5 SOAP OPERA AT SEA

In late Oc­to­ber, the sec­ond series of the phe­nom­e­nally suc­cess­ful Our Big Blue Back­yard be­gins screen­ing on TVNZ. Mike White joined the divers and cam­era­men in Fiord­land as they filmed an episode of a show that gets up close with our ex­tra­or­di­nary un­derwa

North & South - - Contents - MIKE WHITE IS A NORTH & SOUTH SE­NIOR WRITER. PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY MIKE WHITE.

Mike White joins divers and cam­era­men film­ing in Fiord­land for the sec­ond series of Our Big Blue Back­yard.

They were miles from land, mi les from any­where. Com­pletely in the dark, im­mersed in the Pa­cific Ocean.

Divers Kina Scol­lay and Ross Fun­nell had slipped into the sea off the Ker­madec Is­lands after the sun dis­ap­peared, hop­ing to film the un­der­wa­ter world at night. Two of New Zealand’s most ex­pe­ri­enced divers, they had worked to­gether for years but, in the dark, had a com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tem that al­lowed them to talk to each other.

And then they heard it. Whale song, com­ing from nearby hump­backs, com­ing through their ra­dio ear­pieces, seem­ingly on the same fre­quency. That eerie, echo­ing, wail­ing trail of sound. Scol­lay and Fun­nell floated there, lis­ten­ing, un­able to see the whales in the gloom, but en­grossed by the ex­pe­ri­ence.

“It was oth­er­worldly,” re­mem­bers Scol­lay. “Be­cause you’re al­ready in an alien en­vi­ron­ment with these gi­ant grop­ers and crazy-look­ing trop­i­cal fish and it’s a sur­real place to be any­way. And then you’ve got this whale song be­ing am­pli­fied and piped through your comms the whole time – you were ex­pect­ing a whale to come blast­ing out of the night at any mo­ment. I can’t do it jus­tice to de­scribe it – but, with­out sound­ing too cheesy, it was pretty beau­ti­ful.”

At the time Scol­lay thought, if we can hear them, are they lis­ten­ing to us?

He lay back and drifted, sur­rounded by ex­tra­or­di­nary sounds in an ocean of ink.

And now here he was in the dark again, but this time it was dur­ing the day and this time they were in the far reaches of Fiord­land. The rain­fall that pours from the moun­tains here cre­ates a layer of fresh wa­ter over the salt wa­ter, and where they mix an oily con­ver­gence blocks most of the light from above. So slip be­neath the sur­face and things go black quickly – so dark that divers lose sight of each other when only a few me­tres apart and rely

on their torches to stay in con­tact. It’s a unique and sparsely ex­plored en­vi­ron­ment, plung­ing to 450m, with species usu­ally found far deeper be­ing eas­ily ob­served by divers. For three weeks in De­cem­ber 2015, Scol­lay and his team from Dunedin’s NHNZ ( for­merly Nat­u­ral His­tory New Zealand) dived sites through­out Doubt­ful and Dusky sounds while film­ing the sec­ond series of Our Big Blue Back­yard.

In 2014, the first series looked at our marine re­serves, shin­ing a light on the un­der­wa­ter world off our coast­line. It was so pop­u­lar – each episode at­tract­ing more than half a mil­lion view­ers – TVNZ com­mis­sioned an­other series. This time, film crews vis­ited six more re­mote des­ti­na­tions, from the Ker­madecs 1000km north­east of New Zealand to the sub­antarc­tic Auck­land Is­lands.

Ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Ju­dith Cur­ran says no­body ex­pected a pro­gramme about fish, with a few shots of birds, to be so pop­u­lar. “And when it was handed to me at a very early stage, I’ll ad­mit to a sink­ing feel­ing and a cer­tain sense of, ‘Oh god, what am I go­ing to do with this?’”

Cur­ran re­alised she needed cap­ti­vat­ing sto­ries to carry each episode, with strong char­ac­ters in­ter­act­ing in their neigh­bour­hoods. Who knew cod could be charis­matic? But they and other crea­tures be­came the stars of each episode.

“It was es­sen­tially tak­ing a clas­sic soap- opera struc­ture and just putting it un­der­wa­ter. I de­scribed the first series as Coro­na­tion Street un­der­wa­ter.”

That series is be­ing used as a re­source in schools and has been sold to more than 30 coun­tries, and Cur­ran says it proves there’s still a huge ap­petite for wildlife shows, even in an age of vir­tual re­al­ity.

After care­fully select­ing the lo­ca­tions and the cam­era crews who’d work on the project, it took nine months to film the sec­ond series. On site, divers worked day and night to make the most of the time and cap­ture the dif­fer­ent events that oc­curred; some had never been seen be­fore. Cur­ran says each time the crew re­turned with hun­dreds of hours of re­mark­able footage, which had to be win­nowed down to just 45 min­utes of TV.

“And be­lieve me, we ag­o­nised over each of those min­utes.”

It was just be­fore din­ner on the crew’s first evening in Doubt­ful Sound when the dol­phins ap­peared. The skip­per of the Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion boat South­ern Winds, Dallas Mchardy, spot­ted the bot­tlenoses up ahead and meal­time was im­me­di­ately de­layed. Scol­lay put his drone up, flew it to where the dol­phins were feed­ing and tracked them as they moved into the Sound. With him were un­der­wa­ter cam­era­men Brady Doak (son of leg­endary diver and nat­u­ral­ist Wade Doak), Ross Fun­nell and Steve Hud­son, top­side cam­era­man Alex Hu­bert, DOC ranger and diver Richard Kin­sey, and as­sis­tant Bray­don Moloney, who all quickly gath­ered on the back deck to track and film the dol­phins.

The aerial shots were stun­ning – milky forms flex­ing just be­neath the sur­face with an oc­ca­sional free spirit leap­ing and crash­ing back amidst the pod. It was dif­fi­cult to pull away and by the time Scol­lay was fin­ished, the drone’s bat­tery was so low it could only hover, so the boat had to be rapidly re­versed to catch it be­fore it plum­meted into the sea.

Drones have rev­o­lu­tionised wildlife doc­u­men­tary mak­ing and pro­vided in­cred­i­ble panora­mas for the new series. No longer do you need ex­pen­sive he­li­copters to film from: just a small, high-qual­ity cam­era sit­ting un­der four tiny pro­pel­lers that can be con­trolled up to 2km away. “I feel it re­ally puts peo­ple in the place more than you can do with any other type of pho­tog­ra­phy,” says Scol­lay. “It gives you the spec­ta­cle – this is where I am.”

On board, the team had a moun­tain of cam­eras and lap­tops and charg­ers and gad­gets and they pushed their equip­ment hard – some­times too hard. Dur­ing the Fiord­land shoot, one of Scol­lay’s drones mal­func­tioned, fell out of the sky, and crashed into the ocean. Three hours later, Hu­bert’s drone clipped a tree and also ended up un­der­wa­ter and ruined.

“I lost one in the Chathams too,” re­calls Scol­lay. “In the mid­dle of the worst gorse and black­berry scrub you’ve ever seen in your life. Acres and acres and acres of it. I knew it was in there and with the heroic ef­fort of a few of the lo­cal boys and my­self grov­el­ling through the black­berry, we found it, re­cov­ered it – it was fine.

“We’re tak­ing stuff to places where you shouldn’t prob­a­bly take sen­si­tive elec­tronic equip­ment. And we’re fly­ing in con­di­tions where you just shouldn’t fly them, but you have to get up there and do it to get the shot.”

It was one of the many things that were al­ways threat­en­ing to go wrong while work­ing in re­mote, chal­leng­ing lo­ca­tions, but worse was to come when one of the team’s un­der­wa­ter cam­eras leaked.

“It’s not a leak,” ob­served Brady Doak as he opened the cam­era’s hous­ing and wa­ter trick­led out, “it’s a flood.” Ev­ery­one crowded around, mys­ti­fied as to what had gone wrong, given the metic­u­lous care given to their cam­eras. Scol­lay dipped his fin­ger in the wa­ter pooled in the cam­era hous­ing and tasted it. It wasn’t salty, mean­ing the cam­era had some­how been knocked and leaked while be­ing rinsed after the dive.

“It’s bad,” mur­mured Doak. “But not as bad as it could be.”

If salt­wa­ter had got into the cam­era, it would in­stantly start cor­rod­ing its electrics; the fact it was fresh wa­ter gave them a chance of sav­ing it. The ship’s din­ing ta­ble be­came a CSI scene as Scol­lay tested every­thing – O-rings, switches, wiring – and the crew tried to lo­cate the prob­lem. In his ex­ten­sive ca­reer film­ing un­der­wa­ter, Scol­lay had never had a cam­era flood, and he was deeply frus­trated it had hap­pened. “Es­sen­tially, it’s toast,” he said, shak­ing his head. “It won’t be go­ing back in the wa­ter on this shoot. It’s just one of those things. Shit hap­pens.”

Too far from help, it meant they were now down to one main un­der­wa­ter cam­era.

But they got lucky. After sev­eral days dry­ing in the ship’s en­gine room and ex­ten­sive pres­sure test­ing, the cam­era was deemed safe to re­turn to ac­tion and was used through­out the rest of the series.

Scol­lay set in­cred­i­bly high stan­dards. The series is a “blue chip” na­ture doc­u­men­tary, so no shot could show any hu­man in­tru­sion – no peo­ple, no boats, not even a buoy. He was re­lent­lessly

fo­cused, con­stantly en­cour­ag­ing the rest of the crew, en­thus­ing over the footage they’d got but al­ways think­ing of ways to sur­pass it. It was one thing to film pretty stuff – the corals, sponges and fish – but they also had to cap­ture the be­hav­iour that oc­curred within these en­vi­ron­ments. So the team would shoot at night, leave cam­eras on the seabed to film ex­quis­ite species, put Hu­bert ashore for a day to take moody time-lapses.

Na­ture is never pre­dictable. If you re­lied on it to ap­pear on cue, you’d end up with a doc­u­men­tary full of dis­ap­point­ments. Some­times 90 per cent of a doc­u­men­tary takes place in 10 per cent of the time.

“We’ve got to be op­por­tunis­tic,” Scol­lay re­minded the crew. “If we see some­thing, we shoot it.”

And the weather al­ways had a say, squalls tear­ing through nar­row pas­sages, rip­ping at the sea, rain stip­pling the sur­face into sil­ver pin­heads. Waves raced each other down the fiords, and water­falls cut a blaze down cliff faces.

Scol­lay grew up on the West Coast, liv­ing by the sea and snorkelling in the rivers that run into it. At 19, he dropped out of univer­sity and be­came a com­mer­cial diver in the Chatham Is­lands, grad­u­ally be­com­ing in­volved in un­der­wa­ter doc­u­men­taries. He worked on all the Hob­bit movies and a num­ber of Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel doc­u­men­taries, and be­came an ex­pert in shark be­hav­iour. Half his life has been spent un­der­wa­ter, he reck­ons, and his ease in that en­vi­ron­ment meant his pro­gres­sion to be­com­ing a cam­era­man was a nat­u­ral one.

But get­ting the best shots is in­cred­i­bly tough un­der­wa­ter. It can all be ruined by a frac­tion of fo­cus or fram­ing, or the tug of a cur­rent, or a drift in your buoy­ancy, or a rogue shadow creep­ing into the scene. And then some­times what you’d hoped to film just doesn’t show up. One morn­ing in Doubt­ful Sound, the crew scanned the shore­line for pen­guins but found only seag­ulls.

“A dif­fer­ent species of pen­guin,” of­fered Ross Fun­nell.

“Lit­tle bit of make- up and we’re away,” joked Scol­lay.

Even­tu­ally, they spied a pen­guin and watched him for 10 min­utes gin­gerly make his way along the rocks, hop to the wa­ter’s edge, and flop in.

“Must be a bugger to have no hands,” said Scol­lay, smil­ing.

Not all their an­i­mal en­coun­ters were so be­nign. While film­ing se­v­engill sharks in Fiord­land, Scol­lay and Fun­nell found them­selves against a cliff in deep, dark wa­ter, with sharks com­ing at them from all di­rec­tions.

“These were big an­i­mals and they were all over us. We pushed it as long as we could, but it just got to the point where it was get­ting com­pletely un­con­trol­lable and we had to get out be­fore some­one was bit­ten. At one stage, I looked round and Ross was fend­ing off one with a light in one hand and shark stick in the other, and I’m push­ing an­other one off with my cam­era and we were just backs to the wall, get­ting out of there. We got back on the boat and were like, ‘Phew, that was pretty full on.’”

But per­haps the most ex­tra­or­di­nary

ex­pe­ri­ence Scol­lay had was in the Auck­land Is­lands, film­ing spi­der crabs that con­gre­gate there. “The big­gest ones are just mas­sive, the size of a din­ner plate, with big claws. They’re re­ally freaky-look­ing crit­ters and they were all over the bot­tom, fight­ing and jump­ing on each other and just go­ing nuts.

“When you’re film­ing, you get ab­so­lutely ob­sessed with what you’re try­ing to achieve. I was ly­ing on the bot­tom, film­ing this in­cred­i­ble se­quence and I sud­denly re­alised I was feel­ing some­thing all over me. And I look at my arm and there’s crabs climb­ing up the cam­era and up my arms and go­ing ‘Rarr, rarr, rarr, rarr,’ grab­bing at me. I be­came aware of what was go­ing on and these things just climb­ing over me in this stirred-up, cloudy, half- dark, apoc­a­lyp­tic scene. It was like a spi­der-crab orgy.

“That’s the thing we’re try­ing to do – show peo­ple stuff that most peo­ple will never see in real life. We’re try­ing to put an­other world on peo­ple’s screens and take them into it.”

Even for Scol­lay and his ex­cep­tion­ally ex­pe­ri­enced dive team, there were in­nu­mer­able mo­ments that com­pletely amazed and stunned them.

“You ab­so­lutely learnt some­thing ev­ery day. Or per­haps, you could say, you got taught a les­son ev­ery other day.”

The sec­ond series of Our Big Blue Back­yard be­gins screen­ing on Sun­day, Oc­to­ber 30, at 7.30pm, on TVNZ 1. +

Crew check Steve Hud­son’s dry­suit for a leak.

Scol­lay and Fun­nell film­ing scor­pion fish, White Is­land.

Scol­lay: “At one stage, I looked round and Ross was fend­ing off one [shark] with a light in one hand and shark stick in the other, and I’m push­ing an­other one off with my cam­era...”

Above: Top­side cam­era­man Alex Hu­bert on the back deck of the crew’s ship. Right: Scol­lay pre­pares to film the un­der­wa­ter life near a wa­ter­fall in Doubt­ful Sound. Be­low: A cu­ri­ous sea lion near the Auck­land Is­lands.

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