reef flourished and clouds of damselfish hovered over stony gardens.  Hopefully these images will help demonstrate the importance of mangrove forests in maintaining the health of coral reefs.

© 2013 IMAX Corporation and MacGillivray Freeman Films. Photographer: Michele Hall

Weather in Sorong today is wet.  The skies have been dumping buckets of rain accompanied by violent crashes of thunder and lightning.  The weather will probably calm down as we move away from the main island and head to Misool.  At least, I hope so.  Tomorrow we will be diving the myriad tiny islands surrounding Misool.  Last year some of these locations yielded many of the most beautiful images I have ever captured.  I hope we do as well during the next few weeks.

© 2013 IMAX Corporation and MacGillivray Freeman Films. Photographer: Howard Hall

© 2013 IMAX Corporation and MacGillivray Freeman Films
IMAX® is a registered trademark of IMAX Corporation

Boo and Nudi Rock

For the last four days we have been diving in the Fiabacet Islands near the Misool Eco Resort.  There are several really excellent dive sites here including the sites our captain, Edi Frommenwiler, calls Boo and Nudi Rock.  I don’t know how Boo got its name but Nudi Rock looks very much like a nudibranch snail when viewed in silhouette against the morning sunrise.

Boo is a small rock island famous for two very large holes that penetrate the rock.  In the morning, sunlight pours through these giant tunnels spilling out over the reef below like sunshine through a window.  We set our IMAX® camera on a heavy tripod, careful not to damage any living coral.  Then we filmed Michele and Pindito dive guide, Amil, swimming through the windows silhouetted by morning light.  I captured the shot from a half dozen angles but I’m sure it is the last of these that Greg will use in the film.  It was truly stunning.

Later that day we filmed soft corals blossoming in the strong currents that sweep past Boo.  Angelfish and butterflyfish pass through the soft corals and sea fans.  The camera only exposes three minutes of film with each load, but my crew and I often spend two hours underwater trying to compose that perfect shot.  We were able to work a bit faster than that at Boo since there were so many good options.  We shot purple and pink soft corals separated by bright red sea fans.  Large schools of snapper and fusiliers paraded through our frames.

After two days of diving at Boo, we moved to Nudi Rock.  This is one of my favorite sites in Raja.  Strong currents nourish the reef here and the walls of the tiny islet are alive with gorgonian corals and soft corals.  This morning I planned to shoot a soft coral tree that I saw here last year.  It was the most beautiful soft coral patch I have ever seen.  But as we descended along the tiny island’s underwater escarpment, we discovered a hawksbill turtle.  Since turtles are one of the strongest themes in Greg’s shooting script, we are loath to ignore them no matter how strongly the soft corals beckon.  We ended up following the turtle for two hours capturing wonderful scenes of the reptile feeding on soft corals and sponges.  These are some of the best turtle feeding shots I have ever captured in any motion picture format. 

As the noisy IMAX camera ran, I once again found myself hoping I was not making any technical mistakes.  The camera’s viewfinder is a parallax system and the image the viewfinder “sees” is slightly different than the image the IMAX camera captures.  It would be easy for a small branch of coral or sea fan to be in the way, between the lens and the turtle, while I watch an unobstructed view in the viewfinder.  This has happened before.  I hope it didn’t happen today – the shots were just too good.  On the ride back to Pindito from Nudi Rock, I mentioned to Peter Kragh that he should take every opportunity to check to make sure the lens is not obstructed by something I can’t see through the viewfinder.  With his help I should be more confident of future shots.

Anchovy School

We continue to dive in the vicinity of the Misool Eco Resort where Greg and the topside crew are working.  Staying close to the Resort is fine with me since some of the best diving in Raja lies in close proximity, including Nudi Rock and Boo.  We had several good dives at Nudi Rock where the Pindito guides showed us a spectacular pinnacle literally covered in soft corals of myriad colors.  I shot a full roll of 15/70mm film here, allowing the camera to drift over the corals as the movie lights bathed the reef in kaleidoscopic color.  Most images captured underwater tend to be very blue because the warm end of the light spectrum is filtered out as light passes through water.  By the time we are down forty or fifty feet, reds, yellows, oranges and most of the most brilliant colors are invisible.  But our powerful underwater lights reveal these colors for the camera.  As I bring the lights to bear upon the reef, seemingly blue and grey shades suddenly explode with color.  During this dive our lights allowed us to capture some of the most vibrantly colorful images of our trip.

We loaded a second film roll and made another dive to shoot more on this beautiful pinnacle, but after our first shot, we found another turtle feeding.  Once again our priorities changed and we followed the turtle as it swam between red sea fans and lavender soft corals. 

When Michele and I were in Raja last year we captured spectacular images of jacks and tuna feeding upon vast shoals of anchovies that surrounded one of the islands.  I had hoped to capture this for our IMAX® film and we have checked a dozen islands looking for the anchovy schools without success – until two days ago.  Dive guides at the Misool Eco Resort reported seeing anchovies with Mobulas feeding on them at a reef they called Grouper.  Pindito headed out immediately.

As I first dropped down to the reef at Grouper, I suspected the report was another false alarm.  The reef was pretty and I saw small groups of anchovies flashing in the water above the corals.  But I didn’t see the giant shoals of fish that I was hoping to find.  But Pindito dive master Bob Brunskill beckoned us to follow and after a few minutes swimming out over deep water, we came upon a dark pinnacle that seemed to be undulating.  As we got closer I could see that the pinnacle was engulfed in shoals of anchovies that rushed and flashed as Mobulas (a ray similar to manta rays) and tuna attacked the tiny fish. 

We have now spent two days filming at the Grouper pinnacle capturing truly amazing images.  Beneath our movie lights, the shoal of anchovies seems to ignite, almost like lightning, as the predators attack.  In most of my shots jacks and tuna can be seen diving through the shoal at high speed.  But I have only captured one distant shot of a Mobula attacking.  As I write this, Pindito is preparing to leave her anchorage and head back to Grouper for one more try.  I will shoot at least two more rolls there and I hope the giant delta-winged Mobulas will be captured on film as they strafe the anchovy schools like jet fighters.

Rainbow Kaleidoscope

As often happens, our last few days of shooting were among the best.  Peter and I had planned to concentrate our last few dives on capturing more examples of symbiotic associations between fish.  Generally this means fish cleaning behavior.  Ironically, we observe small fish cleaning bigger fish much more often that we observe large fish eating small fish.  Fish cleaning behavior happens constantly all around us on the reef.  That, however, does not mean it is easy to capture the behavior with an IMAX® camera.  These gentle pursuits between species are almost always disturbed by the hulking presence of two divers, a behemoth-sized camera, and blinding movie lights.   What may be easy to observe from fifteen feet away may be impossible to film from six feet away.  I’m not sure what tends to disturb fish cleaning behaviors more, the presence of over-fed divers and a huge camera, the noise this monster camera makes (often described as similar to a lawnmower with a bad bearing), or the brightness of our movie lights.  Fish often change color to signal their willingness to be cleaned when they enter a “cleaning station.”  It may be that our movie lights change the color of the host by adding warm colors that had been filtered out as sunlight from the surface passes through seawater. 

We spent our morning dive in shallow water shooting fusiliers being cleaned by small blue wrasses.  Instead of lights, we used a color correction filter on the lens.  We managed to capture a few shots, but even without the lights, the fish seemed incapable of ignoring our massive camera or the noise it makes.

Fortunately, Pindito captain Edi Frommenwiler saved us from a second frustrating attempt at filming fish cleaning behavior.  He had taken one of Pindito’s inflatable boats and scouted an island called Yellit where he discovered another massive school of anchovies and, this time, dozens of Mobulas feeding on them.  We changed gears quickly.

As we followed Edi down, I could see a huge swarm of small fish covering a spire of rock that protruded from the island’s steep escarpment. Mobulas circled above the school preparing for their next attack.  This looked to be exciting.  Peter and I dropped down the wall and settled on the protrusion.  Pindito dive masters Rafael Sauter, Amil Ihsan, and Bob Brunskill followed behind us, assisting with our light cables.  Once on the pinnacle, I set the aperture and focus on the lens and then waited for the next attack by the Mobulas.  About twenty minutes had passed when, suddenly, the school of anchovies began to undulate and flash as predators attacked the far side of the swarm.  I switched on the camera and heard the IMAX camera motor bring the film up to proper speed.  The camera had run for about twenty seconds when we heard an enormous explosion that momentarily stunned me into stupefaction.  Glass rained down in front of the camera’s lens.  One of our movie light bulbs had imploded.  Instinctively, I then made the mistake of turning the camera off.

Most often, loud noises underwater send fish fleeing.  The loud noise our camera makes when running is a perfect example.  But sometimes just the reverse happens.  Just as the remaining lights went out and my finger pressed the off switch on the camera, a Mobula raced directly toward us veering off just a few feet away from the lens.  The ray was followed by an enormous school of large jack travalle fish.  These chased the anchovies up against the pinnacle and attacked them ferociously.  Within a few moments, they had kicked up so much dust that visibility dropped to only a few feet.  It was one of the most dramatic predations I had ever seen underwater.  And I missed the shot.

Later that day I managed to capture several good scenes of Mobulas swimming above the anchovy schools, but I never captured a good example of actual predation by the big rays.  Pindito was scheduled to pull anchor that evening to begin the short voyage to Sorong with a short stop at Waia Island. There we would make one more dive to film the Catlin Seaview Survey Team as they mapped Indonesian coral reefs for Google Ocean.  That evening, as the sunset flamed the western horizon, Peter loaded the IMAX Mark II camera aboard the live-aboard dive boat, Sea Wolf, and along with Greg and the other members of the IMAX camera team, departed for Cenderawasih Bay where they hope to film whale sharks and leatherback turtles.  Michele and I will spend a few days in Sorong before we re-board Pindito and head back out to sea to capture digital video for our own library.  I look forward to handling a small movie camera again.  And I already can’t wait to get back in the water.

All materials contained in this blog © 2013 IMAX Corporation and MacGillivray Freeman Films.
IMAX® is a registered trademark of IMAX Corporation.

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